13 February, 2012



Shameful: Sony raised prices on Whitney Houston’s digital music 30 minutes after her death

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 08:46 AM PST


As much criticism as record labels receive for how they treat artists, Sony Music might take the cake. The company pulled the ultimate in shameful activities this weekend by raising the price on Whitney Houston’s Ultimate Collection album on iTunes and Amazon within 30 minutes of her death on Saturday.

Music mega-star Whitney Houston died on Saturday at the age of 48. And when a high-profile artist passes away, fans often look to re-experience their music, which causesdigital and physical sales soar. Most recently, Michael Jackson’s catalog considerably jumped on the charts after his death.

But instead of reverence in the wake of Houston’s passing, Sony chose to raise the price of one of her most popular hits collections. The Ultimate Collection album in the U.K. jumped in price by more than 60 percent from £4.99 to £7.99 within 30 minutes of Houston’s death, according to Digital Spy. The album price fell back down to £4.99 some time during the weekend, but it’s unclear when it happened.

Fans originally blamed Apple for the price hike on iTunes, but The Guardian is reporting that Apple automatically raised the price after Sony Music “lifted the wholesale price” of the album.

Houston’s Ultimate Collection was originally released in 2007 and was the second top-selling album on iTunes on Monday morning in the U.K., according to The Guardian. In the U.S., Houston’s 2000 Greatest Hits collection is currently sitting in the number two slot on iTunes album sales chart, while Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” her most popular song ever, is currently sitting at the number one position for individual song sales.

Houston’s catalog is expected to dominate the music charts during the next week, according to the Official Charts Company.

Sony Music and Apple did not immediately respond to queries about the price hike.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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By surrendering to Facebook, MySpace was able to find a pulse. Adds 1M new users

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 08:00 AM PST

It’s alive! MySpace, once the king of the social networking space, has been bleeding users for years. Specific Media bought MySpace from News Corp. in July of 2010 for $35 million, a fraction $580 million it sold for in 2005.

Now they are set to report a million new users have signed up for Myspace since December, says the New York Times. Maybe new investor Justin Timberlake’s experience acting in the “The Social Network” is rubbing off on Myspace.

The big change strategic change Myspace has made is to stop competing head to head with Facebook. Instead, it’s trying to leverage the licensing deals it already had in place with record labels and the wealth of independent music bands had uploaded to the site.

Myspace rolled out a new music player in December and worked hard to integrate this with Facebook and Twitter. New chief executive Chris Vanderhook told the NY Times that it was this partnership which really drove the new growth at MySpace.

Right now Myspace has 42 million tracks, a lot more than Spotify or Rhapsody. Of course, a ton of those tracks are unbearably bad ametuer recordings made by artists no one has heard of. But stopping by the site this morning we found a playlist featuring Grammy winners like Adele, Whitney Houston, Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars.

Turning MySpace around is no small feat. But the site is still growing slowly in comparison to services like Spotify, currently adding 250,000 users a day, with which Myspace now directly competing.

What this data doesn’t tell us is how many old users are still leaving the site. 1 million new users isn’t so great if 1 million old users quit visiting.  The biggest positive indicator is that the site’s traffic has actually grown for the first time in recent memory, climbing four percent over the last month, but there’s no word yet on whether Specific Media and JT have had any luck bringing sexy back to the brand in the eyes of the musicians and teenage fans who once flocked to Myspace.

Filed under: media

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Boxee plotting a new DVR subscription service

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 07:52 AM PST

Boxee may be planning to launch a new DVR subscription service aimed at users who’ve purchased its new Live TV stick, according to a new survey the company sent  to users over the weekend.

The Boxee Box is a streaming set-top box featuring Boxee's open-source media software, which transforms televisions into internet connected media centers. The company launched its Live TV tuner stick back in January, which is a $49 add-on that acts as a high-powered HD antenna to give Boxee Box owners access to local channels like ABC, CBS, Fox, CW and NBC with no monthly fee. The stick currently doesn’t have any DVR capabilities and Boxee has openly discussed the possibility of adding it in the future.

If Boxee does launch a subscription based DVR service, it would likely extend beyond just the local free HD broadcast stations and include TV channels from cable and satellite services. The survey released this weekend indicates that the DVR subscription service could cost anywhere from $5 to $15 per month. Specifically, the survey asked owners of the new Live TV stick “How much would you be willing to pay for the ability to record 300 hours of TV.”

There are two very big factors that make me believe Boxee could followup its Live TV stick offering with a DVR subscription service. First of all, the company isn’t afraid to adjust its business strategy to create a successful and profitable product, which is why it’s ceased providing the Boxee software to PCs. Second, the company recently started asking its users to contact the FCC in regards to a rule change that would encrypt the free HD broadcast channels that allow its Live TV stick to provide live television to the Boxee Box.

Boxee is definitely interested in exploring the DVR space, but it’s unknown at this time whether it will move forward with a DVR subscription service.

[Via Gigaom]

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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RIM avoided an outside CEO because they’re all children or morons, says director

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 07:34 AM PST

As if Research in Motion needed more controversy surrounding its appointment of new CEO Thorston Heins, now a RIM director is arguing that it simply couldn’t have chosen a new CEO from outside the company earlier because the only available choices were idiots.

"So we're supposed to hand it over to children, or morons from the outside who will destroy the company?" RIM director Roger Martin told the Globe and Mail in an interview. "Or should we try to build our way to having succession?"

Martin was responding to critics of the company who argued that RIM should have replaced its original co-CEOs, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, much earlier. While it’s often refreshing to see a high-level employee speak with such candor, Martin’s comments just make RIM seem more out of touch with its failures in the mobile industry. It certainly doesn’t help that RIM’s new CEO doesn’t think the company needs to change much.

What’s most galling is that Martin implies there’s no one who could have saved RIM except for Heins, who at this point appears to be nothing more than a puppet appointee by the company’s former co-CEOs. He has yet to announce anything that would give us more faith in RIM, and he seems to be wholeheartedly supporting the company’s current downward trajectory.

It’s clear to anyone with a pair of eyes that RIM was unprepared for the rise of the iPhone and Android. And, when confronted with new competitors, the company failed to adapt to survive. It’s a prime example of the innovator’s dilemma, the notion that industry leaders can be blinded to major disruptions within their fields.

RIM’s stock fell like a rock throughout 2011, losing over three-quarters of its value. The company also announced that its long-awaited BlackBerry 10 devices, which will finally offer updated hardware and software to compete with modern smartphones, would be delayed until the end of 2012. These certainly aren’t the signs of a healthy company.

As for those that argue RIM should license its software and give up on an integrated hardware business, Martin also had some words of wisdom: "So that is what the geniuses who have all these clever thoughts about business models are saying – and a big piece of me just laughs: Have you no memory? Do you not even think?"

Do you not even think? Indeed.

Broken BlackBerry image: Miggslives/Flickr

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Making Fun’s Hidden Haunts joins the hidden-object game fray on Facebook (exclusive)

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 07:30 AM PST

Making Fun, the social game division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has launched a hidden object game called Hidden Haunts that will set itself apart via photorealistic scenery. The game is part of the company’s strategy to become a major player on Facebook by publishing games developed by both inside and outside game developers.

Hidden Haunts is a major effort by John Welch, chief executive of San Francisco-based Making Fun, to enter the fray of a popular female-oriented genre on Facebook and steal some market share from rivals. Hidden object games, where you scrutinize a scene to find objects hidden within it, are popular and plentiful on casual game web sites, but they’re relatively new on Facebook. Game Insight pioneered the genre on Facebook by developing Mystery Manor, which was published by 6waves Lolapps in the spring of 2011. Then Disney-Playdom’s Gardens of Time debuted. And last week, Zynga officially released Hidden Chronicles. Welch believes this handful of games is just the beginning of a lucrative market.

“These games have been successful and confirmed our thesis,” Welch (pictured, right) said in an exclusive interview. “We knew we had to get to market quickly or else there would be 20 of these games out there.”

But the company took its time and hopes it can set itself apart with photorealistic scenes. While most of the other games in the genre use hand-drawn art for scenes, Making Fun’s developer created live sets with actual physical objects arranged in painstaking order. The game was designed in house and developed with a small team in Uruguay. The developers took pictures of the scenes and integrated them into the game and the hand-drawn art of characters, as you can see in the top image.

“We shot the photographs on location and added about a third of the objects in post production,” Welch said. “In one scene with a kitchen, there was a real turkey. After taking the photo, the team ate the turkey. We get a better sense of realism that balances lighting and place. It looks more natural. It’s a very complicated process, but one that results in higher quality. It’s like watching sports in high definition. Once you see this, you can’t go back.”

While other Facebook rivals try to copy successful titles, Making Fun aims to compete with higher quality. It’s all about enabling News Corp., an old style media giant, to make the leap to the nouveau riche medium of Facebook games. But it is doing so in a measured way, with just 20 employees. It is an entrepreneurial approach to making social games within a much larger entity.

“We’re in the early days of social gaming still, but it is an uphill battle,” Welch said. “We are trying to establish a beachhead.”

“We’re trying to get there not by targeting where the competition has been,” Welch said. “We’re trying to skate to way the puck is going,” to paraphrase hockey great Wayne Gretzky. “And not everyone watches the same TV show. Why should everyone play the same hidden-object game?”

Welch thinks Hidden Haunts can stand on its own, without applying a bunch of marketing dollars at the outset. Hidden Haunts focuses on a strong narrative, lush full-screen environments, and a wide variety of puzzles. Future updates will reveal more of the story and further develop the in-game characters. The game has a dark supernatural tone and a realistic feel. Each “case” of the story has around six scenes in it, and Welch figures the company has a month’s worth of content already and the developers are working on more.

It will be interesting to see if Making Fun can come anywhere near its larger rivals. Zynga’s Hidden Chronicles has more than 28 million monthly active users, while Gardens of Time has 7.3 million and Mystery Manor has 1.7 million. So far, Making Fun’s games have been modest successes. It’s other titles include Santa’s Village (which had 1.5 million downloads on the iOS — iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad — and Android; Clash: Rise of Heroes on Facebook; and Noah’s Ark on Facebook. Hidden Haunts has episodic content and is free-to-pay, where users can play for free and pay real money for virtual goods.

The bigger companies have the advantage of having a big base of users on Facebook already. Those companies can cross-promote their new games to their existing users. They can also garner bigger marketing budgets to throw at a title in order to get it to take off. But Making Fun is tapping a number of external developers to try to get more creative titles to launch into the social and mobile markets.

In contrast to Zynga and Disney, Making Fun isn’t throwing a gigantic amount of money at this market. Rather, it’s experimenting with different original titles using experienced developers. Welch and Lee Crawford (pictured left) started Making Fun in March 2009, about the time both left their former companies. They had both worked together before at Shockwave.com and Sega. They self-financed the company and started doing work for hire for various brands: For example, the company made a game for amusement-park operator Six Flags on Facebook.

At his previous game company PlayFirst, Welch built a reputation for pioneering the casual game market — quick, easily playable, often Web-based titles such as Diner Dash, which sold more than 500 million copies in its various forms over the years. PlayFirst was founded in 2003 and it was one of the first modern game companies to attract venture-capital funding. But this time, they decided to sell early to tap the larger financial power of News Corp.

The first title Making Fun created cost just $150,000 to get out. Now most new titles cost considerably more. Making Fun is working with more than a half-dozen external teams. It uses Amazon EC2 as the infrastructure for games under development and then it moves the games to its own servers after launch.

Many of the new games are aimed at learning about the social game market. Welch said there are a bunch more games in the works, including a tower defense game, a collectible card game, and sports games. In each case, the developers are trying to create next-generation, higher quality games. One of the games is a 3D basketball game where you can both manage a team and also play basketball in 3D arcade-like action. Some of the games, including the sports titles, will benefit from brands from sister companies such as Fox Sports at some point, Welch said. Areas such as sports are “wide open” on Facebook, Welch said.

“If we’re successful, there are a lot of intellectual properties that we can bring to bear on this market,” Welch said. “If we demonstrate revenue and user traction, there are a lot of things we can do here.”

Filed under: games, social, VentureBeat

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EA and Tencent to take The Sims Social game to China

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 07:20 AM PST

Electronic Arts and Chinese social network Tencent are taking EA’s The Sims Social game to China.

Beijing-based Tencent, which has hundreds of millions of users, will publish the game on the Tencent Open Platform under the Chinese name Mo Ni Shi Guang. EA’s Playfish studio in Beijing is developing the title, which was a big hit last fall on Facebook. The move helps EA keep pace with rival social game maker Zynga, which has taken its CityVille game to China.

The game will be available to players on Tencent’s QZone social gaming network. The game will combine the gameplay from the original game with new features developed by Playfish for Tencent’s social game platform. The game is based on The Sims, the people simulation game that has sold more than 150 million copies worldwide in 20 languages. When it launched last year, The Sims Social grew to more than 50 million monthly active users in its first month, but the audience has since declined to 20.9 million monthly active users, according to AppData.

The Chinese version will have localized language and art. Tencent’s platform is now the largest social network in China. Closed beta testing of the game is under way and an open beta is expected in the coming months.

Filed under: games, social

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Samsung debuts 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 with tasty Ice Cream Sandwich

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 07:10 AM PST


Samsung has unveiled the successor to its first 7-inch Android tablet, but this time the device will run the latest feature-rich version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich.

The Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) will be one of the first tablets available with Ice Cream Sandwich, which has a haltingly beautiful design and tons of new features like facial recognition unlocking that make using Android elegant and fun. The Galaxy Tab 2 will join Samsung’s diverse family of tablets like the Tab 8.9 and 10.1, which compete the best they can against Apple’s iPad, the most popular tablet in the world.

“Two years ago, [the] Samsung Galaxy Tab began to offer customers more possibilities on the go,” said JK Shin, President of IT & Mobile Communications Samsung, in a statement. “Since then, Samsung has actively enhanced our tablet line-up with several tablets in different sizes.”

On the spec side, the Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) has a 7-inch screen with 1,024-by-600 resolution, a 1-GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, a 3-megapixel camera on the rear, and a front-facing VGA camera for video chat. There will be both Wi-Fi and 3G models available. For 3G connectivity, the device will support HSPA+ downloads up to 21 Mbps (if you can ever find a network that actually can deliver that.)

The 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 will launch first in the U.K. in March and then spill out into other markets. While the U.S. isn’t mentioned, the device will almost certainly arrive stateside like its other tablets.

You can see a few more Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) photos below:

Filed under: mobile

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Why Sony’s Shu Yoshida thinks the PlayStation Vita will kill it in the U.S. compared to Japan (interview)

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 07:00 AM PST

Shuhei Yoshida is in charge of all of the games that Sony makes internally for the PlayStation 3 and its other platforms. The president of worldwide studios for Sony Computer Entertainment was at the recent DICE Summit in Las Vegas, and he showed up with the PlayStation Vita, the new handheld gaming device that will launch on Feb. 22. in the U.S. Yoshida’s team helped shape the features of the Vita and has been busy making games for the system. All told, there are about 25 internal and externally developed titles arriving on the PS Vita on day one.

The PS Vita didn’t have the best of launches in Japan, but Yoshida is confident that the platform will take off in the U.S. He points to high-quality action games such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which is only playable on the PS Vita. If Sony manages to convince gamers that genres such as shooters can finally be played well on a portable device, it will have some space to claim in the market.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Yoshida.

GB: You guys have been talking about the PlayStation Vita for a while. What are the results you’ve noticed in Japan, and what lessons are you applying for the U.S. launch?

Shuhei Yoshida: Here are two PS Vitas. One, the U.S. unit, and this one is the Japanese unit. So, the Japanese launch, you saw the sell-through numbers, you notice that we haven’t been able to sell out the units that we sold in. Of course, that would have been great if we sold something like that, but it didn’t happen. The sales numbers are within the range that we’ve been expecting, but they didn’t hit the highest, the kind that would have made us ecstatic. We had quite a good number of units prepared for the launch. But looking very objectively at the market situation there in Japan, especially on the portable, PSP is still very popular. You can see, when you see the new software calendars, every month publishers are launching good product, new products on PSP. And also, they’re still announcing new products coming later this year. PSP is still very alive, still a viable business platform for third-party publishers.

Of course, Nintendo dropped a surprise last year. They had a good lineup of software as we prepared for the PS Vita launch. So we had the perfect storm of 3DS going into Christmas, PSP still very popular, and publishers have to really think about how they’re going to allocate resources to three portable platforms, in addition to all the other things going on in the social and mobile spaces.

So overall, the portable game market in Japan is still very healthy. We are still seeing good sales through PSP, and we are advertising on TV, a dedicated PSP TV campaign, at the same time we are introducing Vita. For the Japanese market, we are expecting to see a slower transition in platforms. PSP will still continue to be very popular as an entry model. Especially for a younger audience. Our marketing group’s advertising is targeted towards kids’ magazines, in support of these younger-oriented titles. At the same time, we are trying to communicate the value and new, exciting features of PS Vita to an older, mature, core gamer audience.

GB: Did you hear Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg’s talk?

SY: Yeah, yeah.

GB: It was interesting if you take that thinking about how games can become brands and apply it to the Vita. What you have here is not just a product; it’s a brand that people, if they buy into it, may stick with for years to come. That’s what you want to happen, right?

SY: Absolutely.

GB: That’s the message you need to communicate to gamers, I guess?

SY: Absolutely. In PS Vita we have some pillars of our message, we’re talking about. Three kinds of concepts, we’re trying to communicate that. The easiest one is how great, for core gamers, how great these games are to play on this beautiful five-inch screen with two analog sticks and a powerful CPU and GPU. That we can show, like Uncharted for example. People see what we’re talking about.

The second pillar is a new kind of experience that’s only possible with PS Vita, using the new user interface elements that we brought in. Touch, back touch, the camera augmented reality, all those new kinds of features. What kinds of new experiences can we create with them? The developers are experimenting with many different approaches. For example, with Uncharted, you’ve seen the use of touch, trying to make it more intuitive to navigate in the world. Some people, core gamers, still choose to use the stick and buttons, and that’s fine.

If you’re not that good of a gamer, you might find it much more intuitive to use the touch. But the other types of games, like Gravity Daze, (called Gravity Rush for the U.S.), just released in Japan this week, uses the gyro sensor as the core of the game. The game almost cannot exist on other platforms. We’ve realized, in PS Vita, where you can manipulate the gravity in the world as you tilt the unit. You could use the right analog stick as well, that’s easier to do when you’re making a big move, but when you fine-tune, tilting the unit and using the sensor is much more intuitive. You feel like you are the character, looking over the character into the world. That’s a very core game mechanic of Gravity Daze, Gravity Rush. That’s not possible to re-create on even PS3 or other consoles. That’s the second new type of experience that really differentiates PS Vita in the long term. I’m forcing everyone talking to me to watch this new trailer on PS Vita.

This trailer is made by marketing in Japan, it’s very well-done, but when you watch it in native resolution on PS Vita, it’s really beautiful. I’m bragging. [laughter] So the other game that just came out with Gravity Rush in Japan this week is called Sumioni, it merges analog stick control. It’s a 2D action platformer, but you can use the touch to create platforms as if you’re using a Japanese brush to draw a line. It’s done in a very beautiful, stylized graphics, similar to Okami. It’s a very unique experience. These games will continue to come out and make PS Vita something very special.

And the third pillar is of course the connectivity. The big feature that we put in the center of the experience for PS Vita is… When you start the game, you don’t immediately start the game. You open up a page, we call it the Live Area. It’s like a Twitter feed for that game, for you, to show you, the user, all your friends’ activities about that game, beneath the game icon. And there are icons from publishers, the announcement of new DLC, there’s a tournament going on, it’s all interactive. As far as the DLC icon, if you’re interested, you can tap it and you’re immediately taken to the store. It’s easy to purchase and download before you start the game. Or if it’s a tournament icon, you can touch it and skip all these credits and openings, you’re taken immediately to the specific tournament mode of the game.

And of course in the activity feed you see how your friends are playing the game. Your friend got a trophy, or your friend gave you some item to use, sent you some challenge. The best score, something like that. That kind of connectivity really matches with people’s current lifestyle, how people use social media. We want to integrate it into the experience of playing games. You can use all these features with Wi-Fi as well, so that’s why we created two SKUs. For people who don’t want to spend too much money on the hardware, we have the Wi-FI SKU, but for people who like to have the convenience of being connected anywhere, here’s the 3G SKU. These three pillars, we’re trying to communicate them. The latter two are rather difficult, because it requires people to experience it. Especially the value of having 3G in a portable gaming system, we’ve been finding that’s a challenge. Before the launch, even media people couldn’t experience the same situation with other people who are playing. You’re not seeing those constant updates and challenges coming from other people.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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Science launches its third startup this month, mom-commerce site Wittlebee

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 06:00 AM PST

Sean Percival and his wife, Laurie, are known in the L.A. tech scene for being a particularly stylish couple.

So of course, when the couple welcomed their first child, the world expected the child to, you know, live up to the family standard. But there was a slight roadblock.

“Laurie had a lot of trouble just finding simple, solid-colored clothes without some kind of horrible logo on it,” said the Percival patriarch during a phone conversation.

“She likes putting outfits together herself, and here was a huge gap in the market.”

Percival, who had previously worked at MySpace and who was itching to get back into the e-commerce space, saw his wife’s stress and frustrations with trying to maintain basic baby-fashion essentials as an opportunity for entrepreneurship.

Kids, especially the youngest of youngsters, go through clothes at a breakneck pace; while some subscription commerce sites might be a stretch, this vertical was one that truly did call for a constantly refreshed supply of basics, from solid tees to tasteful onesies.

Percival’s solution is Wittlebee, a service that lets busy parents fill out a size and style profile and, for $40 per month, get a monthly delivery of a box of clothes that will (likely) work for their kid and their needs.

Wittlebee is the third startup this month from new Los Angeles incubator Science. The incubator is headed up by Mike Jones, former MySpace CEO who said he loved working with Percival during his days with the social network. The first Science startup to launch was Eventup, headed by Tony Adam, also a former MySpacer and friend to Jones; Eventup’s site went live just a week ago.

Percival said Wittlebee’s boxes provide a pleasing variety of choices with an American Apparel-like simplicity. Items are chosen based on the parent’s choices in color and style, with consideration for the child’s personality (e.g., a “diva” would probably get different pieces than would be delivered to a “messy” kid).

These are separates that are intended to work together for good, and best of all, it comes without the nightmare of dragging a toddler through a department store.

“The retail experience around kids’ clothes is really bad,” Percival said. “The racks are a mess; the teenage associate doesn’t know how to help a mom; and there are often no dressing rooms. And the biggest issue is companies put a huge markup on everything.”

To get started with an initial list of a few hundred beta customers, Percival shopped clearance items and overstock, building subscription boxes around the pieces he found. Nowadays, being in a major manufacturing and distribution hub for fashion, the Wittlebee team is making wholesale buys. Soon, the startup hopes to start producing its own label, as well.

Ultimately, Percival said, the boxes will include a mix of big-brand items, boutique finds, and Wittlebee-only private label pieces.

“Every mom thinks of their child differently,” Percival continued. “‘My daughter has really long legs; my son is husky; this brand doesn’t work for him.’ It’s hard to get items that fit correctly.” So, Wittlebee will include intelligent recommendations that take into account the discrepancies between sizes produced by different brands.

Eventually, Percival hopes to not just send out new clothes but to do intake for old clothes, too. “I want to create a system where we give a return envelope when we send a box and then we donate the clothes to a local charity,” he said.

Currently, Wittlebee’s stock cuts off at around age five; soon, the range will extend to around 12 years old.

One of the most interesting parts of Wittlebee, especially from an entrepreneurial perspective, is its customer service. Noting that we live in “an Amazon world” where fast shipments and great service are expected, even for scrappy startup, Percival said the service had its first growing pains within the first couple months of beta testing.

To take care of his customers better, Percival hired a few stay-at-home mom Wittlebee members as customer service reps. This army of moms is armed with Grasshopper and Olark, which Percival uses to direct customer service calls and issues.

So when current customers call Wittlebee, he said, “They’re calling people who are intimately familiar with our system and how it works. It’s not some call center in India; it feels more natural. They have a personal connection with us at every step of the way.”

Percival, who is expecting another little one to join his family soon, is also thinking about another high-turnover vertical for kids: books.

“I have a strong affinity for kids’ books,” he told us, “and I’m thinking about ways to reinvent the book club.”

Filed under: Entrepreneur Corner

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Following heavy criticism, Apple announces new investigation into Foxconn labor conditions

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 05:56 AM PST

Last month saw several big stories on poor working conditions at the factories in China where makes Apple products. Chief executive Tim Cook initially responded by saying that Apple had nothing to apologize for. Now Apple has announced a series of special “voluntary audits” at Foxconn factories in Shenzen and Chengdu, China by the Fair Labor Association.

It’s the first big step by Apple to be proactive about the horrendous working conditions at its suppliers.

"We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we've asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers," Cook said in a statement today. "The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports."

That’s a major change of tone for Tim Cook, who previously responded directly to a damning story in the New York Times in a letter to Apple employees, saying that, “Any suggestion that we don't care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It's not who we are."

But momentum continued to build for Apple to take action. Last week activists delivered a petition with 250,000 signatures to the Apple store in Grand Central.

A former Apple executive quoted in the New York Times story said that, “Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn't have another choice.”

Filed under: mobile

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Reddit tries to crack down on child pornography with new rules banning suggestive subreddits

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 04:33 AM PST

Running a massive online community is a tricky business. The administrators who police the site are trying to strike a balance between encouraging users to contribute and keeping unsavory and illegal behavior to a minimum.

Reddit, a news aggregator and online community which has seen massive growth over the last year, allows users to create subreddits, which are essentially themed forums centred around topics like technology, humor and thousands of more obscure pastimes. Over the weekend Reddit announced it will no longer allow suggestive subreddits focused on sexual content featuring minors.

It’s more of symbolic gesture than a real solution to the problem. From Tumblr to Facebook, the problem of child pornography is one that requires continuous policing.

On Facebook, for example, large communities existed around the obscure acronym “PTHC”. That’s hardly a suggestive title, like the subreddit “pre_teen girls” which sparked Reddit’s recent ban. But it is on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children watchlist of terms related to child pornography, and it turned up hundreds of pages on Facebook, dumbfounding Facebook executives.

About six months ago a similar controversy erupted on Reddit over a subreddit called “jailbait”. The national media caught wind of the story and Reddit quickly shut the forum down. But it didn’t make any explicit changes to its guidelines. In large part that is because Reddit views itself as a bastion of free speech on the web. The community prefers to police itself and has a knee jerk reaction to anything it perceives as an attempt at censorship. That’s been a integral part of the site, and an important catalyst in Reddit’s pushback against the SOPA and PIPA piracy bills, a major victory for self-organizing internet activists.

In their blog post on the new ban, Reddit’s administrators tried to address this cultural conflict.

We understand that this might make some of you worried about the slippery slope from banning one specific type of content to banning other types of content. We’re concerned about that too, and do not make this policy change lightly or without careful deliberation. We will tirelessly defend the right to freely share information on reddit in any way we can, even if it is offensive or discusses something that may be illegal. However, child pornography is a toxic and unique case for Internet communities, and we’re protecting reddit’s ability to operate by removing this threat. We remain committed to protecting reddit as an open platform.

Filed under: media

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Ad startup Marin Software takes a late-stage $30M

Posted: 13 Feb 2012 02:00 AM PST

Marin Software, a San Franisco startup focusing on online advertising, has just announced a $30 million round of venture funding.

This is the company’s sixth round of funding in as many years.

Marin offers an all-in-one platform for managing display, search, social, and mobile marketing.

It mainly focuses on clients spending $100,000 or more monthly on online media buys. Altogether, this adds up to around 1,500 clients pumping $3.5 billion through Marin’s system each year.

The round was led by Asian firm Temasek along with SAP Ventures, with participation from Benchmark Capital, Crosslink Capital, DAG Ventures, and Triangle Peak Partners. Salesforce’s president of worldwide sales Frank van Veenendaal is also joining the Marin board.

"I am pleased to welcome Temasek and SAP Ventures as investors in Marin Software," said Marin founder Christopher Lien in a release.

"Temasek brings unrivalled experience and capabilities in Asian and emerging markets, which will benefit Marin's international development. Support from SAP Ventures and relationships with the SAP global ecosystem will further accelerate Marin's growth around the world."

Temasek’s $193 billion portfolio is currently concentrated in Singapore. Marin Software hopes its partnership with the firm will help its growth in Asian and other emerging markets.

To date, the startup has raised more than $80 million in venture capital since its 2006 founding. This $30 million round will be used on product development, customer service, and further global expansion.

Last year, the company took $16 million to grow its search ad tools, and it raised $11.2 million in 2010, funding which was instrumental in expanding its ad offerings to Facebook’s social advertising and marketing.

Filed under: deals

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Google TV YouTube updates on the way, just in time for original content

Posted: 12 Feb 2012 08:51 PM PST

One of the best upgrades in Google TV 2.0 was the addition of a dedicated YouTube app — now, it’s about to get even better with an update set to launch this week.

The new YouTube GTV app will offer a smoother interface and a new feature called Discover that will (surprise!) make it easier to find interesting videos. Discover will be a particularly useful addition as Google readies its plans for YouTube original content, something that I’ve previously argued could be a killer app for Google TV if handled well.

Google is reportedly spending upwards of $100 million on its original content plans, which include shows by well-known personalities like skateboarder Tony Hawk, comedian Rainn Wilson, and self-hulp guru Deepak Chopra. The company wants to add more professional content to YouTube's library, ultimately making it something more than a destination for user-created cat videos. Google is also offering a sweet deal to content creators: 55 percent of ad revenues (after it recoups its initial cash advances), the Wall Street Journal reports.

In addition to the Discovery feature, the new app has new channel pages that will also help with finding interesting videos, as well as the ability to easily find related videos.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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Steve Jobs gets a Grammy, one award out of Adele’s reach

Posted: 12 Feb 2012 06:04 PM PST

The late Steve Jobs was honored with a Grammy Trustees Award on Saturday for his contributions to the music industry, which included helping to develop the iPod and reshaping the way music is sold with the iTunes Store.

The award is meant to “recognize contributions to the music industry in areas other than performance,” CBS News reports, and was accepted by Apple’s SVP of Internet Software and Services Eddy Cue.

“Accepting this award means so much to me because music meant so much to him,” Cue said at the awards ceremony. “He told us that music shaped his life. It made him who he was. Everyone who knows Steve knows the profound impact that artists like Bob Dylan and the Beatles had on him.”

Apple was previously awarded a technical Grammy in 2002, but this award is meant specifically for Jobs. Other recipients of this year’s Trustees Awards include band leader Dave Bartholomew and jazz engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Past winners include Walt Disney and The Beatles, two names we’re sure Jobs wouldn’t mind standing alongside.


Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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SNL on Verizon’s 4G marketing: “It’s an old person’s nightmare”

Posted: 12 Feb 2012 03:13 PM PST

While it’s pretty much hit-or-miss these days, when Saturday Night Live scores, it still does so with a vengeance.

Last night the sketch comedy show aired a segment that ripped apart Verizon’s 4G LTE marketing confusion, bringing to light the biggest problems facing the smartphone market today when it comes to general consumers.

In short, there are too many devices vying for your attention (many with terrible names), and the advantages of 4G LTE seems like gibberish to people who have little frame of reference to compare it to 3G. It’s an important reminder that, amidst the hype and frenzy surrounding new gadgets and technology, general consumers may feel left out of the loop entirely.

Verizon isn’t the only guilty party though, it’s simply just trying to fight fire with fire. All U.S. carriers are now touting way too many devices and rely on confusing definitions of 4G to entice consumers. It’s a scatter shot method, but it’s been working fairly well for AT&T and Verizon so far (less so for Sprint and T-Mobile, which offer fewer devices).

Via The Verge

VB Mobile SummitVentureBeat is holding its second annual Mobile Summit this April 2-3 in Sausalito, Calif. The invitation-only event will debate the five key business and technology challenges facing the mobile industry today, and participants — 180 mobile executives, investors, and policymakers — will develop concrete, actionable solutions that will shape the future of the mobile industry. You can find out more at our Mobile Summit site.

Filed under: mobile, offBeat, VentureBeat

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Microsoft India Store gets hacked, passwords and usernames exposed (updated)

Posted: 12 Feb 2012 01:03 PM PST

You can now add Microsoft to the list of companies that have recently been burned by hackers.

Microsoft’s online store in India was hacked this morning by Chinese hacker group EvilShadow team – 7z1&Ancker, reports WP Sauce. Even worse, it appears that the store’s database of usernames and passwords has been leaked as well, potentially exposing those users’ payment information.

At the time of this post, Microsoft’s India online store is still offline. We’ve dropped a word into Microsoft for more details on the situation.

While we can easily confirm that the site is offline,  it’s more difficult to prove if the store’s username database has been hacked. Screenshots potentially showing information from the database have been released by the Chinese site HackTeach, but Microsoft has yet to confirm that the data has been compromised. HackTeach is also reporting that the passwords were unsecured and saved in plain text, which if true, would be a shocking security blunder on Microsoft’s part.

Update: A Microsoft representative has sent along the following comment: “Microsoft is investigating the limited compromise of the company's online store in India. Microsoft is diligently working to remedy the issue and keep our customers protected."

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Google planning massive “Experience Center” and secret test labs at Googleplex

Posted: 12 Feb 2012 11:18 AM PST

There are big changes ahead at the Googleplex, Google’s Mountain View headquarters

The company is developing a huge 120,000 square foot “Google Experience Center,” which will serve as a sort of private museum and meeting center, as well as labs for secret projects and the company’s @Home automation endeavour, reports the Mercury News.

The new buildings are big part of Google’s $120 million constructions efforts at the Googleplex, and they show how the company is quickly transforming into something more than just a search giant.

The Experience Center, for example, will be a place for the company to share big ideas with important industry figures. It may host future entries of Google’s new Solve for X conference, given the description by one of the architects working on the building:

The Experience Center would not typically be open to the public — consisting of invited groups, and guests whose interests will be as vast as Google’s range of products, and often confidential… Therefore, the Experience Center must also operate somewhat like a museum, exhibit, or mercantile space allowing flexibility in the exhibits so that as Google’s products and needs change, the space can adapt.

Such a building would also give Google an easy way to demonstrate its products for future enterprise and government customers, technology analyst Rob Enderle tells the paper.

Not surprisingly, Google had little to say about the Experience Center, or about its secret lab space, dubbed Project X. It’ll likely be a larger area for Google X, the company’s lab for fantastical projects. According to the Mercury News, Project X could involve “precision optical technology.”

Google is also carving out a lab that can screen out wireless frequencies for its @Home automation service. Little is known about @Home at the moment,  but Google has hinted that it could do things like control your home lights, appliances, and will be powered by Android. The company’s recently rumored streaming music device could end up being a part of its @Home suite.

Photo Maria Ly/Flickr

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Spotify takes music quality to the “extreme” on iPhone

Posted: 12 Feb 2012 10:23 AM PST

If you’re a Spotify user with an iPhone, it’s time to pump up the volume.

The popular music streaming service has added support for extremely high quality 320 kbps music streaming and offline synchronizing — just about the best sound you can get from compressed music files.

Spotify originally offered low quality (96 kbps) and high quality (160 kbps) settings for streaming and syncing on its mobile apps, but an update over the weekend has added a new “extreme” quality setting for the iPhone. Spotify has already offered 320 kbps streaming on its desktop apps for premium subscribers.

The news is something that audiophiles, or anyone with a decent pair of headphones, should appreciate. 320 kbps music files sound virtually indistinguishable from audio CDs, and the increased level of quality on the iPhone makes the app even more versatile. If you’ve already synhronized music with the Spotify app, it’ll prompt you to resynchronize if you flip over to extreme quality.

Spotify’s apps are available to all of its users for free, but you’ll need to be a premium subscriber ($9.99 a month) to stream and synchronize music.

It’s unclear when the new setting will make its way over to Spotify’s other mobile apps, which include Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry, but I suspect it won’t be too long.

Via The Next Web

VB Mobile SummitVentureBeat is holding its second annual Mobile Summit this April 2-3 in Sausalito, Calif. The invitation-only event will debate the five key business and technology challenges facing the mobile industry today, and participants — 180 mobile executives, investors, and policymakers — will develop concrete, actionable solutions that will shape the future of the mobile industry. You can find out more at our Mobile Summit site.

Filed under: media, mobile, VentureBeat

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