10 February, 2012



Tesla’s new Model X is the electric car of your dreams

Posted: 10 Feb 2012 08:41 AM PST

Electric car maker Tesla unveiled its latest vehicle last night, the Model X, a cross-over that offers more space than the company’s Model S sedan and original sporty Roadster.

For those waiting for a semi-affordable electric car that offers plenty of space, power, and versatility, the Model X looks to be the best option yet.

Like other cross-over vehicles, the Model X sits somewhere between a sedan and a SUV. But Tesla couldn’t help but add its own spin to the cross-over segment: the Model X features funky rear doors, dubbed “Falcon Wings,” that flip up and allow you to easily step into the car.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk says that the Falcon Wings are the largest rear door openings found in a passenger car, CNet reports.

Tesla expects the Model X to retail close to the Model S’ price, which starts at $49,000. The company will offer the same battery options as the Model S as well, which ranges from 160 mile to 300 mile configurations. The Model X will get around 10 to 12 percent less range than the Model S, thanks to its added weight.

The Model X features a full third-row of seating (accessible by sliding the middle row forward), allowing it to fetch up to 7 passengers and their cargo. Tesla will also offer an all-wheel drive option, a first for the company, in addition to the base rear-wheel model. Thanks to the Model X’s electric drivetrain, the car can intelligently tweak the torque of every wheel to easily adapt to changing driving situations.

Tesla plans to begin production of the Model X in late 2013, with deliveries starting in 2014.

Filed under: green, VentureBeat

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6 startups that prove Helsinki is the Silicon-Valley-clone to beat

Posted: 10 Feb 2012 08:14 AM PST

A few weeks ago I was invited to Helsinki as a guest of Finnish investment fund Vision+. Soon after landing in Helsinki, word spread that a scion of Sean "Diddy" Combs had arrived in town, and I was shown the red carpet. I spent seven whirlwind days in Helsinki taking meetings and partying hardy with some of the best and brightest tech companies and startups that Finland had to offer, including folks from leading game publisher Rovio, and I was impressed with the level of vision and ingenuity I discovered.

One of my favorite finds was Hitlantis, which has one of the most unique graphical user interfaces I have seen from any music startup. With over 6,000 independent bands already using the platform, platforms like Myspace, Spotify, and Google Music could be bolstered by acquiring this unique startup. As a lover of music and games, I fell for Hitlantis' unique Music Plasma-like GUI, which enables music discoverability that eludes most of us on Vevo, Pandora, and Spotify. Instead of a list of “Featured Artists”, Hitlantis allows for actual contextually relevant discovery.

Hitlantis' music-discovery interface

One of my other favorites, Kiosked, may end up changing the way online retailers operate. With its distributed content retail model, Kiosked lets consumers engage a retail transaction through any Kiosked-enabled image on the web. Imagine a politician using every image of himself online as a way to raise capital for his political ambitions. Imagine Lady Gaga selling her music through every image of herself on the web. This company looks like a game changer.

One of my favorite nights in Helsinki started with a dinner hosted by my hosts at Finpro. To put Finpro in context, the organization consists of 66 offices in 45 countries offering Finnish companies local market knowhow in all major global markets.They work closely with Tekes—the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation—and the other key actors in the Finnish innovation system to offer Finnish startups a kick start for their international growth. Their presence isn’t limited to tech, though, so I had the pleasure of meeting Jukka Hilden a partner at Rabbit Films at dinner that evening. Although I tend to stay away from physical comedy troops, Rabbit Films and their Dudesons content franchise have shown that with an aggressive and unique approach, a Finnish media company can reach a global audience. Their partnerships with US-based production companies and development deals with content aggregrators across the globe are a model for any fledgling production company.

As a gamer and mediaphile, I always find it a rush to discover the next generation Napsters, Spotifies, and Guitar Hero’s. Along those lines, SongHi is one startup I thought was particularly interesting.

SongHi is a social music game where you can earn fame by making your own songs, customizing your own virtual music character, decorating your personal home, and sharing all of this with your friends in a game-like environment. This game certainly engaged my creative juices. In SongHi you don’t need to know anything about playing musical instruments, composing, or notes. You can create music easily by ear with only a click of the mouse.

As in the more progressive virtual environments, consumers might even run into their favourite bands and artists in SongHi and join their music-making competitions!

In the non-music space I found two startups particularly interesting: Web of Trust and Fair Tourist.

Web of Trust, the first crowdsourced safe-web-browsing tool grades websites on their safety and lack of harmful spyware and virus’. With almost 30,000,000 users, this platform is creating a web within the web of safe sites.

Their safe surfing browser tool is easy-to-use, fast, and completely free.

Fair Tourist is the first platform that encourages sustainable travel across the globe.This platform empowers travelers, tourism businesses, as well as investors and non-profit organizations to create a community that takes action and changes the face of tourism. The community has a shared vision of a new era of tourism. In its vision, the interests of the local communities, tourists, businesses, and the environment intertwine creating a sustainable world for travelers to experience. Fairtourist aims to become the leading platform to fulfil this vision.

Destinations get the necessary funds for their development projects; the conservation of the environment, restoration of precious historic monuments and places, and capacity building projects to manage tourism in a sustainable way. The traveler gets an enhanced experience, and sustainability is improved.

My trip to Helsinki wouldn't have been complete, of course, without the serendipity of staying in the same hotel as Pop Icons Maroon 5. After running into the band at dinner, I ended up at their concert at Helsinki's "Cable Factory" along with thousands of screaming Finns. Quite an unexpected treat.

168 hours in Helsinki was slightly more expensive than a week in NYC or SF, but the quality of the restaurants combined with the high quality of the nightlife provided by groups like Night People Group and venues like Ari Cocktail Lounge created a perfect environment to engage the next generation of startups to follow Finnish success stories like Rovio and Nokia.

For the roving tech traveler, I give Helsinki an 8.8/10 on the business and play scale. Other aspiring Silicon Valley clones will have a hard time competing, so you better get started!

Kwasi Asare was the mastermind behind Sean “Diddy” Combs’ new media empire, overseeing the development and marketing for Diddy’s brands, including Ciroc, Sean John Fragrance, Sean John Clothing, and Bad Boy Entertainment.

He has executed global marketing campaigns for artists and brands such as Ice Cube, Prince, Pharrell Williams, Wu Tang Clan, LL Cool J, Outkast, Gnarls Barkley, John Legend, Snoop Dogg, Mary J Blige,The Roots,The Fugees, Ricky Martin, Funkadelic, Cypress Hill, Diageo, Sony Music, and Estee Lauder.

He is currently CEO of FIGHTER Interactive, Inc, which builds celebrity and brand-driven games and applications for the Facebook, iPhone, Android, and iPad platforms.

He began his career as an investment banker at Citigroup’s Salomon Smith Barney.

[Helsinki photo credit: Oleksiy Mark/Shutterstock]

Filed under: media

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The DeanBeat: DICE Summit entices the game industry’s insiders to Vegas

Posted: 10 Feb 2012 08:00 AM PST

The DICE Summit (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) is well under way this week, bringing some of the game industry’s best minds together in Las Vegas, Nev. for a few days of networking, thinking, talking, back-slapping, and partying. Staged by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, it is a chance for the best of the business to shine, from an opening keynote by The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim game developer Todd Howard on why we create and play to the game industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, complete with a red carpet show.

More than 700 game developers and other professionals will attend the event this year, according to Martin Rae (pictured below), president of the AIAS. He said in an interview that he believes that the industry is doing very well, with new platforms flowering and indie designers sprouting up all over the place.

“Some people call me crazy, but the game business is in a golden age,” Rae said. “Anytime the game industry goes through a transformation, some parts of the business won’t grow like they used to. But if you truly measure everything, games are growing like crazy. There are so many more demographic groups playing games, including my mother. It runs through the whole population, and you have to believe 2012 will be a great year.”

I’ve been to every one of the DICE Summits over the years, and I always find them fascinating and valuable for networking. By no means are they extravagant or elegant by Hollywood standards. Even though there are a few velvet ropes at this event, if they let me past some of them, well, it can’t be that exclusive. We will see more social and mobile game developers there, but the core game developers have decided that the new guys won’t bring down the party standards.

“We’ve got [Zynga chief game designer] Brian Reynolds and [Nexon America cofounder] Min Kim from the social and online industry, and that’s a recognition of how they represent the new industry,” Rae said.

This year, Rae hopes the audience will find the sessions to be more conversational, with speakers on a dais that extends into the audience so that they’re surrounded on three sides by the viewers.

To me, DICE is like the watering hole of the industry. Executives from rival publishing houses and enemy platforms laugh and party it up with each other as if they were the best of friends.

There are so many movers and shakers at the conference that I always wonder what kind of deals take place there. At one past summit, Cliff “CliffyB” Bleszinski, lead designer at Epic Games, gave a pitch to Ed Fries, then the head of Microsoft Game Studios. And soon enough, the Gears of War franchise was announced, with Microsoft as the publisher. It makes me wonder what would have happened if Bleszinski had bumped into the Sony guys at the bar that night.

Another time, I saw a Microsoft chieftain chat in the corner with a prominent Sony game developer. Years later, that developer finally started making games for the Xbox 360. I can always tell there’s some wheeling and dealing going on because when I show up, people exchange furtive glances and stop talking. One of these days, I’ll catch them chatting about how Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are going to build the XboxStationWii 10,000 together, so they can gang up on Apple.

I fondly remember one summit where a developer took me out of the main room and showed me a web page on a laptop. It displayed the first known patent filings for the Cell microprocessor, the brains of a box that Sony would eventually call the PlayStation 3. After I wrote a story about it, hell broke loose. I learned many years later that IBM, which was co-producing the Cell chips, was pissed at Sony because the Japanese company put the names of its engineers on the patent filing but not the names of the IBM engineers. After threats of a lawsuit, Sony added the names of the IBM engineers to the filing.

On stage, the speakers aren’t always sensational, but they’re inspirational and memorable. In 2010, Jesse Schell, a game design professor at Carnegie Mellon University, gave a talk entitled “Beyond Facebook” where he envisioned everyone would copy the game industry’s success and offer achievements and rewards for things like brushing your teeth or riding the bus instead of taking a car. Two years later, the trend that Schell observed has turned into the “gamification” industry, where corporations try to get users to get more engaged with products via game-like rewards.

Among this year’s highlights: On Thursday, Xbox co-creator Seamus Blackley will talk about his new Innovative Leisure startup, followed by a discussion from the startup’s creative team: Rich Adam, Ed Logg, Ed Rotberg, and Owen Rubin — all former arcade game designers who worked at Atari during its golden years. They will talk about how mobile games have become the new arcade, and 99 cents is the new quarter.

Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing, will talk about his perspective coming into the game industry from the marketing and advertising side of the world. Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, will be inducted into the Academy’s Hall of Fame and give a speech about the next 20 years of technology and games. Transmedia (making game properties that spread across different media from comics to TV) is a topic for multiple speakers.

The Summit’s 15th Interactive Achievement Awards will once again be emceed by comedian Jay Mohr. Brian Crecente, news editor of Vox Games, referred to the ceremony as “the Other Academy Awards,” oft overshadowed by the movie and music equivalents. These, as well as the Game Developers Choice Awards coming in March, still aren’t televised. The lack of visibility is due to the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, the video game business is still a young industry. As more and more entertainment becomes more interactive, Rae said, and as the game industry matures, then the recognition of developers will become more and more relevant to larger groups of people. The awards will be livestreamed on GameSpot.

Sebastian Haley, our GamesBeat reviews editor, will be attending DICE for the first time along with me. We’ll be covering the Summit from start to finish, so please come back to the GamesBeat section for more stories. A few of the sessions will be webcast on GameSpot, and post-show videos of the talks will be aired. And if you hear about any big deals happening in the hallways or the poker tables, let me know.

Here’s hoping that this DICE will be another memorable one.

[Photo credits: Dean Takahashi and AIAS]

Filed under: games

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Roku gets a BBC iPlayer channel to boost U.K. launch

Posted: 10 Feb 2012 07:43 AM PST

RokuU.K. owners of the streaming media set-top box Roku are getting a significant addition to the available content lineup today with an official BBC iPlayer channel.

Following Netflix's lead, Roku launched its line of streaming media set-top boxes in the UK and Ireland back in January with a fraction of the channels offered by its U.S. counterpart. The company's set-top boxes allow people to stream over 40 channels of content from video, music, social and gaming services — provided they have a television set to hook a box up to. Some of the channels offered include Netflix, Crackle MLB.tv, UFC, Classical TV, TuneIn, Facebook, Flickr, and others.

The BBC iPlayer, which offers public television programs on an on-demand basis, is one of the biggest streaming video services in the country, with people consuming over 187 million shows per month on average. While most people in the U.K. consume iPlayer content on a desktop via web browser, I’d imaging it will be a nice option to play it on the big screen with all the other streaming channel options.

Many are still speculating that Roku will eventually add another big channel to its lineup in the next few months—Netflix competitor LoveFlim, which is owned by Amazon.

Filed under: media

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500M cheap VoIP calls propel Rebtel to 15M users

Posted: 10 Feb 2012 07:05 AM PST

Rebtel, the second-largest voice-over IP calling company behind Skype, announced major milestones today that prove consumers just can’t get enough of cheap phone calls.

The company says that it has surpassed 15 million connected users (it’s unclear how many of those are active) since its launch in 2006. Rebtel users have made over 500 million calls on the service and have chalked up over two billion minutes of international calls.

Rebtel offers mobile and desktop PC apps that let its users call each other for free, or make inexpensive calls to international numbers. The company’s service is also accessible through any landline or mobile phone without an app. Rebtel just recently released version 2.0 of its iPhone app, which added a first-ever feature to let you hop between voice and data networks during a call.

Not only is Rebtel growing quickly, the company boasts that its average revenue per user (ARPU) is triple Skype’s. Skype now sees a monthly ARPU of $8 per month, while Rebtel’s ARPU is $24. The company increased its revenue by more than 55 percent last year to reach $60 million, and it expects to earn $95 million in 2012.

The Swedish company has spent considerable funds and effort setting up the infrastructure for its service. CEO Andreas Bernstrom told us previously that it brought in $20 million worth of financing from Benchmark Capital and Index Ventures in 2006 to build a system that could connect with operators around the world and terminate voice calls in any country. During 2011, the company put together the data side of its infrastructure, including codecs and stacks to carry voice over data connections.

VoIP call photo via Shutterstock

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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In wake of online protests, Germany refuses to sign the ACTA anti-piracy treaty

Posted: 10 Feb 2012 06:03 AM PST

Some big news this morning from the front lines of the debate over how to regulate online piracy. Germany, which had said it would follow along with the rest of the European Union in support of ACTA, (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), has decided not sign the treaty, according to an Aremnian news website which is citing government sources.

Much like the response to SOPA in the United States, online activists in Europe have been able to generate vigorous pushback through petitions and blackouts of certain sites. And while the movement against ACTA began on the internet, protests are being held in 60 Germany cities tomorrow.

While 22 out of 27 members of the EU have signed on to ACTA, many are now changing their tack in response to the public outcry. "I signed ACTA out of civic carelessness, because I did not pay enough attention," said the Slovenian ambassador to Japan, Helena Drnovsek Zorko, who had signed. "Quite simply, I did not clearly connect the agreement I had been instructed to sign with the agreement that, according to my own civic conviction, limits and withholds the freedom of engagement on the largest and most significant network in human history, and thus limits particularly the future of our children."

Filed under: VentureBeat

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As social games boom, Spark Capital hires former Zynga exec as first venture partner

Posted: 10 Feb 2012 05:01 AM PST

Image via Flickr user Official GDC

Zynga’s rise to a social gaming juggernaut traded on the public markets with a market cap roughly equal to long established companies like Electronic Arts highlights the rapid transformation of the gaming industry. Boston’s Spark Capital, eager to tap the next wave of startups in that space, has added Nabeel Hyatt, a general manager who helped founded Zynga Boston, as their first venture partner.

Hyatt has a long history as a tech entrepreneur. He trained as a designer and engineer, and spent the early part of his career as vice president of product development for Ambient Devices, an MIT Media Lab startup creating glanceable technology, embedding Internet information in everyday objects such as light bulbs, mirrors, refrigerators and umbrellas to make the physical environment an interface to digital media. Ambient was named in Ideas of the Year by The New York Times in 2002, and Hyatt was a nominee for the Top Innovators Under 30 by MIT Technology Review.

During the heady days of the dot-com boom Nabeel was COO of Teamtalk plc, a publicly traded online sports content and technology company. He was working at the Cambridge based Conduit Labs, which started out making Flash based games for the web and transitioned to building for the Facebook platform before being acquired by Zynga and becoming the centerpiece of their Boston operations.

“As you could imagine I thought about this decision rather carefully. I've been an entrepreneur as long as I've been anything, and I still have boundless energy to work in startups. For me it felt like time to see if I could shift my focus from building a single company to impacting the broader ecosystem,” Hyatt wrote on his blog. “Anyone who knows me knows I'm a deep believer in startup culture. Not the "startup scene" – who cares about that really – but the engine of learning, risk, and ownership culture that draws so many of us in. Thankfully that ecosystem feels really healthy right now, with more companies starting, and more angels supporting them, in those early days.”

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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Amazon exec: standalone Prime streaming video service isn’t likely

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 09:00 PM PST

Amazon Prime videoDespite an aggressive push to increase its variety of TV shows and movies, Amazon isn’t planning to split off its Prime streaming video service into a standalone subscription offering, according to the company’s management team. At least not anytime soon.

Currently, Amazon offers its streaming video service as an added perk for members of its Prime membership, which costs $79 per year and includes free two-day shipping on lots of items sold on the online retail giant’s website. At its core, the Prime membership’s purpose is to make purchasing items through Amazon more attractive because people feel like they’re getting more of a deal since shipping fees aren’t factored into individual purchases.

"The bundle of benefits that come with Amazon Prime make perfect sense to offer to customers. The way that Prime Instant Video is offered today—we're going to continue that approach at least into the near future," Amazon Head of Digital Video Content Acquisition Brad Beale told Gigaom recently.

One reason people are speculating that Amazon will split off the Prime video portion into its own subscription service is that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said during the company’s fourth quarter earnings, "We expect Amazon to continue to offer their video service as a free extra with Prime domestically but also to brand their video subscription offering as a standalone service at a price less than ours.”

Another reason people expect a standalone Prime video service Amazon’s aggressive pursuit of new streaming licensing agreements. In July, the company added streaming content from CBS and NBCUniversal. It added Fox Network content in September. And earlier this week, Amazon signed a deal to bring Viacom video content to Prime, which makes the Prime service’s streaming library more competitive with Netflix and Hulu.

Personally, I don’t expect Amazon to break its streaming video into a standalone service. And since the company’s main focus is to drive more sales to its retail business, it doesn’t make sense to provide ways for people to get only what they want without interacting with the main website. Right now Amazon doesn’t have to spend money promoting and marketing its Prime video for it to remain lucrative. That wouldn’t be true if it was a standalone service.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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Silver Lake buys stake in Conduit, giving Israeli investors 200x return

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 05:50 PM PST

Yozma Venture Capital is in talks to sell its share of Conduit, an Israel-based company that creates user engagement tools, for more than $200 million, Globes reported Thursday.

The buyer is Silver Lake, a U.S. private equity firm, which is paying between $200 and $250 million for the stake of the company. Globes describes the firm as a “large foreign investment firm that has tens of billions of dollars in assets under management.”

Yozma invested $1.5 million the company back in 2006 for a 9 percent stake. With this latest deal, Yozma will see a 200 percent return on investment. Ofer Holdings Group will reap the greatest beneft; it owns more than 30 percent of Yozma.

Conduit offers the following three services to increase publisher’s user engagement: a community toolbar that boosts traffic and grows website communities; a mobile service that creates apps; and the Wibaya Bar, which promotes social engagement.  The company says that more than 260,000 publishers and 250 million end users in 120 countries use its services, including Major League Baseball and Groupon.

Filed under: deals

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Stripe attracts $18M in funding at $100M valuation

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 05:24 PM PST

Stripe, an online-payment system company going after PayPal, is said to have raised $18 million at a $100 million valuation from Sequoia Capital and other investors, Bloomberg reported Thursday.

The deal has not been finalized but a few unnamed sources revealed that Sequoia was responsible for $17 million of the funding. Lawyer Michael J. Patrick from Silicon Valley law firm Fenwick & West LLP was quoted in Bloomberg saying, "There must be something red hot here for Sequoia to invest at that valuation. This isn't naïve money."

He also makes a note of how remarkable the $100 million valuation is for such a small company.

Stripe gives online merchants the ability to accept credit card payments. The company lets anyone build custom forms and makes sure all sensitive data is safe and secure. Stripe also offers no monthly or setup fees and no hidden costs, just a transaction fee of 2.9 percent and 30 cents per successful charge.

The company is competing with PayPal, the online payment system giant, and several other payment startups. But what’s interesting is that three of PayPal’s co-founders have invested in the company. PayPal co-founders Peter Thiel and Elon Musk participated in the company’s seed round, and co-founder Max Levchin contributed to this latest round. Perhaps the company wants to foster new growth in the payment processing space, or just doesn’t view Stripe as much of a competitor.

The company has previously raised $1.8 million from investors including Ron Conway and VC firm Andreessen-Horowitz.

Filed under: deals

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Double Fine Adventure shatters Kickstarter record with $1M raised in first 24 hours (updated)

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 04:30 PM PST

Updated at 4:30pm PST for record $1 million amount.

Earlier this week, crowd-funding site Kickstarter set a new record when the Elevation iPhone Dock became the first project to close in on the $1 million dollar mark. But that milestone has officially been bested. In its first 24 hours, gaming studio Double Fine Adventure’s Kickstarter project has raised more than $1 million and it shows no signs of slowing down.

Double Fine’s Tim Schafer tweeted the above photo of the Double Fine team celebrating the $1 million mark.

As GamesBeat reported yesterday, Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert are legendary game-makers from the golden age of PC gaming, having created classic LucasArts adventures such as Maniac Mansion, Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandando.

But in the era of Angry Birds, publishers weren’t willing to take a risk on a new project from the duo. As Schafer put it in the Kickstarter video, publishers would laugh in his face if he asked for the funds to do an old-school adventure game. But legions of fans are always asking for it, and offering to pay. So they turned to Kickstarter, hoping to raise $400,000 and offer fans a chance to watch the creative process, pitch in ideas, and even star as characters in the game.

Sketches of Double Fine's new game

“There's an unprecedented opportunity to show the public what game development of this caliber looks like from the inside,” Schafer said. “Not the sanitized commercials-posing-as-interviews that marketing teams only value for their ability to boost sales, but an honest, in-depth insight into a modern art form that will both entertain and educate gamers and non-gamers alike.”

The incredible response to the project is going to give Double Fine a lot more leeway in how it crafts the game. “Additional money means it can appear on more platforms, be translated into more languages, have more music and voice, and an original soundtrack for the documentary, and more!” the team wrote in an update after passing its goal by a wide margin.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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Core video games crash in January by 34 percent as free games take their toll

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 03:54 PM PST

Video game sales crashed 34 percent in January, with total industry sales falling 34 percent to $750.6 million from $1.14 billion a year ago, according to market researcher NPD Group.

The lousy performance of video game sales in physical retail stores masks what’s really happening as the industry transforms to digital sales, which aren’t captured in the retail numbers. Gamers are shifting their purchases to online, social, and mobile forms of gaming—dubbed digital gaming—while the retail side is shrinking fast. And the growth in digital isn’t quite big enough to offset the shrinking retail numbers.

In January, hardware sales were $199.5 million, down 38 percent from $324.0 million a year ago. Software was $355.9 million, down 38 percent from $576.0 million a year ago. Accessory sales were $195.2 million, down 18 percent from $237.1 million a year ago. In December, hardware sales were down 28 percent while software was down 14 percent.

Full told, the estimated total consumer spending on games includes physical video and retail games, used games, game rentals, subscriptions, full-game digital downloads, social network games, downloadable content, and mobile games. Not counting hardware, sales were $379.6 million, down 37 percent from $603.2 million a year ago.

Liam Nelson, analyst at the NPD Group, said, “January retail performance experienced steep declines with a lack of software launches, and poor hardware and accessory performance partly related to bad comps from Kinect-related success in January 2011.” A year ago, there were a lot more releases of new video games in January.

He added, “Outside of new physical retail sales, we estimate that the consumer spend on other ways to acquire content including used games, full game and add-on content downloads, social network games, mobile games, rentals and subscriptions accounted for an additional $350 – $400 million in sales.  Our final quarterly estimate of the Q1 2012 consumer spend in these areas will be released in our Q1 Games Market Dynamics: U.S.”

David Dennis, spokesman for Microsoft, said that the Xbox 360 had another month as the leader in console sales. The Xbox 360 led U.S. hardware sales for the 13th month in a row, selling 270,000 units in January. Microsoft said it holds 49 percent share of console sales, with the total retail spend on Xbox hitting $301 million.

NPD is working with research company EEDAR to try to come up with more accurate numbers for global digital and physical game sales worldwide. The top-selling game of the month was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (pictured), which was launched in November and is the top-selling video game of all time.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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LinkedIn revenue up 105% in fourth quarter 2011

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 03:46 PM PST


LinkedIn announced its earnings today, with revenue making an impressive jump up 105 percent, beating street estimates.

The company is a business-centric social network that aims to connect people for networking, job opportunities, resources, and more. In May of 2011, the company completed its initial public offering, to a good reception, but then leveled out in the third quarter. LinkedIn’s revenue topped at $167.7 million in the fourth quarter, 67 percent of which was revenue generated by the United States.

Thirty-three percent of total revenue has actually come from LinkedIn’s Premium Subscriptions. These are pay-to-play subscriptions for heavy users and job seekers. Sales are predicted to total between $840 million and $860 million for the year. The website was the 36th most visited web property in December of 2011, according to a report by comScore.

The company’s stock is up 6 percent in after hours trading. Check out more stats from LinkedIn:

  • Fourth quarter revenue was $167.7 million, up 105% compared to $81.7 million for the fourth quarter of 2010
  • Fourth quarter net income was $6.9 million, compared to net income of $5.3 million for the same quarter last year
  • GAAP EPS for the fourth quarter was $0.06; Non-GAAP EPS for the fourth quarter was $0.12
  • For the full year 2011, revenue increased 115% to $522.2 million from $243.1 million. GAAP EPS increased to $0.11 from $0.07 and Non-GAAP EPS increased to $0.35 from $0.24. Adjusted EBITDA increased to $98.7 million from $48.0 million

LinkedIn image via TheSeafarer/Flickr

Filed under: social

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Google-branded streaming music device in development, report says

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 03:36 PM PST

android boxGoogle is allegedly working on creating a company-branded entertainment device capable of streaming music in multiple locations throughout a person’s home.

The information about the Google-branded device comes from a Wall Street Journal report that cites unnamed people briefed on the project. If true, it would mark the Google’s first attempt at creating a hardware product without the aid of an electronics manufacturing partner. The search giant has historically concentrated its resources on developing web-based services, and more recently its open-source Android operating system software for mobile and streaming media devices.

The report indicates that the device is being developed by Google’s Android department, which has previously worked with consumer electronics companies HTC and Samsung on a Google-branded smartphone running a “pure” version of the Android OS. The report also states that the device would allow people to make purchases through the Android Market, which may not be restricted to just music—meaning video, podcasts, etc.

In addition to the word-of-mouth rumors, there are several reasons to believe Google is indeed developing its own streaming device. Last week, an FCC application from Google was unearthed requesting permission to use an undisclosed new "entertainment device" in four major cities over the next six months. As I previously theorized, the data transfer process for the device described in the application would probably allow people to grab video or audio content from the Internet and then distribute it to all their other mobile devices or set-top boxes using Bluetooth technology. The benefit of this would be that people aren’t exhausting their overall network or racking up expensive data charges from wireless carriers.

Also, The timing of the news coincides with Google nearing approval from federal regulators on its acquisition of prominent consumer electronics company Motorola Mobility.

Filed under: media, mobile, VentureBeat

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Epic’s Tim Sweeney predicts the next 20 years in gaming technology

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 03:23 PM PST

As chief executive of Gears of War developer Epic Games, Tim Sweeney has been on the forefront of video game graphics for a couple of decades. So the DICE Summit, which is giving him a high honor today, turned to him to explain how graphics technology for games will evolve over the next 20 years.

Sweeney, a shy but brilliant programmer who helped create the backbone graphics engine for Epic’s blockbusters, predicted in his talk that games will look better and better, and upcoming advances will be so good, that console makers will be able to introduce next-generation machines that will blow us away with their visual quality. That point is up for discussion. Nintendo proved with the Wii that gamers may care more about innovations with the user interface—such as the motion-sensing Wii remote—than they do with graphical quality.

“How good is good enough, and how close are we to that now?” Sweeney asked.

Our eyes are equivalent to the quality of a 30-megapixel camera. You don’t perceive improvements in frame rate beyond 72 frames per second. Many games already run at a rate of 60 frames per second. The best resolution for humans, then, is 8000 x 4000 pixels, or several times better than today’s best displays. That is about 20 billion to 40 billion triangles per second in terms of graphics rendering.

“The limit really is within sight,” Sweeney said.

Graphics technology tries to calculate approximate renditions of reality. In Doom, the id Software first-person shooter from 1993, the developers were able to create a first-order approximation of reality. Now we’re getting enough computing power to get a third order of approximation of reality, as seen in Epic’s Samaritan demo (shown below). Doom’s rendering required 10 megaflops; Unreal in 1998 required 1 gigaflop; and now the Samaritan demo requires 2.5 teraflops, an order of magnitude higher.

Doing a human face with movie-level accuracy is still very hard to do, Sweeney said. He believes that chip makers could double computing power every two years (as predicted with Moore’s Law), and that could continue for quite some time (perhaps even a couple of centuries) with the vertical stacking of chip circuitry and other advances in leading-edge physics.

That’s a bold claim, but predictions about how fast technology will advance in the long term always tend to fall short of reality.

“Within our lifetimes, we will be able to push out enough computational power to simulate reality,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney said he is equally inspired by non-graphical pushes in game technology. He is inspired by advances in 4G ubiquitous wireless networks, sensors, navigation systems, Kinect motion-sensing, and Apple’s Siri voice recognition.

“Kinect carried the technology for sensors to its amazing completion,” Sweeney said. “We are going to see some of the possibilities of what will happen over the next decade or two.”

He is also fascinated by cloud computing, which supplies the intelligent answers to Apple’s Siri via the Internet. He said that OnLive and Gaikai hold a lot of promise in creating cloud-based services where you can play high-end games without needing high-end hardware.

“Only question is whether a game runs in your living room or in a server,” he said. “It’s not going to change everything, but it will make things more convenient for gamers.”

In a wild prediction, Sweeney said that physical resources will become scarce, but virtual resources are unlimited, and we may see more of our economy shift from real-world to virtual goods. The worldwide real estate industry is worth $25 trillion, but a virtual economy could be a lot bigger than that.

Sweeney said he thought that Samsung’s transparent displays (shown at the recent Consumer Electronics Show) and augmented reality smart eyeglasses could be cool as well.

While the world is creating new game platforms now, such as smartphones and tablets, Sweeney thinks that will change, and we will see the industry converge on a smaller number of platforms. He is fascinated that tablet computers are stealing a march on the PC.

“We’ve just barely scratched the surface of the consumer applications of new technologies,” said Sweeney. “It’s going to lead to an entirely new world. I see a bright future for the future of computing and its implications for games. Our industry’s brightest days are yet to come.”

Filed under: cloud, games

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140 characters can get Indonesians 12 years in jail

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 02:10 PM PST


Indonesia’s Communications and Information Minister has declared that anyone tweeting illegal content, such as blasphemy, pornography, and threats, could spend up to 12 years in prison.

Indonesia has a strained history with free speech issues and open media, so a law that would punish Twitter users harshly for their words isn’t entirely surprising. The case of Prita Mulyasari is one big example of how uncomfortable the country is with online communication. Mulyasari was jailed and fined for sending e-mails to 20 of her friends that complained about a hospital’s service.

So now, with Twitter, another online service that makes it easy to complain or send lewd messages, users best be careful. Minister Tifatul Sembiring said Monday that the government is studying Twitter and that it would pursue all users found violating its strict laws, according to the Jakarta Globe.

"If they violate the laws, they will be punished,” Tifatul reportedly said. “Principally, every account user could be held responsible by tracing his position and device." he said.

There are five offenses that could bring the government after you: pornography, gambling, threats, fraud, and blasphemy. And according to Indonesia’s Information and Electronic Transactions Law, users violating these rules can face between seven and 12 years in prison.

So, Indonesians, the next time you think about tweeting (or Facebooking for that matter) that Justin Bieber has a goofy haircut or that M.I.A. has an ugly middle finger, just hold off. Instead, write your government representatives that you want to make fun of celebrities and government officials without fear of prison time.

Twitter bird in jail illustration: Sean Ludwig/VentureBeat

Filed under: social

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Google Wallet flaw takes the lock off your mobile money (updated)

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 02:09 PM PST

Google Wallet

Updated with comment from Google at 5:14pm PT.

A new vulnerability in Google Wallet gives thieves access to your funds, even if the application data has been erased.

Google Wallet lets you digitize your credit cards and pay for things using near-field communication (NFC). That is, all you have to do is touch your phone to an NFC device and the item you’re buying is automatically charged to your account. Google has touted that its wallet isn’t like the leather ones—it actually has a lock on it. This lock exists in the form of a PIN number that must be entered for access to the wallet. But a hack yesterday exposed an application that, when used on a rooted phone, can guess the PIN number used for Google Wallet.

Unfortunately, another vulnerability exposed an even easier way for criminals to get into your Google Wallet. The virtual wallet is set up to take three different kinds of payment, a Citi Mastercard, a gift card, or Google’s prepaid card. The last option allows you to set up any credit or debit card to allocate funds to the prepaid card. This prepaid card isn’t associated with a Google account, but rather, it’s associated with the phone itself. If someone has stolen your phone and gotten inside, all they have to do is go to your applications preferences and erase all of the data from Google Wallet. You would think this would erase your credit cards as well, but it doesn’t.

The thief will go through the motions of setting up the account, including setting a new PIN number. After accessing the wallet with the new PIN, the thief will be prompted to add a new card. He can choose to upload a prepaid card, and because the card is tethered to your phone, all the information will repopulate, including your remaining balance (see video below for a demonstration).

We asked Google about the vulnerability, and the company emailed saying, “We strongly encourage anyone who loses or wants to sell their phone to call Google Wallet support toll-free at 855-492-5538 to disable the prepaid card. We are currently working on an automated fix as well that will be available soon. We also advise all Wallet users to set up a screen lock as an additional layer of protection for their phone.”

The reality of this, however, is that while your phone being stolen also means your money is stolen, you’d be facing the same scenario if your actual wallet was stolen. Google does tout the wallet as being safer than a regular wallet, but where there’s money, there’s risk.

via 9to5 Google

Filed under: mobile

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Say goodbye to your address book, Evernote’s contact app Hello is better

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 01:59 PM PST

Every phone has a contact list, but how useful is it? According to Evernote chief executive officer Phil Libin, not very useful at all.

His answer to the standard address book is Evernote Hello, a photo-based contact app, which organizes contacts “visually, chronologically and contextually.“ The app got some major updates today that may help it kill the contact list once and for all.

Hello was released in December 2011 and didn’t take off well. The app’s original design encouraged you to hand your phone over to the person you just met to enter their contact info. Most people found this to be too invasive. In fact, it encountered criticism for being awkward and unsanitary.

Evernote clearly heard the critique and rolled out some updates to make it more enticing. Now, you have the choice to enter someone’s information and take their photo yourself or give the phone to the person you just met. Evernote also added a much desired feature, the option to add a new contact from your phone’s address book to Evernote Hello. You can also do the opposite and add an Evernote Hello contact to your address book with the app’s new Contact Links.

With these updates, the app has gotten smarter. It will now determine your location and language to figure out how names should be displayed, based on the cultural standard. In addition, Hello now supports 17 languages. The app also got a few visual tweaks, including full screen photos, calendar tiles, and a new settings menu.

We’re guessing it won’t kill your address book anytime soon, but Hello is a much more visual and intuitive way of remembering people. Check out the video below for Libin’s walk-through of the new features.

Filed under: media, mobile

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Activision Blizzard earnings: Call of Duty Elite snares 7M subscribers

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 01:54 PM PST

Activision Blizzard reported today that its new Call of Duty Elite social network service for hardcore gamers has signed up 7 million subscribers since going live in November.

That includes both free and paid memberships, and it represents a sizable chunk of the overall numbers of consumers who bought the game. About 1.5 million of those users have chosen to pay $4.99 a month for the privilege of getting the latest content for titles such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which was the biggest-selling game of 2011. A subscription to Elite costs less per year than getting all of the downloadable content coming over the next nine months at full price.

Digital revenues, such as downloadable content or the social network subscriptions, added up to $1.6 billion for all of 2011. That was more than 34 percent of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company’s revenues for all of 2011.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 players have logged more than 639 million hours of game time through Dec. 31. The total number of unique online gamers playing the game was 12 percent greater than the number for last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops. (I’m one of those Modern Warfare 3 players, with a ranking of 71, or Major General II, on multiplayer).

Eric Hirshberg, chief executive of Activision Publishing, said in an analyst conference call, “We have grown the Call of Duty franchise every year for the past eight years.” Modern Warfare 3, Black Ops, and Modern Warfare 2 are the top three most-played games on Microsoft’s Xbox Live online gaming service for the Xbox 360.

Hirshberg said that a new Call of Duty game will debut in 2012, repeating a pattern that has taken place every year in recent history. There are 40 million monthly active Call of Duty users, with more than 20 million for Modern Warfare 3 alone. Call of Duty China will also launch sometime soon.

Meanwhile, the company ‘s new Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure hybrid toy-game was a big success, with more than 20 million toys sold. Skylanders has more than 1 million registered users for the online version. A new version called Skylanders Giants is coming this year.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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Activision Blizzard earnings: World of Warcraft resists the assault from EA’s Star Wars

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 01:45 PM PST

Activision Blizzard has beaten earnings expectations for its third fiscal quarter, which ended Dec. 31, and its major cash cow is still holding up. World of Warcraft didn’t suffer after Electronic Arts launched its massively multiplayer online game Star Wars: The Old Republic. World of Warcraft ended the year with 10.2 million paying subscribers, down only slightly from 10.3 million in the previous quarter.

Bobby Kotick, chief executive of Activision Blizzard, said in an analyst conference call  that World of Warcraft continues to maintain its status as the No. 1 MMO in spite of EA’s heavily promoted launch of the Star Wars game on Dec. 20.

The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company is the largest independent publisher of video games, buoyed by franchises such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, World of Warcraft, and its new hybrid toy-game Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure.

Activision Blizzard plans to strike back against EA and rivals such as Trion World’s Rift by launching a new expansion for World of Warcraft, dubbed Mists of Pandaria.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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How Google plans to avoid Facebook’s “games ghetto” with Google+

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 01:34 PM PST

“We’ve seen communities ruined by games,” said Google+ engineering director David Glazer to a room full of app developers.

“How do we find that balance between people who are interested in games… without having the problem of more spam?”

Glazer said these words onstage today at the Inside Social Apps conference in San Francisco, and it was quite clear which community he was talking about: Facebook, which itself sees gaming as a sort of double-edged sword.

On the same stage yesterday, Facebook exec Carl Sjogreen emphasized just how vital games are to the Facebook ecosystem (and growing Credits-based revenue) when he said, "It's critically important to us that games are successful… There are some people who would find their Timeline incomplete without a lot of games activity.

"To the extent that we can help our games grow, because of that audience, it's good for [game developers] and good for us."

Sjogreen said that because games were such a big part of the Facebook experience, "We have a whole Platform team focused on just making sure games are going well. That includes building games-specific features … to create discovery for games."

“Discovery for games” can, for many normal social-media users, translate to “friends spamming me with gaming requests.” While Facebook owes a lot of its success to its games-loving users, Sjogreen acknowledged there are also many people who would be happy to never see a game-related update in their News Feeds.

As Google began ramping up for its own social network launch, it had to think carefully about both groups. Would it choose to cater to the game-players, who stir up a lot of third-party developer activity and who can bring lots of revenue through a network? Or would they protect the interests of the non-gamers who just want to chat, comment, and share without being invited to pet someone’s virtual mountain goat.

“We saw equal amounts of anticipation and… people who hoped we never allowed games on Google+,” said Glazer.

Currently, Google+ does have a small number of games, not more than “several dozen,” said Glazer. The company has limited the number of developers on the games side of the Google+ Platform for the same reasons it’s taking it slowly with all third-party developers: it wants to get the Platform right before it opens the platform up for a game-developer free-for-all.

While Google+ will allow individual users to reach out to friends and invite them to play and participate in games, Glazer said the company is trying to avoid spammy behaviors by letting People choose to whom they send those invitations, in true Circle-centric style.

“What we’re trying to mostly do is put control in the hands of users,” he said. “First and foremost, you choose your audience,” and approach Glazer said will make it easier for game developers to get distribution without being perceived as spamming.

And of course, more games-related APIs are coming. Currently, a few APIs exist for getting user IDs, issuing invitations, and processing payments.

Most importantly, right now games are largely separate from most other Google+ social activity. Glazer was asked if, given their controversial nature, games will always be segregated.

"Always is a big word,” Glazer responded. “Maybe. It will always be distributed in a way that respects the entire community."

Filed under: dev, games, VentureBeat

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Windows on ARM coming around Windows 8 release, will have Office 15 apps

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 01:25 PM PST

Microsoft’s plan to bring Windows to ARM chips has been a curious endeavor, mainly because the company hasn’t offered up many specifics about how the new version of Windows will differ from the traditional x86 and 64-bit versions of the operating system.

That all changed today with a nearly-9,000 word blog post by Microsoft’s Windows unit president Steven Sinofsky, in which he divulged a slew of details on Windows on ARM (WOA).

The big takeaways are that Microsoft plans to have WOA PCs available when other Windows 8 computers are shipping, and the company will also include desktop versions of optimized Office 15 apps in all WOA devices.

Windows on ARM running on an early test device

To refresh: Microsoft announced way back in January 2011 that it would be porting Windows over to ARM chips. Doing so would give device makers an alternative to more power-hungry chips from Intel and AMD when developing Windows devices, and it would allow Microsoft to take advantage of the advances in power efficiency being made by mobile ARM chips.

The Office 15 apps, which will include Word, Powerpoint, Excel, and OneNote, are among the few desktop apps that WOA will support. The OS will include the traditional Windows Explorer file manager, Windows Explorer, and other desktop Windows features, but it won’t run traditional x86/64 Windows apps. Metro style apps available on the Microsoft Store, however, will run across WOA and all other versions of Windows 8.

As you can see from the screenshot above, Office 15 is aiming for a simpler style than previous iterations. There’s more white space than usual for an Office app, and it’s clear that Microsoft is using its Metro design cues wherever it can.

Another interesting aspect of WOA PCs is that you’ll never be able to turn them off. Microsoft is instead relying on a new “Connected Standby” low-power mode that will purportedly last for weeks.  “Connected Standby permeates the engineering for WOA PCs from the hardware through the firmware, OS, WinRT platform, and apps,” Sinofsky writes. Microsoft is also working on bringing the low-power mode to other Windows 8 PCs as well, but you’ll still be able to turn those off completely.

Microsoft says it won’t release Windows on ARM separately, so it will only be something that you can get when purchasing a WOA tablet or PC. The company will also be rolling out test PCs to select developers and hardware partners around the release of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview at the end of this month.

Check out a video overview of Windows on ARM:

Filed under: dev, mobile, VentureBeat

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Stealth-mode app TimeRazor helps you find time for your favorite events, raises $3.4M

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 12:48 PM PST

TimeRazor is a mobile application launching in March that will help you find events and offers near you. The company announced today it has raised $3.4 million from private investors.

TimeRazor is tackling the “fear of missing out” or FOMO as the company calls it. It proposes people are often so busy with errands and tasks they need to do, that they miss out on the fun events they want to do. TimeRazor is set to launch a free app next month for iOS and Android that will track events and offers that are relevant to you.

“Our customers will use the app to discover events not only around them, but where they will be going,” TimeRazor chief executive Jeff White told VentureBeat.

Along with the funding, the company also announced is has signed up new brand partners including L’Oreal’s Active Cosmetics Division, Renaissance Hotels, and Vail Valley Foundation. White says that the company’s brand partners will use the service to promote their brands and events.

TimeRazor was founded in June 2011 by Jeff White and Victoria Clark. The company is in stealth mode until its launch in March 2012.

Calendar image via Shutterstock

Filed under: deals, mobile

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When the Google+ Platform is opening for developers and why it’s taking so long

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 12:40 PM PST

The Google+ Platform is still a relatively small collection of read-only APIs, but Google is definitely preparing for a wide and varied set of features for developers.

At the Inside Social Apps conference in San Francisco Thursday, Google+ engineering director David Glazer (pictured) revealed that Google will roll out more enhancements to the social networking platform “when we’re delighted with how it’s working.”

It’s a vague answer to an important question, and it has a lot of impact on whether or not developers choose to build on top of Google+, and thereby increase its user base and time on site per user.

But Google sees more value in a carefully planned-out debut for its social platform features than in a wide-open free-for-all.

“We made a very conscious choice to roll Platform out deliberately… when it’s ready,” said Glazer.

The company’s first priority has been creating a wonderful user experience on Google+. Secondarily, it has been weaving the Google+ features and experiences into Google’s own web products. Letting others integrate that experience via the Google+ Platform is a tertiary endeavor.

Why tertiary, many developers are asking. Why the delay?

“We wanted to avoid hurting our users and hurting our developers,” said Glazer.

“If we encourage to do thing while we’re still evolving policies and norms,” Glazer explained, “we get thousands of people building on the platform, then we have to announce more changes.”

His words are a subtly veiled jab at Twitter, which has struggled with developer relations over the past couple years. Twitter had gained something of a reputation for last-minute API changes and business-plan shifts that routinely pulled the rug out from under many a Twitter-based third-party application company.

Google is willing to take things slowly in order to avoid the same series of mistakes.

On a more forward-looking note, Glazer said he sees great things coming for Google+ third-party devs with Hangout APIs and mobile applications, in particular.

“The Hangouts API… there’s some really exciting things we’re seeing there. There’s going to be a lot of opportunities,” he said.

As for mobile, Glazer stated the obvious, saying, “Mobile in general is obviously growing at a faster rate… Google+ will see a lot of traction on mobile devices.”

Saying that mobile-specific Google+ APIs are “absolutely” coming down the pipeline, Glazer continued, “Anyone who builds an application on a mobile device has a set of features around location and communication. I want those APIs if I’m building on that device, and I also want APIs that show identity, sharing, and relationships.”

For all the coming Google+ Platform features, the Google team is considering implementations on desktops, on the mobile web, and on “the leading native platforms, “said Glazer. “We’re always aiming for those capabilities.”

In conclusion, Glazer summed up the point of the Google+ APIs:

“People care about other people, and that should be baked in as an option for what you do online… We can make everything you do online better if we have some idea of your identity and your relationships, and we think that can help almost every other experience on the web, too.”

Filed under: dev, social

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Hasbro licenses game characters and brands from Zynga

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 12:31 PM PST

Hasbro and Zynga are announcing a deal where the big toy company will create toys based on Zynga’s game characters and social gaming brands. It’s a marriage of the old new game worlds that makes sense as the physical and digital worlds converge.

The deal helps keep Hasbro more relevant for a generation of kids who are growing up with online social games. While Facebook is still technically not for kids, a lot of social-game players are either children or people who like to play with toys.

Zynga has more than 227 million monthly active users for games such as FarmVille, CityVille and Words With Friends. Hasbro already has a deal in place where Electronic Arts turns Hasbro board games such as Monopoly into digital versions for video game players.

Hasbro is paying Zynga for the license to develop a wide range of products based on Zynga’s game brands.

"It's exciting to partner with Hasbro as we share a common vision for play and a mission to connect the world through games," said Mark Pincus, founder, CEO and chief product officer of Zynga. "This partnership is so special because it represents an exciting leap forward in enabling people to connect their virtual and real worlds. Hasbro has inspired play through their famous toys, games and action figures and we look forward to working with a company that continually creates meaningful and fun brands."

"Hasbro is thrilled to have the opportunity to bring Zynga's immensely popular social games to life in a variety of creative and new expressions that reflect consumers' growing desire to surround themselves with gaming brands they love anytime, anywhere together with their friends and family, " said Brian Goldner, President and CEO of Hasbro.  "Zynga is bringing more games to mainstream culture and is redefining how people play. At Hasbro, we're proud to help bring their games to even more people around the world. This strategic alliance plays off of both Hasbro's and Zynga's proven strengths and is emblematic of the new innovations and new platforms we are creating across our entire gaming portfolio."

The first toys will be out in the fall.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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What a Navy Seal Team Six veteran can teach professionals about failure

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 12:13 PM PST

U.S. Navy Seal Team Six became famous as an elite military group for succeeding in its quest to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. But a nine-year veteran from the team talked to an audience of game developers today about failing and how to deal with it.

Isaac Gilmore retired from the Seals last August and is now consulting as managing partner at 3SJ Tactical Solutions. It turns out that his experiences working with one of the most disciplined teams in the world is also useful for helping professionals deal with the lessons of failure and how to execute. He spoke to a group of game developers at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas. He now trains executives and consults on security.

“It is OK to make a mistake, but you learn from it and you never make that mistake again,” Gilmore said.

The Seals ensure the quality and culture of their team by setting up a gate. They only let in the people who can do the best. And success is defined by how well they execute missions as a team.

The Navy Seals worked in anonymity for a long time. But now that they are famous, the spotlight is on them. So the Seal Team Six leadership had to “tighten up” and make the team more disciplined so they would conduct themselves in a fitting manner under that increased scrutiny.

One of the problems that Gilmore saw in the field was that junior officers tended to micro-manage when they came under pressure. Those officers take the initiative away from their underlings, who can no longer make decisions on their own. The same thing happens to game companies that become successful and then come under the spotlight. They become too careful and less creative.

Gilmore said one of his challenges was balancing life and work. He was married and had two toddlers at a young age and couldn’t put all of his time into the Seals. He had to go to work feeling like he was either going to be a failure to the team or to his family. He couldn’t win until he decided he had to change his expectations.

“”I learned to accept where the balance was and pick my battles. That was very hard for me. I can’t talk about details, but one of the biggest failures of my life was 15 months ago and it was crippling,” he said. “That helped me open up full throttle toward being successful again. You have to create a gate for your organization, for your life, for your friends, and guard it fiercely. “

After you fail, he said, the conversation should turn back to how you can learn on the other side of it.

You can hire a great team, but you have to make the decisions as the leader. You can value your team’s input and you have to realize that your job is to make the final decision.

Filed under: games

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Groupon keeps moving the goalposts, leaving investors scratching their heads

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 11:29 AM PST

Groupon reported its first quarterly earnings as a public company this week and blew away its numbers — in the sense that it stopped reporting key numbers investors need to assess the health of its business.

Based on generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), the daily-deals company continues to lose money. But the bigger concern for investors is Groupon keeps changing how it wants to be measured and hiding metrics that point toward a deterioration of its business.

This is not new for Groupon; it was a hallmark of its IPO process. When I discovered a way to estimate its refund losses (which I believe is a big risk for Groupon), it redefined the metric. When it reported 3Q numbers shortly before the IPO, it redefined the metrics that it had been using, making all previous comparisons invalid.

And in this first quarterly report, it’s even less transparent. The company stopped reporting the number of email subscribers, the number of Groupons sold, the number of people who bought Groupons in the quarter, the number of new customers, the number of merchants who sold Groupons, and the number of customers who had purchased more than one Groupon. All of the cohort data that was available in the S-1 form that allowed us to see how Groupon was trending in established markets like Chicago and Boston (which was already trending down) was eliminated. Even the total amount it owes merchants for Groupons sold was hidden in another metric.

Groupon has been heavily criticized for its rapid headcount growth. It stopped reporting that, too.

The company came out with two new metrics: “active customers” and “trailing twelve month gross billings per average active customer.” The active customers isn’t a bad metric, if Groupon had provided it on a quarterly basis. But it didn’t, so we can’t see a meaningful trend. The trailing twelve months number is so convoluted, even I can’t explain it clearly. But again, Groupon shows how it games numbers. The company wanted to report a big number, so it engineered a metric to do it. If it’s going to report anything on that basis, it should be based on revenue, not gross billings.

Groupon continues to spend heavily on marketing. In 4Q, it spent $156 million on marketing. But without knowing how many new customers signed up, we don’t know how effective all that marketing was. We do know it was 30.9 percent of revenue. Although that’s a big drop from 92.9 percent in 1Q, it’s still very high.

Another troubling trend is that Groupon’s cost of revenue as a percentage of revenue keeps climbing. For a company as mature as Groupon, this should be stable or declining. It increased from 13.7 percent in 4Q10 to 17.2 percent in 4Q11.

On its earnings call, Groupon told investors that they shouldn’t focus on the “take rate,” the percentage of a Groupon’s value that Groupon gets to keep. That is utterly ridiculous because it’s one of the most important numbers for investors. Based on LivingSocial’s full year numbers, I estimate that its take rate was 32 percent. Long term, I expect the number to be 10 to 15 percent. That would mean even greater losses with Groupon’s current cost structure.

There was some good news for Groupon. Revenue increased in 4Q by 17.7 percent versus a 9.6 percent increase in 3Q. This is likely an indication of seasonality due to holiday shopping and is very common in retail. Groupon offered guidance that in 1Q 2012, it will show revenue growth of 0.7 percent to 8.6 percent.  But I’m skeptical; in the 1Q 2011 revenue dropped 5.6 percent from 4Q 2010.

Even if it does meet those numbers, it will be a sign that Groupon is a mature retail business not the hypergrowth business the market is valuing it as. If Groupon performs like a mature retail business, it is vastly overvalued.

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.

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Filed under: VentureBeat

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Obama shows further mastery of social by tweeting Spotify campaign playlist

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 11:16 AM PST


Many analysts think President Obama won the 2008 election partly due to his campaign’s ability to use social networks and the web to rally and influence voters. And now with the 2012 election season upon us, Obama is showing he still gets it with the release of a subscribe-able 28-track Spotify playlist.

Obama’s official Twitter account today posted a new Spotify playlist titled “2012 Campaign Playlist” with the message: “A little Wilco, a bit of No Doubt—check out what else made it onto the new official #Obama2012 campaign playlist.” We’re sure Spotify, one of the most-buzzed-about streaming music services, is thrilled with this endorsement of sorts.

Tracks on the playlist come from multiple genres and stretch back several decades. Artists include mega-stars like Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin, indie rockers like Wilco and Arcade Fire, and classic rockers like Electric Light Orchestra and REO Speedwagon. For some reason, there is also quite a bunch of country featured, with Zac Brown Band, Dierks Bently, and two songs apiece by Sugarland and Darius Rucker.

However, it’s a little disappointing to have so much country and not a single hip-hop track, not even from mainstream acts like Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, or Kanye West. Voter targeting much, Obama campaign staff?

What do you think of Obama’s Spotify playlist?

Filed under: media, social, VentureBeat

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Foxconn hacked by group that says “damage is bliss”

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 10:48 AM PST

SwaggSecChinese manufacturing company Foxconn was hacked this week by a new group of “greyhat” cyber criminals who say tearing down companies is fun.

“So Foxconn thinks they got 'em some swagger because they work with the Big Boys from Intel, Microsoft, IBM, and Apple? Fool, You don't know what swagger is,” said a SwaggSec member in a letter addressed to “Users of Cyberspace.”

SwaggSec, which started tweeting about its hacking endeavors on January 26, released access information for Foxconn’s servers, along with individual account logins. This included the login of Terry Gou, the company’s founder and chairman. Foxconn’s servers have since been shut down. The group did not pursue the hack because of Foxconn’s working conditions.

“Now as a first impression Swagg Security would rather not deceive the public of our intentions,” the group said. “Although we are considerably disappointed of the conditions of Foxconn, we are not hacking a corporation for such a reason and although we are slightly interested in the existence of an iPhone 5, we are not hacking for this reason.”

Instead, the SwaggSec members say they are hacking because they “enjoy exposing governments and corporations.” They call the aftermath of an attack such as this one “hilarity” and seek to tear down company infrastructures as a way to bring us back to rock bottom, so we can build back up. They call themselves greyhats, as opposed to hacktivists. Why not hacktivists? Because they openly admit to getting satisfaction out of exposing a company. Indeed, they are almost hedonistic, encouraging people to stop worrying about consequences and embrace the idea that “damage is bliss.”

Foxconn, which oversees the assembly of Apple products as well as Microsoft Xboxes, was threatened by its workers last month with a mass suicide. These Xbox 360 assembly line employees numbered in the dozens and threatened to jump off the roof of a company dormitory. They cited a promise of compensation by Foxconn that was never fulfilled.

Apple, whose products are also assembled by Foxconn, has been accused of supporting poor labor conditions, despite how well the company is doing financially. In its last earnings report, Apple announced profits of $13.04 billion for its first quarter alone.

Though these are not what SwaggSec focused on as its “cause,” the accusations still brought Foxconn into the light recently, making it a target.

via 9to5 Mac

Filed under: security

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Lessons from the past: The new arcade of the iPhone is just like the arcade machines of the 1980s

Posted: 09 Feb 2012 10:46 AM PST

The new virtual arcade on the iPhone is a whole lot like the old arcades of the 1970s and 1980s, according to a team of veterans from Atari.

Game-makers are learning lessons from the history of the arcades and using them for today’s designs. That thinking is driving Innovative Leisure, a startup that is pulling the veterans into a kind of reunion company headed by Seamus Blackley (pictured far right and at bottom) and Van Burnham. The makers of classic Atari games like Asteroids, Missile Command, Battlezone, and Major Havok drew parallels from the new games on the Apple App Store to the old games of the arcades in a panel at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas today.

The talk captured wisdom from (left to right) Ed Logg, creator of Asteroids and Centipede; Rich Adam, co-creator of Missile Command; Ed Rotberg, creator of Battlezone; and Owen Rubin, creator of Major Havok. They are all working for Blackley and are paired on new iPhone game projects with students from the game design program at the University of Southern California.

They say original game play is the cure for dealing with the host of hundreds of thousands of competing games in the App Store, just as originality was a way to stand out in the old arcades filled with competing machines.

The new games on the iPhone can take advantage of the computing power of the latest mobile device chips, but they are still starved for memory and resource constrained, just as the arcade machines were.

“We had 256 bytes for memory and 2K bytes for the whole program storage,” said Logg. Rotberg added, “That put limitations on your game. But it forces you to come up with tricks for how to do things without wasting resources. We started the design at the core of the hardware.”

That forces the game designers to be more efficient, and when you create a more efficient game, it has the benefit of being simpler, easier to use, and more broadly appealing to a larger amount of people. Today, the older designers don’t waste system resources as modern programmers sometimes do when they create games with automated programming tools that are available today.

These old guys get a lot of respect today because they created something giant. Asteroids was a staple of restaurants and arcades across the country, selling 70,000 refrigerator-size machines at $2,000 each. And the arcade business boomed from $50 million in in 1978 to $8 billion in 1982, all driven by kids putting quarters into machines when they should have been doing their homework. The demographics of that audience was incredibly wide — kids, boys and girls, and older folks too.

Blackley (pictured right) said that the crash of the arcades in 1982-1984 should be a warning to companies today that are churning out copycat, me-too games that bring no innovation to the table and add to the clutter of the App Store.

“There was a danger period in the history,” Blackley said. “There is a period of novelty, like discovering I can play a game on Facebook. People then develop taste. They want a quality product. Exploitation of franchises and copycats leads them to stop buying. Then you have a crash and put (the games you can’t see) in the landfill.”

In 1982 memo, Adam wrote to his bosses at Atari that licensing games to manufacturers who made bad imitations of them, or “license fever,” was hurting the whole industry.

Logg said that today’s casual iPhone games are refreshing because they are casual and easy to learn. In the old arcades, you had to learn how to play a game in 90 seconds or less, or it just didn’t catch on. Adam said the arcades were cutthroat when it came to competition. If you didn’t collect quarters with it, the machine was quickly replaced in an arcade.

“It had to be immediately accessible,” Adam said.

Rotberg observed that today’s development teams are smaller for iPhone games, much like the old days. One difference was that it was easier to test new games in arcades by just watching how people played them. But creating a prototype required a lot of hardware engineering. So the design had to be good at the beginning of that process.

To accomplish that, the old Atari team would collaborate and comment on each other’s games. They were all “engineering jocks” who wanted to share their latest tricks with each other, Adam said. Rotberg said that Rubin constantly bugged him about a volcano in the background of Battlezone. It wasn’t erupting, and Rubin hated that. So one day, Rubin wrote the code to make the volcano erupt and left it as a stack of papers on Rotberg’s chair.

“You get honest feedback,” Adam said.

Today, modern prototyping tools make it easy to create a prototype in software. So game creators should take advantage of that by creating lots of prototypes, playing them over and over, getting feedback, and then iterating on the design until it really works.

“The market was made by small groups with tight design cycles,” Blackley said. “Players will drop it trivially if they don’t like the game, and they will love it a lot and play it over and over if they do like it. We are in this situation again. That’s why these guys want to get back into it.”

Rubin said he is a little sad that people today are discovering old Atari games on the iPad because the controls of the touchscreen device don’t perfectly map to the old hardware controls. Blackley pointed out that the spinning wheel control on Tempest was essentially to the feel of how that game played.

“The touchscreen doesn’t have the same feel,” Adam said. “The feel of a game is just as important as it was 35 years ago. It’s the ego gratification of you being in total control of a complex machine. In our day to day lives, we don’t have much control. Things like traffic. If we can feel control and empowerment over a complex machine that is gratifying.”

Blackley said that modern analytics can tell you a lot about how to tweak a game, but they won’t necessarily tell you how to fix a fundamentally flawed game. Preventing flaws in the first place was one of the outcomes of the collaborative environment at Atari.

Rubin said that he feels that some of the new social games on social networks aren’t really social and that people are too distant these days as they play games.

The audience of 700 game developers and industry professionals responded well to the famous Atari game designers. Randy Pitchford, head of Gearbox Studios (maker of Borderlands) thanked them for their work and said he wouldn’t be there today, were it not for them. So he got up on stage and bowed to them.

“Don’t do this to them,” Blackley joked as Pitchford lay prostrate on the stage.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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