13 December, 2011



Preview: Sony’s shows off Zipper’s Unit 13 shooter game on PS Vita (video)

Posted: 13 Dec 2011 09:49 AM PST

Sony has a bevy of new titles coming for the launch of the PlayStation Vita handheld gaming system in February. Among the new titles we saw last night at a Sony event in San Francisco was Unit 13, a first-person shooter title from Zipper Interactive.

The title shows that Sony is going after the hardcore shooter market — a weakness for rivals Nintendo 3DS and the Apple iPhone — because the Vita is a more capable device that has two shooter-oriented analog sticks.

Sony describes it as a “socially connected shooter” where you can play individual missions in a campaign and see how your score stacks up against your friends’ scores or against the scores of the community at large. The screen tells you how well you are doing against rivals on a variety of metrics on a regional, national and international basis.

The game has 36 missions, arranged in order of difficulty. The more you play, the more you can unlock more missions. Zipper will also launch temporary Mission of the Day competitions that players can play within a 24-hour period. If you hit all the high-value targets in a mission, you can unlock more achievements and play modes.

You can choose from among seven different operatives and change your loadout for each misison. You can unlock better weapons, the more you progress.

You can play any of the 36 missions in cooperative mode with a friend. You can tap the screen to get a scope for a gun, and you can get help in aiming if you tap the right bumper button. The game play is much easier than other shooter titles because of the dual analog sticks on the Vita. The graphics look very console-like as well. The maps are pretty big, and you can get a sense for how large they are by looking at an overhead map.

Zipper is known for PlayStation Portable titles Fire Team Bravo and its sequel, as well as the shooter games Socom: U.S. Navy Seals ( a long running franchise) and MAG on the PlayStation 3.

The multiplayer part of the game can be played via 4G or Wi-Fi wireless networking.

Filed under: games, mobile

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Sony, Universal and Fox employees are pirates, too

Posted: 13 Dec 2011 09:20 AM PST

Major motion picture studios and record labels have been waging war on so-called “pirates” — the consumers who download copyrighted content free of charge on the Internet.

So you wouldn’t expect any of these so-called “pirates” to be employed by major motion picture studios and record labels — right?

As it turns out, the siren song of BitTorrent is just too sweet to resist. According to data gathered by TorrentFreak via spy site YouHaveDownloaded, employees at Sony, Fox and Universal are a bunch of torrent-happy fiends just like the rest of us.

TorrentFreak used IP ranges for a handful of major Hollywood studios, entered that information into YouHaveDownloaded and saw a stream of TV shows, music and movies being downloaded by employees.

At Sony, folks were downloading Conan the Barbarian and music by the Black Keys. Over at NBC’s Fort Lauderdale office, someone was pirating Cowboys and Aliens and new sitcom Two Broke Girls (really?). And at Fox, downloads included the newly-released-on-DVD film Super 8.

And as TorrentFreak pointed out, “Yes, these are the same companies who want to disconnect people from the Internet after they've been caught sharing copyrighted material.”

Major entertainment entities including NBCUniversal, CBS, Disney, Fox, Sony Pictures, Viacom and Warner Brothers are all lobbying for greater monitoring and punishment of what they term “content theft.” After all, they make the shows, and we humble pirates lift them without so much as watching an ad.

These studios recently formed a coalition to support the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a proposed bill in Congress that could lead to new levels of web censorship.

This Thursday, SOPA goes before the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees copyright law. So far, the bill is expected to pass. Many organizations and individuals have been protesting the bill. To get involved yourself, you can check out various tools and suggestions at AmericanCensorship.org or I Work for the Internet.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Mobile app developers are choosing Apple iOS over Android this season

Posted: 13 Dec 2011 08:59 AM PST

Mobile app developers are choosing to develop apps for the Apple iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) over Google’s Android mobile operating system, according to a new report by analytics firm Flurry.

About 73 percent of apps created for the fourth quarter are based on iOS, compared with 27 percent for Android. Three quarters ago, the figures were 63 percent iOS and 37 percent Android.

Over 2011, developer support for Android has declined from a third of titles to a quarter of them.

That runs counter to the notion, recently declared by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt at the LeWeb conference in France, that Android is running ahead of the iPhone.

Flurry tracks developer support across the platforms. Because developers set up analytics several weeks before they launch titles, Flurry has insight into all of the apps coming up. More than 55,000 companies use Flurry analytics on 135,000 apps. During 2011, developers set up analytics for 50,000 apps. Flurry used estimates for the remainder of December.

There is no doubt that Google has been gaining in the smartphone market. About 46.3 percent of U.S. smartphone subscribers use Android, compared to 28.1 percent for Apple in the three months ended in October, according to comScore.

Google said that Android Market app downloads hit one billion per month, but Apple said that iOS downloads surpassed 18 billion in October.

Apple expanded distribution for iOS devices to Verizon in February and Sprint in October. The launches of the iPad 2 in February and the iPhone 4S in October resulted in increased developer support for Apple.

Filed under: games, mobile, VentureBeat

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Carrier IQ: Actually, we don’t give your data to the FBI — or any other law enforcement

Posted: 13 Dec 2011 08:37 AM PST

Carrier IQ has responded to speculation that it’s turning over your mobile data to law enforcement with an interesting rebuttal.

In an email to VentureBeat, a company spokesperson wrote, “Just to clarify all of the media frenzy around the FBI, Carrier IQ has never provided any data to the FBI.”

Carrier IQ is a company that monitors mobile data on more than 100 million phones around the world. It sends reports related to app performance, signal strength and battery life back to carriers and manufacturers.

However, some are now alleging the company also is capable of logging every keystroke on your phone and collecting much more personal data, such as text messages and locations.

Yesterday, VentureBeat (and a number of other technology blogs) reported on a statement from the FBI. During a routine journalistic inquiry, a reporter asked the FBI whether it had gathered data from Carrier IQ.

In response, the FBI replied that while it couldn’t reveal anything about information it obtained from Carrier IQ, that information was "located in an investigative file which is exempt from disclosure" and that "the records responsive to your request are law enforcement records" involved in a pending proceeding.

Most of us took that to mean that Carrier IQ, like just about every other web company, was instituting procedures to take appropriate requests from law enforcement and comply with those requests when required to do so by, say, a warrant. Companies like Microsoft, Facebook and even “do no evil” Google do the same thing, so we weren’t too shocked by the FBI’s statement.

However, our rep at Carrier IQ tells us that because of the way the company works (as an intermediary providing data to other companies, not a company providing a service to end users), it doesn’t actually work directly with the FBI.

“If approached by a law enforcement agency, we would refer them to the network operators, because the diagnostic data collected belongs to them and not Carrier IQ,” said the spokesperson.

“Carrier IQ’s data is not designed to address the special needs of law enforcement,” the source continued. In previous emails, this source had stated that what gets sent to the companies it works with is comprised only of short codes showing that a user took a specific action, not context-rich data like keystrokes and text message bodies.

“The diagnostic data that we capture is mostly historical and won’t reveal where somebody is and what they are doing on a real-time basis,” the rep concluded.

If all this is true, the FBI’s statement could be taken to mean that the FBI’s statement was about Carrier IQ data collected from wireless carriers, with whom law enforcement agents frequently work.

With Carrier IQ under some scrutiny from officials and regulators around the world, we hope to have more and better information to pass on than he-said, she-said accusations and rebuttals.

In the meantime, Carrier IQ has released a 19-page PDF report on exactly how its technology works.

Filed under: mobile, security

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Salesforce’s Do.com opens its social productivity doors to everyone

Posted: 13 Dec 2011 07:35 AM PST

Do.com-logoSalesforce’s social productivity service Do.com has moved out of beta and into general availability for anyone who wants to give it a spin.

When Do.com debuted in early November in limited beta, the company gave VentureBeat 200 invites, and I know several readers were dismayed that they couldn’t procure one. Now, those looking to add a social element to task management can sign up here.

The service is based on popular social productivity app Manymoon, an app Salesforce acquired back in February. It has a simple interface and intelligent HTML5 deployment, but it's also built with Salesforce's emphasis on accessibility and security. It was built on top of Heroku's cloud app platform, offers an open API for developers and has received input from some of Salesforce's brightest team members. Plus, it offers e-mail task management and interacts with Google Apps, Salesforce and Dropbox to make tasks jibe with tools your team already knows.

At present, the app is completely free, but it will add paid features next year. Salesforce Senior VP Sean Whiteley told me in November that premium features might include adding new fields and deeper administration tools.

Do.com has also posted a quirky video heavily inspired by Alexander Payne’s Election that explains more about what it can do:

Filed under: cloud, enterprise, social

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Apple reportedly eyeing flash memory company Anobit for $400-$500M

Posted: 13 Dec 2011 07:33 AM PST

Showing the increasing importance of flash memory these days, Apple is said to be interested in purchasing Anobit, an Israeli company that makes specialized technology for flash memory, for somewhere between $400 million and $500 million.

If the report is true, the acquisition would give Apple a leg up when it comes to stuffing more flash storage — which is still among the most expensive bits of hardware — into its devices. Anobit has developed a controller chip that speeds up flash performance.

Such a deal makes sense for Apple, since flash memory is an essential component in the iPhone, iPod Touch, and MacBook Air (which certainly won’t be the last Mac to ship with a solid-state storage drive). The report originally appeared in the Israeli newspaper Calcalist.

Apple rarely purchases hardware companies, choosing instead to spend its massive cash reserves on software companies, as TechCrunch reports. But Anobit would certainly fit nicely with Apple’s purchase of P.A. Semi in 2008, which was instrumental in developing the company’s A4 and A5 mobile chips. The acquisition would also be Apple’s first in Israel, which has become a hotbed of innovation in the past decade.

Calcalist also speculates that the acquisition would allow Apple to double the amount of flash memory on its mobile devices. It could, for example, help the company offer a 32 gigabyte iPhone for $200 with contract, instead of $300.

As Reuters notes, Anobit supplies its products to memory companies like Hynix, which is now the main flash supplier for the iPhone 4S.

Image via iFixit

Filed under: deals, mobile, VentureBeat

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Nintendo reveals its spring 2012 slate, from Kid Icarus to eShop

Posted: 13 Dec 2011 07:30 AM PST

Nintendo has unveiled its line-up of games coming for early 2012, and the list includes some long-awaited titles.

Kid Icarus: Uprising, the portable game that was considered one of the flagship titles for the Japanese company’s 3DS handheld, will debut on March 23.

Nintendo said that Capcom’s Resident Evil Revelations for the 3DS launches on Feb. 7. Metal Gear Solid 3D Snake Eater from Konami will arrive in the first quarter.

Kyoto, Japan-based Nintendo is also offering a series of downloadable offerings via its eShop store for the 3DS. Those include Dillon’s Rolling Western, a tower-defense strategy game, and Kirby’s Block Ball.

Other third-party eShop titles include Nicalis’s Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword, a samurai game, and NightSky; Collecting Smiles’ Colors! 3D and VVVVVV; Mighty Switch Force from WayForward; Shin’en Multimedia’s Jett Rocket Super Surf; Zen Studios’ Zen Pinball and Mutant Mudds and Fun! Fun! Minigolf Touch from Renegade Kid. All of the eShop titles are coming out in the first quarter.

Just in time to head off Sony’s PlayStation Vita — which has two analog sticks for console-like play — Nintendo is also introducing an accessory for the 3Ds that gives players a second analog stick. The Circle Pad Pro will launch on Feb. 7 at GameStop for $19.99. It works with the Resident Evil and Metal Gear games.

On the Wii, Konami will launch Rhythm Fever on Feb. 13 at a low price of $29.99. Nintendo will launch PokéPark 2: Wonders Beyond on Feb. 27 and Mario Party 9 on March 11.

Other 3Ds titles include 2K Play’s Nicktoons MLB 3D coming in March; Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer 2012 coming in January; Namco Bandai’s Tekken 3D in February and Tales of the Abyss on Feb. 14; Sega’s Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games on Feb. 14 and Crush 3D in the first quarter.

Ubisoft is launching NCIS The Video Game on March 6; Horses 3D on March 6; Funky Barn in the first quarter, and Rayman Origins in the first quarter.

Wii titles include 2K Sports MLB 2K12 on March 6; GameMill Entertainment’s Country Dance Special Edition on Feb. 1; Konami’s Karaoke Joysound and Rhythm Heaven Fever on Feb. 13. WiiWare titles include La Mulana in the first quarter from Nicalis. There are also a bunch of DS and DSiWare titles coming too.

Filed under: games

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Up close and personal video of Resistance Burning Skies on PS Vita (video)

Posted: 13 Dec 2011 07:00 AM PST

We got a hands-on preview last night of Sony’s upcoming title, Resistance Burning Skies, for the PlayStation Vita, which is Sony’s high-powered answer to both the iPhone and the Nintendo 3DS. Sony showed off a new level that hasn’t been seen before.

Sony is making a big bet that the PS Vita, which debuts on Feb. 22 in North America, will appeal to players who want a high-end dedicated gaming device that isn’t doubling as a smartphone or a tablet. Resistance Burning Skies is set in the 1950s alternate universe where World War II didn’t happen but a nasty alien invasion did.

The title is one of a number of big games coming for the PS Vita that will feel very much like you’re playing a console game, only on a handheld. The first-person shooter game takes advantage of a variety of controls for the PS Vita, which has buttons, analog controllers, bumpers, and touchscreens on both the front of the device.

Developed by Nihilistic Software, the game is coming in 2012 for the PS Vita. The game picks up the story of Tom Riley, a firefighter who fights the invading Chimera aliens during the invasion of the United States. While the aliens are tough, you have the benefit of having all sorts of cool wapons.

It’s very console-like because you can control two analog sticks at the same time. Those twin sticks give you great control over the flow of the game and where you want to place your cross hairs when shooting at the enemy. One stick moves your body, and the other moves your cross hairs. You can move into cover simply by moving up to a barrier. You can toss a grenade exactly where you want it to go by tapping the on-screen icon for a grenade and dragging it to the spot where you want to throw the grenade.

In this scene, the human defenders want to rain a missile attack on the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River. But a VTOL aircraft has crashed on the ship and you have to get to it, rescue its passengers, and then escape before the missiles come down. The problem is that there are a lot of nasty Chimera in your way.

The demo shows a variety of weapons, from a machine gun to a sniper rifle. The enemies try to flank you as you zoom in on one enemy with your scope.


Filed under: games, video

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Exclusive: PlayPhone launches its smartphone social gaming network

Posted: 13 Dec 2011 06:00 AM PST

PlayPhone is formally launching its smartphone mobile social gaming network today after signing up more than 3 million users worldwide. I guess you could say it’s a little behind in making that announcement, as it has so many users already.

The San Jose, Calif.-based company hopes to challenge rivals such as Gree/OpenFeint and DeNA/Ngmoco in the battle to create a huge social network of gamers on smartphones and tablets. PlayPhone’s entry into the competition is going to make the market a lot more interesting for developers and consumers, as the company hopes to differentiate itself through cross-platform game play, payments, and social functionality.

PlayPhone has created a free-to-play app that runs on the Apple iOS, Android, Flash, Windows Phone 7, and HTML5 platforms. The app lets players socialize with each other and play in the same online multiplayer game across different smartphone and tablet platforms.

“We think that is something that nobody else will be able to do,” said Ron Czerny (pictured), chief executive of PlayPhone, in an interview. “You’re not limited to playing with friends who have the same operating system as you.”

While Gree/OpenFeint and DeNA/Ngmoco have strong bases in Japan, PlayPhone was founded much later and has a smaller number of users. But PlayPhone began building its mobile social network in 2010. That’s why it has more than 3 million smartphone users now.

Czerny believes that gave his company a head start on its rivals in smartphones and tablets. Right now there are 15 games from 10 developers using the PlayPhone social gaming network. By January, PlayPhone and its partners will be adding about a game a day.

“This is extremely complicated and we started early,” Czerny said.

PlayPhone is already live and operating globally, and it has been operating a mobile game network for five years on feature phones, where it has 35 million users. But it is only now launching on smartphones and tablets. The PlayPhone app runs in native mode on all of the major formats.

When a user logs into a game such as PlayPhone Poker, the mobile social network connects automatically. You can see that it does so with a PlayPhone icon in the corner of your mobile phone screen. You can activate it by tapping on the icon. When you get to the game’s first screen, you can see pictures of your friends who might be able to play the game with you.

The software development kit has been downloaded by more than 1,500 parties.

Czerny showed me how a player with an Android phone could play in the same PlayPhone Poker card table as someone with an Apple iPhone. The players could send messages to each other and chat back and forth. You can sign on once via Facebook and quickly access all games. You can buy poker chips via the Apple App Store through in-app purchases. But you can also buy poker chips via PlayPhone’s other payment options.

While you’re sitting at a poker table, you can invite a friend to play. The platform synchronizes the players, even if they are from a different platform. The mobile social network uses HTML5 as its interface. You can chat with friends in real-time and play the game as well.

PlayPhone has its own virtual currency (Playcredits) and you can access various carrier billing and payment options, even on a closed platform such as Apple’s iOS. You don’t have to exit a game to pay for a virtual good. Czerny said the company has relations with more than 100 global carriers. PlayPhone is a preferred direct-billing partner with both AT&T and Verizon in the U.S. The company has a presence in 25 countries.

PlayPhone has raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Menlo Ventures, Cardinal Venture Capital, Coral Group, and Scale Venture Partners. PlayPhone has 90 employees, including 35 in San Jose. Czerny said the company is likely to raise money so it can better compete with Gree and DeNA.

Filed under: games, mobile, social, VentureBeat

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TwitVid relaunches as a social video network, adds support for channels

Posted: 13 Dec 2011 06:00 AM PST


Social video sharing service TwitVid is launching an update to its website today that will transform it into a full-fledged social network.

Previously, the site was used as little more than a place to upload videos for Twitter and Facebook. Users could refer back to those videos at any time and share them. With the latest update, users can now follow topics, people, or brands that interest them and see a personal feed of video. They can also watch videos from YouTube, Vimeo and Twitvid.

One of the biggest changes to the new version is ability to easily create, organize and share public or private channels. Each channel operates as its own separate stream of content that gets curated by an individual. All the videos within that channel come from uploads to TwitVid or shared videos from YouTube and Vimeo. There’s even a setting that allows the channel videos to automatically play consecutively, mimicking the functionality of a traditional television channel.

With the number of high-profile accounts on TwitVid, the new functionality has plenty of opportunity to keep people entertained. The site already has celebrities like Justin Bieber, Dane Cook, Tyra Banks, LeBron James as well as politicians Al Gore and John McCain.

As for the future, TwitVid plans to add support for more video services like Hulu and Blip.tv, Twitvid CEO Mo Adham told VentureBeat. He also said the service will gain more social features that will allow people to watch the same videos at the same time.

“When you watch most video channels online with friends, the experience kind of sucks. You can’t actually be in the same room as them so there’s always a disconnect,” Adham said. “We want to change that and make our video channels truly social on another level, too.”

Founded in 2009, TwitVid has over 12 million monthly unique visitors. The startup closed a $7 million round of funding from Azure Capital and Draper Fisher Jurvetson in September 2011.

[Screenshots via TwitVid]

Filed under: media, social, VentureBeat

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Dude, you’re not a lady! Luluvise launches, but only for women

Posted: 13 Dec 2011 05:54 AM PST

Luluvise, which launches today, aims for “girl time all the time” by recreating online the experience of private chats with your girlfriends. The all-female service has, however, attracted a lot of interest from a surprising source: men.

“We had a lot of guys submitting their emails to get access to the beta, and we must have sent out over 500 emails telling them Luluvise is for ladies only,” says founder Alexandra Chong. The company was forced to develop a standard email specifically for this purpose (see the screenshot below). “They loved this email,” Chong told me. “A lot of guys were posting it on Facebook.”

Luluvise’s target users are young women aged 18-35. Women from 69 different countries signed up for the beta, the majority being split across the US, UK and Canada. A Luluvise user first creates an "inner circle," a private, secure space accessible only to the friends she trusts the most and with whom she is comfortable sharing private details. During the beta phase, the average user had 4-8 friends in her Inner Circle.

"Luluvise uses Facebook to make registration easier. We do not post to walls or make Luluvise information public anywhere or to other Facebook users,” Chong explained.

The scoops feature lets users share news, dilemmas and gossip in 4 formats: text scoop, photo scoop, poll scoop and the Wikidate scoop. Once a user has at least 3 friends in her Inner Circle, the number of scoops posted and spent time chatting on the site increased by about 70 percent.

The Wikidate scoop is a pre-set quiz which lets a user review any guy with a public Facebook profile and tell the inner circle what she really thinks of him.

"We take the score from your review and average it with the scores from other Luluvisers who have already reviewed the gentleman in question," explains Chong. "Your score contributes to Luluvise's ever-growing database of dudes." The final score is made public but the details (specific comments of users) of the review are only available to those with access to the scoop.

Of the four types of scoops that can be created in Luluvise, Wikidate Scoops and Text Scoops proved to be the most popular with beta users. The most loved feature was the urgency buttons. Users can add an "OMG!" or an "SOS" to their scoops and almost every scoop created in the beta had one of these tags attached.

Luluvise's business model is not yet clear. The company will initially concentrate on building up the user base. E-commerce in the form of group buying, offers, and even virtual goods as well as sponsorship are among the options being considered for generating revenue. The company will launch an iPhone application before the end of the year.

Luluvise was founded in 2010, is based in London, has 10 employees, and has received $1 million in funding from Passion Capital, ProFouders Capital and various angel investors.

Filed under: social, VentureBeat

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Jive Software raises $161M in its IPO at $12 a share, begins trading tomorrow

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 09:20 PM PST


Enterprise social networking company Jive Software priced shares of its initial public offering at $12 a share and sold them to raise $161.3 million on Monday. Trading begins tomorrow for the company’s stock on the Nasdaq exchange under the symbol JIVE.

Palo Alto-based Jive filed to go public back in late August, with a stated intention of raising up to $100 million. But the offering will be higher than its original plan with an offering of $160.8 million, with a market cap of around $700 million. The company sold 13.4 million shares, which is up for the plan to sell 11.7 million shares.

The company competes with other enterprise social networking products like Yammer and Salesforce’s Chatter. Jive gives enterprises social networks that work function similarly to Facebook and Twitter. Employees create a profile with their information and then have the ability to post content, comment on others’ statuses and share files seamlessly. Other third-party apps also work with the service, including Box and SlideRocket.

Jive reported revenue of $20.8 million in the third quarter of 2011, which is up 69 percent from $12.3 million in the same quarter a year ago. Unfortunately, it also reported a net loss of $7.6 million in Q3 2011, which doesn’t look great when going into an IPO.

Before it filed to go public, Jive raised $57.5 million total. The company's most recent round of funding came July 2010, when it raised $30 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital. Sequoia owns 36.2 percent while Kleiner Perkins owns 14.2 percent.

Jive’s IPO will be joined later in the week by Zynga’s much bigger one. Zynga plans to raise up to $1.15 billion with its IPO on Friday.

A video outlining Jive Software’s apps can be viewed below:

Filed under: deals, enterprise, social

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Bottlenose is a social media dashboard that makes sense of the stream (invites)

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 09:01 PM PST

“The stream is the next big problem after the cloud,” Nova Spivack, co-founder of Bottlenose, told VentureBeat.

In other words, you’re about to get flooded with social media updates from your gazillions of online “friends” — if you aren’t already.

Spivack’s response to this so-called “Sharepocalypse,” or the new era of social network insanity, is Bottlenose. It’s a social media dashboard for the professional who needs to be constantly in-the-know — or for hyper-obsessed social network power users like, well, me.

The tool features a single or multicolumn view for a unified look at all Facebook, Twitter and Yammer updates — and eventually RSS and email messages. It’s point, however, is to extract just the best updates for you, so Bottlenose includes a slew of filtering options and comes with a few default “assistants,” or algorithms, that highlight suggested updates and popular messages from your networks.

You can optionally add additional assistants to follow particular people, follow updates from just the people you like (as determined by the tool), track auto-identified breaking news stories or create your own rules to compose custom streams.

In short, Bottlenose hopes to stand out in the crowded social media dashboard space — Brizzly, Tweetdeck and HootSuite come to mind — by automatically bringing to light patterns and trends buried in your streams, and it’s doing so via a custom built natural language engine that took more than a year to develop.

You could liken it to Twitter-owned Tweetdeck, if Tweetdeck had its own central nervous system designed to (echo)locate the most important information in a sea of noise, that is.

The tool’s most compelling feature is Sonar, a visual interface that distills stream updates into a clickable trending topic diagram. People can select the Sonar option to see which topics, hashtags and people are resonating across their networks, and click displayed words to view related content and re-center the diagram around each keyword.

More impressively, however, is the startup’s ability to process and understand data at lightning-fast speeds. “We’re processing up to 3,000 messages per second, per browser, per user,” Spivack said.

How do they do it? Via a patent-pending process the company calls “crowd computing.” In essence, each Bottlenose user’s desktop becomes part of the company’s cloud network, which means that sophisticated stream computation can happen on a network that is constantly scaling as new users join.

You may recall rumblings earlier this year that Twitter was interested in acquiring the then super-stealthy Bottlenose. And now it’s clear why. The product gives power users and marketers a way to personalize their Twitter experience with an alternative view allowing for intelligent update consumption.

“We had discussions with Twitter,” Spivack said without explicitly confirming the depth of those talks, “but we’re a horizontal app … it makes sense for us to be neutral.”

The goal now, Spivack iterated, is for Bottlenose to become a billion-dollar business.

That all depends, of course, on adoption and large quantities of professionals willing to pony up for social intelligence. At launch, the product will be free, but eventually the company will release pro and enterprise offerings with monthly fees.

Bottlenose is a 10-person, angel-backed startup based out of Los Angeles.

Intrigued? Bottlenose is in private beta, but VentureBeat has 1,000 invites to dole out. Just enter “venturebeat” in the code field on Bottlenose’s signup page. If you miss the window of opportunity, you can also try your luck without a code. Folks with high Klout scores will also be granted access.

[Image via Rob Shaw/Flickr]

Filed under: social, VentureBeat

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How Occupiers are using live streaming and Skype for a cohesive voice

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 06:55 PM PST


Technology was once a luxury. Today, technology is a part of everyday life, and indeed it even touches the 99 percent. Protesters are now both live streaming events and using Skype as a megaphone, sometimes literally.

According to The New York Times, live streaming website Ustream has over 700 channels dedicated to the Occupy movement. The point of live streaming is to bring people from anywhere to your event, so they can be involved even if they can’t physically travel there. Occupiers are using the live stream for exactly that, streaming general assemblies, marches, speeches and other pivotal moments of the protest as a means to connect.

This is one of technology’s main roles in a protest such as this one. Occupiers have been accused of having a disjointed message, and no core leaders. Some call the Occupy movement Occupy Anywhere given the mass scale of Occupy camps around the world. There’s Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Oakland, Occupy Denver, Occupy San Francisco even Occupy individual schools, and maybe hundreds more. Given how spread out so many of these protesters are, technology and social media must be used to connect the message.

Live streaming has played an important role showing how “on the go” these camps are. Many of them are being torn down, and thus Internet access isn’t guaranteed. Ustream has seen roughly 70 percent of Occupy live streams come from mobile phones, with 89 percent being viewed on mobile phones. In order to really take part in these, however, you need a smartphone, which many still do call a luxury. Walking through an Occupy camp, you’re sure to see a few iPhones and Androids, but not enough for everyone to whip out a device and stream their thoughts.

The People's MicThat’s where The People’s Skype comes in, taking communication to a personal level. The People’s Skype was created by Jonathan Baldwin to aid in “mic check.” Mic check is when the occupiers come together and listen to people with an inspiring message or important news, otherwise known as a General Assembly. The tent cities, as Occupy camps have come to be called, can be very large, with several thousand gathering at the biggest camps. In order to make sure voices are heard, Occupiers use “The People’s Mic,” where one person yells out a sentence, and others repeat the sentence in concentric circles out to the back of the crowd. Kind of like a loud game of telephone.

The People's SkypeThe People’s Skype tries to put speed and clarity in this process by having anyone with a mobile device – smart and feature phone agnostic – call into a Skype line. The crowd is, in essence, on a one-way conference call. People in the area can gather around a phone and listen in individual groups, or perform the out loud repetition depending on the size of the crowd. Conference holders can post polls through Skype, which users can participate in by entering a passcode and a 1 or 2 for yes and no responses.

It’s a pretty simple solution to an otherwise inefficient way of communicating. This isn’t the first “hack” we’ve seen for the Occupy movement either. In October, Matt Ewing, founder of green tech company Rewire Labs, created Occupy the Web, where developers came together for a 24 hour hackathon. Communication was also a theme here, acknowledging the need to connect Occupiers of all walks of technology savvy.

Check out how The People’s Skype works in the video below.

[First Occupiers image via Shutterstock]

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Louis CK talks to Reddit about his $5 digital distribution experiment

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 05:48 PM PST

Louis CKComedian Louis CK gave new details about his digital distribution experiment in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” Q&A session today.

CK recently made his latest performance Live at the Beacon Theater available as a DRM-free download for purchase on his website for a meager $5. Purchasing the special allows you to stream it twice in your browser, or download it twice as an unprotected MPEG 4 video file. Once downloaded, you can view the special as much as you want, put it on your smartphone, or even burn it to a DVD.

While CK declined to reveal the sales of the latest venture, he did offer some other information about the experiment.

“It’s so damn interesting though to be doing this. I feel like i have a front seat to a really cool… thing. I don’t even know what it is,” CK said. The comedian even commented on how his experiment has sparked a debate about piracy.

“To steal from someone and not feel bad, you either have to be a sociopath or view the act differently. One way is to remove ‘Someone’ from the equation. You’re not stealing from a person. Big companies do a lot to help people view them as less than human. I heard a speach by Noam Chomsky who said that corporations are like super humans. They cannot be hurt like a human can and they never die. They are not succeptible to scrutiny or accountability. this makes them more profitable. If companies want to enjoy these benifits to some degree they have to live with what else comes with being not human. you miss out on compassion, forgiveness, comraderie, empathy, trust all kinds of shit.

The other thing is I can only do this because I’m an individual and I can decide what my risks are that are acceptable and I can make my own goals for what is success. So I forwent (is that a word?) a lot of conventional routes and tried this. I am risking and there may be a celing to the success, but for me it’s okay. i feel like as of this year, I make enough money as a standup my goal now is to bring the cost down for those who buy my stuff. i really mean that. It makes me much happier. Also I did see that there might be a tremendous upswing to this. I was really excited about this material and I though it would be really cool to just put it out there myself with a little electronic hat that only takes fives and just see what happens.”

As for the future, CK said he doesn’t know if he’ll repeat the experiment for future shows. For now he’s focusing on the current project, which means more media promotion over the next few weeks and the possibility of a formal DVD further down the line.

Regardless of how the experiment turns out, it’s clear that the world is watching intently. And hopefully, we’ll start seeing more folks in the entertainment industry follow CK’s example.

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The Crunchies are coming up, and you have one more day to enter

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 05:00 PM PST

Silicon Valley’s annual technology awards, the Crunchies, are coming up January 31, 2012.

The Crunchies have been co-hosted by TechCrunch, GigaOm and VentureBeat every year since their inception in 2007. This year, the awards will be held in glamorous Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, and we hear there will be a swell after-party. Stay tuned for details on how to get tickets.

We’ll be accepting nominations until midnight Pacific time tomorrow (December 13th, at 11:59pm PT, to be exact).

There are 20 categories, including Best Startup, Best Mobile App, Best Design, and Best Technology Achievement. Last year, Twitter took the award for the Best Overall Startup, and you can check out the full list of 2010 winners.

We’ve already received more than 280,000 nominations. (Whoa.) You can nominate someone else’s product or startup, or nominate your own, and then campaign for your favorites on Twitter and Facebook.

In January, we’ll announce the finalists and call for a second round of voting.

Get your nominations in now.

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WordPress’ new version 3.3 gives multimedia and mobile some love

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 04:53 PM PST

Wordpress multimediaWordPress released version 3.3 today, which is meant to both streamline the editing process for seasoned WordPress users, as well as help introduce new bloggers to the product.

WordPress software provides bloggers with a suite of editing capabilities that can be used by novices all the way to professional news organizations. The company allows bloggers to host their blogs on WordPress’ servers or download WordPress’ backend editor while working off of a different server. Multiples pages, linking, multimedia, photo galleries, tagging, search engine optimization fields and more make up what WordPress is capable of in the publication sphere. For those who are new to the service, however, WordPress can be a little daunting. For those who have been around WordPress for awhile, the software can feel cluttered.

This update addresses both of these needs. New comers are able to tour the software with pop ups that are reminiscent of Facebook’s “hey look at what’s new, want a tour?” tabs that point out any changes to your profile and news feed. On a more basic level, there is a new welcome screen as well as help tabs.

Those who have had their hand cranking the WordPress machine get a new multimedia tab, where you can drag and drop both photos and videos. You aren’t restricted to only one upload at a time either, you can drag and drop as many as you like. Drop downs on the side menu have been done away with, in favor of menus that fly out to the side. Before this the sidebar, which can become packed given the amount of pages you employ, starts to look like a word document with bullets, sub-bullets, more sub-bullets, Roman numerals, you get the picture. Instead it keeps the sidebar a little easier to navigate. Anyone who blogs for a publication with more than one editor will be happy to know that the warning prompt that says someone else is editing this piece will only show when someone else is really on that page, editing that piece.

You will also be able to import from your Tumblr with this version. Previously WordPress supported Blogger, Blogroll, LiveJournal, Moveable Type and others.

The company has also paid a little closer attention to its tablet offerings. It has revamped the iPad dashboard, with better touch functionality. Developers got more love as well, with a new application programming interface to play with. Full details on the developer changes can be found here.

WordPress has thus far seen 65 million downloads of its software since it released version 3.0. You can download WordPress here.

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Strike! Wikipedia founder floats idea of site blackout to protest SOPA

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 04:43 PM PST

Wikipedia, the web’s edit-friendly encyclopedia, is considering drastic action to get the government to back down from passing the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), a bill that opponents consider the equivalent of legalizing web censorship.

In a note posted to his personal page Saturday, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales floats the idea of a community strike that would make the entire site blank to U.S., and possibly even global, visitors.

“A few months ago, the Italian Wikipedia community made a decision to blank all of Italian Wikipedia for a short period in order to protest a law which would infringe on their editorial independence. The Italian Parliament backed down immediately,” Wales wrote. “My own view is that a community strike was very powerful and successful in Italy and could be even more powerful in [opposing SOPA] … At the same time, it’s of course a very very big deal to do something like this, it is unprecedented for English Wikipedia.”

SOPA was introduced in late October by Rep. Lamar Smith and, if passed into law, will give the U.S. government and copyright holders the authority to seek court orders against IP infringers. Startups and technology giants Apple, Microsoft, Adobe and others have come out in opposition of the bill.

A vast majority of commenters on the page appear to be in support of blanking all of Wikipedia. “A few days without the sum of all human knowledge is worth it to send a message to keep the Internet safe,” ZamorakO o wrote, echoing the thoughts of others.

A vocal minority, however, strongly oppose the community strike. “This is not what Wikipedia is for,” user Kodabar wrote. “Jimmy Wales may wish to make a protest, but he can do it himself with his own resources, not suborn Wikipedia to be his puppet. The cause may be just, but this is just reaching out to use the most convenient, closest tool at hand rather than the most appropriate.”

Wales also mentioned a potential Monday visit to the White House, and a wish to convince President Obama to veto the bill altogether, as the initial impetus for the poll. It’s not yet known if the visit came to fruition.

[via TorrentFreak]

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Social video advertising service Jun Group raises $2.5M

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 04:17 PM PST

Social-media video advertising company Jun Group has secured $2.5 million in funding from Western Technology Investment (WTI).

Jun Group specializes in making video advertising for social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube. The company focuses on transparent advertising and doesn’t use pop-up windows or auto-play to force its video ads on you. Instead, you can choose to press play and watch a video from an advertiser. Jun Group offers targeting and analytic services to help clients find the right audience for their product, and its Voyeur dashboard lets clients track video views, comments and ratings.

Investment partner Dan Holman, from WTI said in a statement, ”Online video advertising is a significant and rapidly growing opportunity, but, most importantly, it is ripe for innovation. Jun Group is a clear leader in the space. They’ve set the standard for opt-in, performance-based video, and our partnership delivers the financing to aggressively capitalize on this opportunity.”

This round of funding will be used to further develop Jun Group’s sales, business development, and client services team, as well as improve its distribution and analytics technology.

Jun Group was founded in 2005 and maintains offices in New York and Los Angeles. Its clients include Disney, FritoLay, Nike and Coca Cola. Jun Group joins the ranks of social media companies that WTI has funded which include Kosmix, myYearbook, Plaxo, StumbleUpon, Ustream, Youku and Facebook.

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Microsoft replaces Windows Phone biz head Andy Lees

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 03:15 PM PST

Andy Lees, president of Microsoft’s Windows Phone division for the past three years, is getting a new role within the software giant at CEO Steve Ballmer’s request.

Strangely, Lees is holding on to his president title for now, even though his new duties also involve working on a Windows 8 project. Lees (pictured) is being replaced by Terry Myerson, a Microsoft VP who has spearheaded engineering for Windows Phone, reports AllThingsD.

"I have asked Andy Lees to move to a new role working for me on a time-critical opportunity focused on driving maximum impact in 2012 with Windows Phone and Windows 8," Ballmer said in an internal memo distributed to Microsoft employees last night. "We have tremendous potential with Windows Phone and Windows 8, and this move sets us up to really deliver against that potential."

It’s unclear what exactly Lees will be working on, though from Ballmer’s mysterious description I imagine it has something to do with Windows 8 tablets. The project may also be a useful pretense to transition someone else into managing Windows Phone — which has been well reviewed, but hasn’t really made a dent in sales against the iPhone and onslaught of Android devices.

For Windows Phone, this next year is all about Microsoft’s contentious partnership with Nokia. Much of Windows Phone’s future depends on the success of Nokia’s Lumia 800, and to a lesser-extent, the lower-end Lumia 710. As AllThingsD points out, Myerson is familiar with his Nokia counterparts, which could be crucial to managing the Windows Phone platform for the next few years.

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Android owners love Facebook, ignore Google+

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 03:08 PM PST

Facebook is the most popular Android application — excluding the Android Market app — among Android owners 18 and up. Roughly 80 percent of device owners ages 18-to-34 have used the Facebook app within the past 30 days, according to new research released by analytics firm Nielsen.

The company looked at data usage on the smartphones of thousands of consumers who opted in to an ongoing study.

It’s not all bad news for Google. The company’s Gmail, Maps, Search and YouTube apps were almost equally as popular as Facebook among all age groups, Nielsen found.

Gmail is the second most popular application for Android users in the 25-to-34 and 35-to-44 age groups, while Google Search placed second overall for the 18 to 24 year-olds. YouTube is also considered part of the “in” app-crowd for youngsters, with 64 percent of 18-to-24 year-olds have used it in the past 30 days.

One Google product not getting much love from the Android population is the company’s six month-old social network Google+. The Facebook-challenger isn’t much of one, at least in terms of mobile app usage, since it didn’t make the cut as one of the 15 most popular apps on Android for any age group.

Altogether, the data seems to suggest that Facebook has become as utilitarian as search for mobile audiences, and is significantly more essential to folks than popular music apps and the hottest mobile games.

Image via abulhussain/Flickr

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Verizon, AT&T both testing LTE 4G Lumia 800 phones

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 02:22 PM PST

Nokia Lumia 800Even before Microsoft officially adds support for LTE 4G in its Windows Phone platform, Nokia already has LTE-equipped versions of its flagship Lumia 800 smartphones in major US carriers’ hands.

Both AT&T and Verizon Wireless are testing out 4G Lumia 800′s in their labs, reports CNet’s Roger Cheng. Carriers are usually among the first to get their hands on new phone hardware, since extensive testing is required to make sure phones operate properly within their networks.

If true, Nokia is getting a major head start on the Lumia 800′s approval process. Microsoft has been vague about when Windows Phone would support LTE technology, but it’s something carriers desperately want with new hardware since 4G is all the rage. Nokia, too, hasn’t said specifically when the Lumia 800 would be available in the U.S., even though it’s already available in Europe. (Nokia’s lower-end Lumia 710 is expected to land on T-Mobile this week.)

As I’ve recently argued, the Lumia 800 is an incredibly important device for both Microsoft and Nokia, so it behooves them to make sure America’s biggest carriers are interested in supporting the phone. AT&T half-heartedly promoted a Nokia Symbian device two years ago, but that didn’t help sales much. And Verizon hasn’t worked together with Nokia since the Finnish phone maker gave up on making devices that support its 3G CDMA network.

According to CNet’s sources, AT&T is, at the moment, the most interested in working together with Nokia. That falls in line with a report from The Verge last month, which said that AT&T is considering an LTE version of the Lumia 800.

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The FBI is tracking your mobile data, thanks to Carrier IQ

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 02:20 PM PST

The FBI is getting data about you from a wide range of sources: Facebook, Google, Microsoft — and Carrier IQ, too.

UPDATE: Carrier IQ has responded to this report with a statement of their own — one that is quite explicit and actually makes sense.

Carrier IQ monitors activity on cell phones (allegedly down to the keystroke, according to some reports) and serves that data to mobile carriers and manufacturers. These companies say they use those reports to fix apps, improve service and better understand battery life issues.

However, Carrier IQ is also turning over the same data, including information about text messages, mobile web browsing and more, to the government.

Before you get your torches and pitchforks, remember that just about every web company has a “spy guide” — that is, a manual of procedures that dictate when and how law enforcement can get information about users. And by and large, companies comply with those requests.

For example, Google recently issued a whole transparency report about global government requests for user data. In the U.S. alone, Google received a total of 5,950 government and police requests about 11,057 unique accounts during the first half of 2011. The company fully or partially complied with 93 percent of those requests.

Based on facts such as these, whether or not you take umbrage with Carrier IQ’s cooperating with the FBI should depend on your attitude toward government investigation and surveillance, not just your opinion of Carrier IQ, itself.

Carrier IQ’s working with the FBI came to light due to a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filing from MuckRock.

While the FBI didn’t say exactly what kinds of information it gets from Carrier IQ, it revealed that such information is “located in an investigative file which is exempt from disclosure” and that “the records responsive to your request are law enforcement records” involved in a pending proceeding.

We’ve contacted Carrier IQ to determine if these are run-of-the-mill data requests from law enforcement and will update you if and when we hear back from the company.

In the meantime, if you wish not to be monitored by corporations and the government, we politely remind you to stay off the Internet, stop using all proprietary software and hardware, disconnect your cell phone and land line immediately, and ensure a snug fit on your tin foil helmet.

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Google removes 22 Android apps due to RuFraud mobile attack

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 02:04 PM PST

Android RuFraudGoogle has removed 22 applications from its Android marketplace in the past week due to RuFraud, a new mobile threat aimed at European users that charges users for text messages.

Lookout Mobile, a security firm focused on smartphones, alerted Google to applications in its Android store that were posing as innocuous, free apps, but were really charging users’ phones to send and receive text messages on their behalf.

The user downloads an app that promises wallpaper art, horoscope readings, or free popular games. Upon launching the app, the person sees a “To continue, click below” prompt above a giant Next button. By clicking the button, the user agrees to the sketchy terms of service agreement. And since the page has only one button, most people impatiently click through to get to their Robert Pattinson themed wallpaper images.

According to Lookout Mobile’s senior security product manager Derek Halliday, the terms of service are very hard to find, and if you can locate them, they’re too obscure to understand. Once the “Next” button is pushed, the app gives itself permission to send and receive texts on your phone, charging you each time it uses the SMS short code.

“We’ve seen this family of premium estimates fraud apps over the last couple of weeks, in a few different waves,” said Halliday in an interview with VentureBeat.

The first wave of apps were horoscope themed, though the actual apps, according to Halliday, weren’t built-out and only performed basic tasks. After the offending horoscope apps were removed from the store, new pop-culture themed wallpaper apps were released. The most recent collection of apps pretended to be free versions of popular games, with misleading titles such as, “Angry Birds (free).”

Currently, United States mobile users are unaffected since the app first reads the phone’s sim card to find its country of origin. U.S. sim cards have a block against the code these apps are using to send and receive text messages. Countries that are affected, however, include Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Czech Republic, Poland, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Estonia, Great Britain, Italy, Israel, France and Germany.

Halliday explained the scam has been focused on Eastern European countries so far, but is starting to move its eye toward Western Europe.

Lookout Mobile originally alerted Google to nine of the apps that were posing this threat, which were promptly removed after only a handful of downloads. The company then located 13 more apps, which Google has also since removed. These apps had a larger download pool of about 14,000.

“A few versions will be published every few days or so,” said Halliday. “I can’t tell the future, but we’re going to be paying really close attention to it as it develops.”

Halliday also says his company is particularly watching for apps that might find their way into the United States.

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With grand wireless plans, Dish wants to buddy up with T-Mobile if AT&T deal fails

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 01:03 PM PST

T-Mobile certainly won’t be lacking in suitors if AT&T’s $39 billion acquisition falls through. Dish Network is interested in partnering with T-Mobile for a wireless network of its own, if AT&T can’t seal the deal, Dish CEO Joseph Clayton said in an interview today.

Clayton joined Dish earlier this year with the promise of upping acquisitions and creating a streaming-video competitor to Netflix. He says that the company could combine its newfound wireless spectrum — a product of its Terrestar Networks and DBSD purchases — with a wireless provider like T-Mobile to create an entirely new company, Bloomberg reports.

But even if T-Mobile gets snapped up by AT&T, Clayton says he’s considering similar partnerships with Sprint or Clearwire. He’s also interested in buying additional spectrum from AT&T and T-Mobile if federal regulators force the companies to give up assets.

However it’s put together, a Dish-backed wireless network could be interesting competition against more entrenched carriers and telecom networks. And for ailing carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile, buddying up with Dish could be a wise decision.

"We're not interested in making money on selling our spectrum," Clayton told Bloomberg in an interview. "We want to use it to create a national wireless network, video, voice and data. We've got expertise in satellite-TV, and we will in satellite broadband. The voice part, we'll need some help with."

But before Dish can do anything, it needs to wait for the FCC to approve the use of its new wireless spectrum. Another roadblock for Dish: T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom apparently isn’t even thinking of a potential deal with the satellite company, a spokesman told Bloomberg.

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Google Shoot View is the creepiest use of Google Maps ever

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 12:57 PM PST


A Dutch advertising firm has created what might be the scariest use of Google Street View ever with its “Google Shoot View” project, which lets you walk the streets of many real-life cities with an M4A1 assault rifle and shoot up the scenery.

Pool Worldwide, the Dutch agency, used the Google Maps API and added an assault rifle and some disconcerting sound effects. When you shoot at people, cars and buildings, nothing actually happens. It’s not as visceral an experience as playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 or the latest Grand Theft Auto, because when you shoot people in those games, they bleed and die.

But if you ever wanted to see what it was like to go around shooting up your neighborhood, this “game” gives you vague sense of what it’s like. I briefly tested the project by running around downtown New York City, where I live. Google Street View shows tons of people and landmarks in crisp enough detail that it makes the experience equal amounts bizarre and creepy. The game lets you go around killing pedestrians and police officers, who are real people unwittingly captured by Google’s cameras.

A teaser for Google Shoot View can be seen below:

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Hard drive shortages cause Intel to cut revenue outlook by $1B

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 12:46 PM PST

Intel’s fourth quarter revenue is predicted to be about a billion dollars lower than the company’s previous forecast, it revealed today.

The $1 billion difference in revenue is attributed to hard drive shortages due to flooding in Asia. Over the summer, areas of southern Thailand were flooded by heavy monsoon rains, leaving many hard drive manufacturing facilities under several feet of water. While some companies like Western Digital have resumed production of hard drives in Thailand, there are still not enough being produced. The shortages have caused a decrease in the purchase of microprocessors, which has hurt Intel’s bottom line.

The floods have caused the entire PC supply chain to suffer, affecting many computer-component companies. While Intel expects the shortages to continue into next year, it also looks forward to a replenishment of hard drive inventories which will allow microprocessor sales to recover.

Intel previously predicted its fourth quarter revenue would be $14.7 billion, plus or minus $300 million, on both GAAP and non-GAAP basis. Now the company expects to earn $13.7 billion, plus or minus $500 million. In addition, Intel expects its gross margin to be 64.5 percent in quarter four, instead of an earlier prediction of 65 percent.

Flooding image via Shutterstock

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Why electric-car startup Aptera collapsed, a complete chronology

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 11:58 AM PST

It’s not the best photo, but it means a lot to the 19 people in it.

Posed in front of a mirrored glass office building under a colorful logo, they are the final employees of the now-defunct electric-car startup Aptera Motors on the last day of its existence, Friday, December 2, 2011.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from the closing of Aptera, it may be this: Starting a car company takes a huge amount of money — orders of magnitude more than the software startups Silicon Valley venture capitalists like to fund.

And if the cash runs out at any point, the company will die.

Over the last week, we interviewed former CEO Paul Wilbur and former marketing VP Marques McCammon, who were there to the very end. We also spoke at length with company founder Steve Fambro, who resigned his seat on the Aptera board of directors early this year. He had been replaced by Wilbur as CEO in September 2008. From those interviews and other research, we’ve compiled this inside chronology of the events that led to the end of Aptera.

Not just a single car

Aptera 2e development prototype at company offices in Vista, California.

Through several hours of conversations, a few themes emerged from the Aptera story as recounted by Wilbur and McCammon.

The pair speak highly of the entire workforce, all of them now looking for jobs.

It is clear that the car designed by founders Fambro and Wilbur was not the car Aptera ended up developing. In fact, it created a longer, larger version of the Aptera 2e three-wheeler to comply with the 738 separate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards covering cars that may legally be sold.

After it became clear that funding a three-wheeler wasn’t going to be possible, the company switched gears in January and threw all its design resources into creating the 4e, a four-seat, four-wheeled car using the same plastic composite body shell construction as the original three-wheelers.

Coming very close?

Both Wilbur and McCammon believe the company came very close to surviving — and suggest that years of discussions with the Department of Energy over its advanced technology vehicle manufacturing (ATVM) loan program ultimately took too long, dooming Aptera to run out of cash.

That $25 billion DoE program offered low-interest loans to automakers and parts companies that would use the money to retool existing plants to build advanced-technology vehicles with fuel efficiency at least 25 percent higher than vehicles they replaced.

Here’s the chronology of the startup:

  • 2006: Founders Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony start Aptera to build an ultra-efficient three-wheel electric car (to be registered as a motorcycle)
  • Sep 2008: Paul Wilbur is hired as CEO, replacing Fambro
  • Dec 2008: DoE rejects Aptera’s ATVM loan application within three days because three-wheelers are not defined as cars
  • Jun 2009: Tesla receives $365 million of low-interest loans under the Department of Energy’s ATVM program
  • Sep 2009: Fisker too is awarded $529 million in loans under the ATVM program
  • Oct 2009: Three-wheeled vehicles are defined as cars for the purposes of the ATVM program
  • Jan 2010: Aptera resubmits application to DoE for loans to build both the 2e and a new four-wheeled, four-seat vehicle
  • Late 2010: DoE assessment of 2e portion of business plan indicates it cannot pay back capital costs under DoE’s sales projections (a fraction of Aptera’s own numbers)
  • Jan 2011: Aptera shifts all development efforts to the 4e, a four-door, four-seat electric sedan that it believes has a better shot at getting DoE funding
  • Sep 2011: DoE issues a conditional commitment letter for $150 million of loans to loaning Aptera–IF the company raises $80 million privately
  • Nov 2011: DoE turns down ATVM loan application submitted by Next Autoworks (nee VVC) for its low-cost plastic-bodied basic economy car design
  • Nov-Dec 2011: Investors spooked by the Next Autoworks denial refuse Aptera’s requests for further operating funds
  • Dec 2, 2011: Aptera Motors shuts down

So if you believe Wilbur, Aptera simply ran out of time amidst a loss of confidence by its investors.

Doing the right thing

Aptera 4e

Surely the political controversy around half a billion dollars of DoE loans to failed solar-panel maker Solyndra didn’t help. There was also a small kerfuffle over the low 20-mpg EPA gas-mileage rating for the 2012 Fisker Karma range-extended electric luxury sport sedan, now finally on the market–and partly funded with DoE loans.

With a presidential election year coming up, Wilbur says, “the [ATVM] program could go away completely.” No big-name investor stepped up to carry Aptera, in the way that Next Autoworks had famed Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins to lead its funding.

So, Wilbur says, “We wanted to do the right thing for our employees,” closing the company while there was still enough cash to pay them a small amount of severance.

“Bright shiny object disease”

In the end, Wilbur says, if he had it to do over again, he would avoid what he termed the “bright shiny object disease” of DoE loans. He spent three of his three and a half years at the company pursuing Energy Department loan funding, logging time in Washington, D.C., in endless meetings with government officials and lobbyists.

Because Tesla and Fisker got loans, “we listened to that too much,” Wilbur admits. “We should have raised the money ourselves rather than relying on the DoE.”

Aptera 2e development prototype at company offices in Vista, California.

There’s a broader question, of course: Was a three-wheeled two-seater that looked like a Cessna cabin on wheels ever going to sell the 20,000 per year that its executives touted?

All three men pointed to the 5,000 Californians who placed a deposit of $500 to get on the list for an Aptera 2e when the car went into production.

Conversion rates are notoriously tricky to estimate (they’re always less than 100 percent, but by how much?). Whether more than a few thousand souls would be brave enough to drive such a radical device will likely never now be answered.

Car or three-wheeled motorcycle?

Aptera 2e

And clearly the vision for a three-wheeled electric motorcycle that Fambro discusses at length in last week’s Transport Evolved interview was not shared by the executive team brought in during late 2008.

The car that those 5,000 investors put down deposits for was Fambro’s concept, although he does not feel that the final design–two years ago, it was leaked on the day we drove an earlier 2e prototype–stayed true to his original vision.

Nonetheless, the ATVM program is one that’s meant to allow companies to bootstrap technology to get more efficient vehicles into the hands of many, many drivers more quickly.

$5.9 billion to Ford

That’s why Ford has been the single largest recipient of loans thus far, getting a whopping $5.9 billion to roll out its EcoBoost line of smaller, more efficient gasoline engines across its entire model range–as it’s now doing.

Those are hundreds of thousands, soon to be millions, of engines–against tens of thousands of Apteras.

Lingering questions about the collapse:

Paul Wilbur, Aptera Motors CEO, 2008-2011

Many more questions remain about Aptera’s collapse, and they’ll no doubt be endlessly debated. We have partial answers to a few.

Does the DoE Conditional Letter of Commitment really exist?  Both Wilbur and McCammon assert–emphatically, even angrily–that it does. McCammon provided to GreenCarReports a scan of a cover sheet for such a document, dated September 13, 2011. GreenCarReports has not, however, seen the actual letter, which McCammon offered to show to a reporter in person.

He also provided a heavily redacted e-mail–which he stated was from a DoE official, although it cannot be confirmed from the scan–that refers to “a letter…addressing the status of Aptera’s application,” and is dated October 19, 2011.

Presuming that the DoE did issue a conditional commitment letter–it has refused to comment on Aptera–it’s worth noting that Aptera executives claim it required the company to raise $80 million of matching funds to obtain the DoE low-interest loans. And its executives were unable to do that.

What happened to all the deposits?  Wilbur claims the majority of the deposits have been returned–starting last August–though “they’re having a hard time finding” some depositors. On the other hand, at least one GreenCarReports commenter has yet to receive a deposit back and is not having calls or e-mails returned by either the company or its liquidators.

Did Aptera take 2e deposits even after it knew it was dropping development of the car?  Wilbur says that although the website didn’t drop its offer to take deposits until June, the company disabled the back end in January so no deposits could actually be accepted. If any potential Aptera buyers were able to put down a deposit on a 2e after January, that would contradict the ex-CEO’s claim.

This article by John Voelcker originally appeared on GreenCarReports.com, one of VentureBeat’s editorial partners.

Filed under: green, VentureBeat

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AdBlock Plus add-on to stop blocking non-intrusive ads by default

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 11:56 AM PST

AdBlock PlusPopular web browser add-on AdBlock Plus will stop blocking all “non-intrusive” advertisements by default, the company reaffirmed today — despite large backlash from large online communities like Reddit and Hacker News.

AdBlock Plus is among the most downloaded add-ons for Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers. It works by scanning each website visited and blocking out all the content from ad servers, traffic counters, auto loading survey widgets and more. Until now, the tool didn’t take into consideration how intrusive each piece of blocked advertising or marketing was.

The latest version of the add-on, released last week, lists non intrusive advertisers under a whitelist of acceptable sources, thus allowing them to appear when you browse the Internet. This setting can be toggled off, but will turned on by default, according to the developers.

“By doing this you support websites that rely on advertising but choose to do it in a non-intrusive way. And you give these websites an advantage over their competition which encourages other websites to use non-intrusive advertising as well,” said AdBlock Plus developer Wladimir Palant in the blog post. “In the long term the web will become a better place for everybody, not only Adblock Plus users. Without this feature we run the danger that increasing Adblock Plus usage will make small websites unsustainable.”

So, what exactly constitutes as a “non-intrusive” advertisement? Well, static ads without animation, sound or video are acceptable. The advertiser also has to support Do Not Track, which allows individuals to control what information they allow others to collect about their traffic usage. The AdBlock team said it was working with larger advertising firms to ensure their advertisements met the criteria for getting included on the “non-intrusive” whitelist.

The AdBlock widget grew out of a desire to push back against big advertisers that didn’t care how intrusive or unpleasant their ad and marketing campaigns were to users. Because of its popularity, it now has clout against those big ad firms, which is nothing short of amazing.

Via SiliconFilter

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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Google’s Motorola Mobility acquisition halted by EU regulators

Posted: 12 Dec 2011 11:43 AM PST

Google’s proposed acquisition of Motorola Mobility has hit a roadblock, courtesy of European Union regulators.

EU investigators have been reviewing the deal for some time, but they are suspending that review to gather more information about the proposal and determine whether or not such an acquisition would harm competition between manufacturers of Android smartphones and other devices.

“The European Commission has asked for more information, which is routine, while they review our Motorola Mobility acquisition,” a Google spokesperson told VentureBeat in an email. “We’re confident the Commission will conclude that this acquisition is good for competition and we’ll be working closely and cooperatively with them as they continue their review.”

The EU officials reviewing the deal had set a provisional deadline of January 10 for their decision. It is now uncertain whether that deadline will be met.

The acquisition is also being reviewed by U.S. authorities. The U.S. Department of Justice has not offered any preliminary indications of whether or not the deal passes muster.

Google first announced the deal (and its $12.5 billion price tag) back in August 2011.

While some people, including a few VentureBeat staffers, have doubted whether Google can be fair to other equipment manufacturers while maintaining ownership of Motorola, Google says the survival of Android depends on that kind of fairness.

In its arguments in favor of the merger, Google says anti-trust behaviors are impossible if the company plans to keep the Android ecosystem alive and competitive. As the deal is currently structured, Motorola Mobility would operate as a completely separate entity from Google and would only receive the same access to Android OS builds that other manufacturers, such as Samsung and HTC, currently have.

The main motivation for the acquisition is related to patents: Android and Android-using cell phone manufacturers are currently under a sustained volley of lawsuits over the operating system itself. At the start of these lawsuits, Google held fewer than 1,000 patents. For contrast, Apple, Microsoft and other companies suing Google and its partners have somewhere in the range of 20,000 to 40,000 patents each.

Motorola Mobility holds roughly 17,000 patents, many of them pertaining to very early cell phone technology. The company also has an additional 7,500 patents pending approval. Having access to such a treasure trove of legal gold would certainly help Google sustain its mobile operating system through these trying times.

Image courtesy of laihui.

Filed under: deals, mobile, VentureBeat

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