04 March, 2012



Google planning Siri-like ‘Assistant’ for later this year, says report

Posted: 04 Mar 2012 08:44 AM PST


Google will release a voice-enabled application for Android that is similar to Apple’s popular Siri by the fourth quarter of 2012, according a report by TechCrunch.

While some view Siri as a gimmick, Apple touted its voice assistant heavily in several advertising campaigns throughout the winter. Apple must have struck a chord with consumers, because Siri and a few other great features made the iPhone 4S an incredible seller. While we don’t know exactly how many 4S units were moved in the last quarter, Apple sold a record 37 million iPhones in Q1 2012. Ask Siri how she likes them apples.

Google, wanting to help Android cash in to this frenzy, will reportedly be pushing out its Siri competitor before the end of the year. The application is rumored to be simply called “Assistant” and it wants to one up Apple’s darling. Ideally, it will be able to tap Google’s powerful search engine for knowledge and integrate Google services like Gmail, Google+, and YouTube, making it easier than ever to do anything on your phone.

Assistant additionally could find its way into other applications with Google offering an open API. This way, developers could integrate features from Assistant into their apps. I could see that being exceptionally helpful for doing searches on social apps, travel apps, games, and more.

Further adding fuel to this rumor fire, Google applied for a patent that sounded quite a bit like Siri a few weeks ago. That patent was targeted for Google TV, but based on Google’s history, it will use this technology across all of its services.

Would you like to see a Siri-like application on Android and Google TV by the end of this year?

Corporate assistant photo: Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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How to know when it’s time to hire an outside CEO

Posted: 03 Mar 2012 04:22 PM PST

As anyone who has started their own company will tell you, it's hard for others to understand your passion for your endeavor.

Startup founders can seem crazy, willing to work long hours for little or no pay, driven by wanting to see their idea come to fruition. And, for those few great ideas that actually make it beyond a science experiment and secure funding, customers, and revenue, one of the greatest challenges can be transitioning from a founder to a manager and corporate leader.

It is easy for all of us to get focused on the few exceptional success stories of first-time founder CEOs like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. Let it suffice to say that these are indeed exceptions and not the norm.

More typically, it takes multiple attempts for a founder to build the skills and experience base to be the CEO that leads the company to a successful outcome. Most other companies, such as Cisco, Intel, and Google, to name a few, became successful by bringing together talent and foresight of a great team of experts beyond just the founders, and one of the first actions needed to build a great team is hiring a great CEO.

In the years since we left Microsoft and scribbled on our napkin an idea for a distributed storage network, our idea has now grown into a fast-scaling business with thousands of customers, and we seem on the right path for growth and market success.

This was not a sure thing. One key decision that has made the difference was bringing in a professional and proven CEO to lead us from the startup stage to the scale-up phase and beyond. Approximately two years after our incorporation, we hired someone who had served as CEO five previous times, always joining founders at this stage, and successfully taking those businesses to the next level, whether that was IPO, acquisition, or strong growth.

But how do you know when and if to bring in an outside CEO? While we may not have all the answers, we have identified a few clues to help you know when it's time for you to hire a professional CEO as well as how to clarify your own role in the company once that leader is on board.

Don't "squat" the CEO role

Unlike some exceptional 20-year-old entrepreneurs, we started our first venture well into our thirties, each with more than a decade of experience under our belts building and delivering complex technologies, as well as building, growing, and managing large teams.

One of the advantages of that is you deeply understand what it takes to build and run effective teams. An effective team is a collection of experts across a wide range of functional areas with strong team chemistry. Each member of the team "earns" their title through experience, skills, trust, and respect of their colleagues.

Having "apprentices" occupy key roles on the team is not an ideal place for startups because time and money are precious commodities that should not be spent on helping someone build new skills. There are enough unknowns in a new venture to be adding lack of experience and skills to that list.

As such, at our company’s inception, we decided that titles and roles needed to be earned. We earned the founder titles by incorporating and bootstrapping the company. Our individual experiences as well as company formation documents bestowed the roles we needed to play in the early stages. We intentionally kept the CEO position open. Neither of us had the experience base to hold that title.

Strategically, this allowed us to be constantly on the lookout for a strong CEO. This turned out to be one of the best early decisions we made because when the time came, we were able to attract a rock star CEO and help him integrate into the company culture seamlessly and start adding value quickly.

Invest in your investors.

Pick your investors and advisors carefully, and then trust them deeply. They trusted you with their money and time, and it is the least you can do in return. Investors are deeply invested in your success. They are successful, experienced individuals who are constantly looking at success and failure patterns for startups. They are not mired in the day-to-day details and so can provide a valuable outside-in perspective.

We hear too many stories about poor investor/founder dynamics. Clearly the relationship didn't start that way or investment wouldn't have happened. So what went wrong?

Maybe we have been truly lucky, but we believe the bulk of the responsibility sits with the founders. Investors are humans and do have expectations — the onus is on the founders to actively respond to those expectations. One of the most important conversations to engage investors in is whether you have the right team, starting with the CEO role. This was an open ongoing dialog at Symform board meetings, and we knew exactly when the time was right to take the step.

Listen to your employees.

Whether you have just a handful of employees at this point or are well into the double digits, these early hires are a critical source of information.

How do they talk about the company with others? What are leadership and strategic challenges they are struggling with on a daily basis? Is there a consistent view of strategy across the organization? Do they have clarity on the chain of command and how decisions are made? Are decisions being constantly questioned and getting revisited to the point where execution is being hampered? Are commitments not being met? Are you unable to hire key talent?

These are all signs of a key leadership gap, usually right at the top. A strong CEO is needed.

Trust your instincts

Part of being a good leader is knowing your own strengthens and limits. If you believe your company is at a point where you don't have the skills and experience to take it to the next level, and then trust that feeling.

Engage with your team and board in an open dialog, and make that very important decision to bring on a strong CEO.

After all this if you decide hiring a CEO is the right step, don't undersell yourself or your company. Go for the best you can get. Pay the price to get a rock star CEO, even if that means additional funding to pay for it. Find someone that has experience in your space or a related field and a strong track record. Make sure your candidates believe in the product or technology and exhibit passion at what you are building.

And then let that CEO run the business. We can tell you from our direct experience that if you've hired the right person, which we believe we have, then it becomes quickly evident that this person knows what he or she is doing. It's incredible how six months with the right CEO can impact your business.

Talent attracts talent, and a good CEO brings on other rock star employees and executives. Investors and the market takes notice and are more confident of your projections and plans.

So, as founders, it is important to focus on the ultimate prize: a successful venture. Being a founder of a successful company is far more rewarding than being an apprentice CEO of a not-so-successful one. So leave your egos and individual ambitions at home, and focus on building the right team of experts to help you realize your dream, starting with a top-notch CEO.

Praerit Garg and Bassam Tabbara are co-founders of cloud storage provider Symform. They brought Matthew Schiltz onboard as CEO in June 2011. Since then, the Seattle-based startup has closed a $2 million round of funding.

Image courtesy of Galushko Sergey, Shutterstock.

Filed under: Entrepreneur

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Valve “Steam Box” console rumor sounds like a bad idea

Posted: 03 Mar 2012 03:44 PM PST

Valve is working on a new set-top gaming system standard based on PC architecture dubbed “Steam Box,” according to a report published by website The Verge, A standout feature is rumored to be a controller that could provide real-time biometric feedback from the player to the game. For example, a shooter would be able to adjust the intensity of the action based on the player’s pulse rate.

The alleged baseline specifications for the Steam Box include 8GB of RAM, an Intel Core i7 CPU and an unspecified Nvidia graphics chip. Making use of current PC technology means the system could be compatible to thousands of existing Windows games. Valve has allegedly been talking to potential hardware partners – like Dell subsidiary Alienware – to manufacture the device. If true, the move would shake up console platforms and potentially position Valve as a major alternative hardware provider.

Valve has not commented yet on the report, which combines information from The Verge’s sources, recent remarks of Valve Managing Director Gabe Newell about the possibilities of entering the hardware business and a 2011 Valve patent filing for a customizable game controller technology.

Former Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington founded privately-owned Valve in 1996. The company’s first product was the classic first-person shooter Half-Life, which also spawned the online phenomenon Counter-Strike. The company still publishes games, most recently Portal 2, and also operates the digital content distribution platform Steam. Since its launch in 2004, Steam has become the dominant online service for buying PC and Mac games and has over 35 million active user accounts, according to Valve. Electronic Arts launched the competing Origin platform in 2011.

Valve’s large number of existing Steam customers would make it a formidable competitor for the traditional game console makers Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony. But there are a number of reasons why we are not exactly convinced by the report's rumors.

Historically, licensing game platform standards to third-party manufacturers hasn’t worked out. The system graveyard is filled with once hopefuls that never caught on. Rest in peace, 3DO, CD-i and Nuon.

In an era where the future of dedicated game consoles is questioned, exhuming the old ‘let’s put current PC technology into a box for the living room’ idea evokes unpleasant memories of The Phantom, a 2004 PC console announcement that never transformed into a finished product.

And who is really thrilled about the idea of playing with some sort of bracelet attached to send biometric feedback to a game console? Most living room dwellers don’t even want to be bothered with putting on glasses to make use of 3D TV sets.

According to The Verge, Valve has demonstrated a prototype of the Steam Box device to potential partners in January during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). It's rumored the system could be revealed as early as the upcoming Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, or be held back until June for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

We have reached out to Valve and will update upon hearing back.

Filed under: games

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How Roku is kicking the cable industry’s butt & where it’s going next [exclusive]

Posted: 03 Mar 2012 12:08 PM PST

Anthony Wood (pictured) is Roku’s CEO, and at his house (he’s married with three kids), each person gets seven hours of TV each week — all sans cable, natch.

The family gets its fix primarily from Amazon’s pay-per-view video selection, he said, and hours are logged on a per-person basis using the BOB screen time manager.

But there is some cheating in the system; when his wife sits down for Modern Family, for example, a few others will join the viewing party without having to log in themselves, meaning most family members get more than seven hours of TV per week.

It’s a small infraction, and Wood seems generally nonplussed. The important part is the way his family gets their TV fix — via the web and a small set of services and hardware that are severing ties between consumers and cable companies.

In an exclusive interview with VentureBeat yesterday, Wood talked at length about his company, their competitors, the changing entertainment industry, and where we’re all headed over the next couple years — including Roku.

“Forcing change”

“The Internet is clearly going to revolutionize the way we get video,” Wood begins by stating the obvious. Both he and I (a happy Roku user) know that the online TV revolution is well underway. Wood sees the evolution nearing its completion relatively quickly. “I think over the next four years, most Americans are going to get their video over the Internet,” he said.

Even old-guard cable networks like HBO are rolling out online subscriptions; Wood points out that web incumbent Netflix has called out HBO Go, an online companion to the channel’s traditional subscription, its biggest competitior.

“There’s a lot of change coming; a lot of stress for the industry as it figures out how to move to this new world,” Wood continues. In a way, he sees the pressure the music industry faced ten years ago being echoed in today’s video wars; the only reason this battle is being staged ten years later is that we consumers now have the bandwidth to get what we want from almost all forms of media, not just small MP3 files.

Still, most of those heading up content creation for film and television don’t see the Internet as a primary means for getting and consuming video content. “The content owners view TV as their traditional market,” said Wood. “They view watching on your laptop or phone as a second, incremental market.” Because of this worldview, he said content creators will give Internet-enabled viewing rights to PCs a lot easier (and cheaper) than rights for Internet-connected TVs. Cable operators still see the television set as their proprietary domain.

And if you’ve ever wondered why, for example, you can watch some Hulu Plus shows on your laptop but not on your TV, this is the crux of that issue. Every few years, content creators and cable operators renegotiate the rates that the operators pay to license the content. And if, for example, ABC let Hulu give its users the ability to watch Pretty Little Liars on Internet-connected TVs, the cable operators “will use that fact to pay less during the next negotiations,” said Wood. “Or they’ll take [the content creator] from channel two and put in on channel 638.”

Still, in spite of this seeming stranglehold, Wood said, “The Internet is forcing change. Why is HBO Go around? It’s because of companies like Netflix… and the incumbents realize they have to do a lot more to compete. It’s forcing them to give consumers more choice.”

After all, for every roadblock cable operators create, creative consumers find a way around it. Whether it’s torrenting content we can’t buy online or setting up our home media servers to stream web content to our TVs, sisters (and brothers) are doin’ it for themselves. And sometimes, when we realize we’re doin’ more for ourselves than the cable and satellite companies are doing for us, we simply cut the cord.

But most of us still maintain some relationship with a tradition TV provider — for now. “We survey our customers, and we ask them what they did with their cable package after they about a Roku,” said Wood. “Around 40 percent cut back or cancel cable, and that’s split half and half,” in other words, 20 percent cancelled and 20 percent reduced their service. “And that number is pretty consistent, so the majority of Roku customers have cable or satellite, and Roku is additive. It’s an extra source of content.”

But that supplement is rapidly trending toward becoming the norm. “It used to be people watched around four hours a week on Roku,” said Wood. “Now, they’re watching 12. I think in four years, it’ll reach 30 hours, and most people today watch 35 hours each week.”

The cable connection

But cable networks and providers don’t want to get cut out of the deal completely, so they’re attempting to keep pace with consumer-driven change and innovation.

“The big trend that’s happening now — a lot faster than I thought it would — is that the cable networks and operators are embracing the Internet and doing authenticated packages,” said Wood, citing HBO Go as an example. This service, while it still requires you to be a traditional HBO cable subscriber, allows you to have access to Internet content with on-demand features and the like.

“Over the next year, all the major cable networks and operators will be on Roku,” said Wood. “The next step after that, sometime this year, will be a company that offers an over-the-top cable package… And then, all hell’s gonna break loose.”

But Wood doesn’t see à la carte service for cable content coming any time soon; the traditional system of bundles has too much money and legacy tied up with content to ravel that quickly. “I think what you’ll see is fraying of the bundles, different packages with less content bundled, different kinds of packages, some à la carte products, and a much better experience,” he said. “There are also companies looking at doing these virtual cable packages… they’ll charge a monthly fee.”

He continued to explain, “In the next couple years, a lot of customers are still going to buy a cable package from a cable operator, but you probably won’t get your box from the cable operator anymore… and then you’ll be able to sign up for a whole bunch of video options on that box. And it won’t be controlled by your cable company.”

Don’t feel too bad for the cable operators, though. Wood said they’ll continue to make money on their highest profit margin item: high-speed Internet and related products and services.

As far as fraying the cable bundle, Wood sees premium content channels such as HBO and Showtime being unbundled first. “But look at ESPN,” he pointed out. “It’s owned by Disney, Which owns about seven different cable networks. And those guys, I don’t think they have any plans to let you buy ESPN without buying the whole package.”

Another interesting challenge is sports. TV content for sports programming is often signed over to networks like ESPN for hefty licensing fees. “They paid billions of dollars for those rights, and they want to make sure they get paid for that content,” said Wood. “The industry knows they need to start offering their content over the Internet, but they don’t want to cannibalize their exsiting business.”

And while most of the major sports networks (except NFL) are on Roku right now, Wood said they’re all out-of-market because of the aforementioned licensing deals. For sports fans, he concluded, “It’ll come down to getting your local station or ESPN over the Internet.”

Apple and Google: The competition

“Our target audience is people who watch TV,” said Wood, outlaying the major difference between the $50 Roku box and the hundreds-of-dollars competition.

“It needs to work for everyone. The most common mistake tech companies make with TV is they make it too complicated.”

In fact, Wood continues, bang for the buck and drop-dead simplicity are two of the company’s core principles, the third being providing great content.

Due to its affordability, Wood said of the Roku box, “We outsell Apple TVs in the U.S…. We compete with them, they’re a streaming box, but the similarities end there. [Apple TV] is an accessory for the iPad and iTunes. Roku has over 400 channels, and none of that is on Apple TV.” Referencing AirPlay and the walled garden Apple has created for streaming media and hardware, Wood said, “Our focus is to be the non-Apple alternative.”

As for Google TV, Wood said the reason not many have been sold is one of simplicity. “It’s hard to use, and there isn’t a lot of content. …I think [Google] fundamentally believes TV should be about search and activity, and I don’t think that’s true.”

He adds, “Also, the content companies don’t really like Google; there’s a lot of conflict there.” Conflict might be an understatement. Google and content creators stood on opposite sides of SOPA/PIPA, the legislation that emphasized the deep rift between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. And over and over again, content creators have asked Google to take a stronger stance against film and television piracy, never with satisfying conclusions.

With piracy as the main point of contention — and one that’s keeping consumers from enjoying a fruitful collaboration between the entertainment and tech communities — than no party is closer to the center of that debate than Google. All this makes imagining happy partnerships between content companies and the search giant a near impossibility, at least for now.

Where Roku is going next

Currently, Roku has sold more than 2.5 million of its boxes. In 2011, sales tripled, and half those sales occured during the holiday season, when the company made a huge marketing push. Overall, said Wood, “Sales are huge, we’re getting 132 percent year-over-year growth on average.”

Wood said the company expects to sell 19 million boxes over the next three to four years. But for 2012, Wood said smart TVs are going to be the next focus for Roku. At CES, the company unveiled its streaming sticks, thumb-sided drives for MHL ports, which Wood said should be part of all new TV sets within four years.

“If you look at the way people view streamed video content, the majority of it is on game consoles,” said Wood. “But the percentage of hours on consoles is declining, and the percentage on Roku and smart TVs is growing.”

Smart TVs, he admitted, are currently a very small part of the overall market, but, he continued, “It’s a market that we want to make sure we’re participating in.” And the streaming stick, while it is a stand-alone product, is “more of a strategy for us,” he said. “We did a deal with Insignia, and we’ll be doing bundles with them. We have deals with other major TV OEMs we haven’t announced yet.”

In addition to the streaming stick and adding more authenticated channels like HBO Go, Roku will be concentrating in 2012 on bringing more games to its newly launched gaming platform.

And yes, Roku-interface haters, Wood said drastic improvements to the user interface are coming this year. “Now that we’ve got 400 channels, and more channels coming, we want to make finding and searching for channels easier, too,” he said.

Now, all Roku has to do is break into profitable territory — an as-yet-unreached goal for the company, which has been pouring money into product development and marketing.

“If you think of the range of new connected devices, at one end you have Apple. They make almost all their money on hardware,” Wood said. “And on the other end, you have companies like Amazon that sell their hardware at cost but make most of their money from content. We’re more toward the Amazon end. We make some of our money from the hardware… but we get revenue share. We did about $100 million in sales last year, but we’re still not profitable. We’ll prbably turn a profit sometime in 2013.”

Of course, with sales and revenue share from current products alone, Wood said the company could be profitable right now if it wanted to. “But theres still so much to invest in, so many opportunities.”

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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Why marketers should embrace Facebook’s new Timeline for brands

Posted: 03 Mar 2012 11:03 AM PST

Facebook’s new Timeline for brands has sparked a firestorm of reactions, in particular from apps that have built their business models on Facebook’s vanishing tabs.

As Timeline for brands rolls out, these brands will no longer be able to set their apps as their default landing pages. And while that will very likely generate no small degree of complaints by those accustomed to using Facebook a certain way, here's why this is a good thing that should be embraced.

The move away from static landing pages and toward stories in the news feed will help marketers focus their efforts on listening and responding to their audience. In fact, Facebook execs have been reminding marketers that reaching and engaging a new audience the single most important thing you can do.

Marketers have been conditioned to believe that the number of likes on a page was more important than the conversation. But the truth is that accumulating a massive amount of likes does not always translate to sales. Even an artist like Lady Gaga who has millions of fans and followers has a very low engagement rate on a daily basis. It's the nature of the platform.

Facebook's changes will do a lot to help marketers shift their thinking about social marketing. In particular, it will help them appreciate the power and the effectiveness of the user’s news feed.

As Facebook designer Sam Lessin said of the new features, they were created first with people in mind, but that “organizations have identities, that a nonprofit, a sports team, all have identities that they want to express… It's a phase shift for the company overall and how we think about identity.” He concluded with the statement, “A lot of brands aren't great storytellers, but the best ones are."

Based on my own company’s experience with delivering marketing message in the news feed, we’ve found that good storytelling is a lot more effective than simple advertising. In fact, we can support Facebook's claim that news feed messages perform three to ten times better than other types of social ads. One of the most interesting stats that pops out is that a recommendation in the news feed provides the best engagement levels, three to five times higher than non-recommended news feed posts.

We have seen news feed marketing deliver great results for lifestyle brands like Glam Media (publishing network), Bliss (cosmetics), and small businesses like Neighborhoodies (apparel) as well as national brands like Papa John’s Pizza and Guitar Center, and we expect that Facebook's updated marketing products will return similar improved results for most marketers.

Additionally, one of the great unsung benefits of Facebook's updates is mobile reach. More than 45 percent of Facebook users are viewing content on their phones. So, especially in allowing sponsored posts to run on the mobile apps, Facebook has just streamlined social marketing: One status update, and you're done. This is much cheaper, easier, and more effective than having to buy mobile ads.

While the adjustment phase and learning curve may take some twists and turns, our data show that marketers should be very optimistic about Facebook's new direction. All in all, these changes require marketers become more conversational with their fans. This is a good thing. After all, the power of Facebook and Twitter is in you sharing your stories and with the world.

Headliner.fm CEO Mike More is a serial entrepreneur with more than 18 years of experience in the media industry as a producer, song writer, and publishing executive. He also founded Headliner, a social recommendation platform that allows marketers to reach and engage a highly targeted audience in the news feed on Facebook and Twitter without having to have them like or follow them first.

Image courtesy of ra2studio, Shutterstock

Filed under: social

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Let’s get judgey: Here’s our lightning round on the week’s top stories

Posted: 03 Mar 2012 09:18 AM PST

It’s time for a sudden-death-style lightning round on the week’s news.

Day in and day out, we write fairly neutral coverage of these hot-button topics, but we’re real people, man, with feelings. And sometimes, we just gotta let our freak flag fly. So this week, we present to you a “love it or hate it” review of the following stories:

We hope you enjoy; we’ll be back to our usual snarkery and in-depth op-eds next week. Have a great weekend!

Filed under: VentureBeat, video

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