10 March, 2012



Microsoft Flight opens up the skies to rookie pilots (review)

Posted: 10 Mar 2012 08:00 AM PST

Before we start, there’s something I need to confess. When it comes to flight simulators, I'm a complete novice. Fear not though, because Microsoft Flight is intended to get everyone in the air, "whether you are a casual gamer who has always wanted to fly, or an experienced pilot who wants to test your skills." The question is, can Microsoft's free-to-play simulator really help rookies like myself get airborne, while maintaining enough depth to satisfy veteran pilots?

Microsoft Flight is a very new approach to packaging a flight simulator, from a company with a grand tradition in this area. The game is presented as a free download, giving access to the Big Island of Hawaii, along with two starter planes with which to explore the skies. No expensive flight stick is needed to play the game — although it is recommended for more advanced aerobatic manoeuvres — and I managed throughout with just a mouse and keyboard.


Flying around Hawaii

Setting Flight in Hawaii was a minor masterstroke by Microsoft, as the island offers a substantial variety of scenery and locations, while not being too large as to be daunting to newcomers. The main island offers a total of 13 airstrips, which range from small dirt runways, nestled in among the trees, to large commercial affairs. Alongside these, you are free to touch down anywhere that seems flat enough. You can even land in the sea, thanks to the amphibious capabilities of the slow but stable starter plane, the Icon A5 (pictured right).

Landing your plane successfully, on land or water, accounts for a large proportion of the initial challenges and missions in Flight. My first faltering approaches at fairly decent sized runways were pretty awful, and resulted in me overshooting, undershooting, and even forgetting to engage my undercarriage on one occasion. The game wouldn't let me fail indefinitely though, and verbal prompts and visual cues helped me get back on track. Eventually I was touching down with what seemed to be a decent success ratio, even on the tiny dirt runways hidden away in the Hawaiian countryside.

The challenges

In addition to the numerous landing challenges on offer, Flight likes to gauge your ability at negotiating glowing rings and picking up virtual trinkets in the game world. My first attempt at a Challenge Course mission, which involves flying through a sequence of hoops in the correct order, resulted in a quite exhilarating descent through a tree-lined valley, towards the ocean. There are three such challenge courses in the free version of Flight, along with two Gold Rush challenges, which task you with collecting 25 rings from a given location within an allotted time.

These challenges are a clear attempt by Microsoft to engage an audience that would not traditionally be found playing flight simulation games. While many veteran pilots may object to their inclusion in Flight, I found them engaging, challenging, and perfect for a ten minute blast on the game. Buzzing past rooftops in an open cockpit plane is always fun, and having glowing collectibles as justification for doing is a welcome move.

The freedom of Free Flight

Despite the short blasts of fun that the challenges offer, the feeling of discovery and exploration in Flight is better represented by the Free Flight mode, which has been augmented here by the addition of 'aerocaches'. These are small, glowing objects placed in different parts of the island, and their discovery and collection can either be by happy accident, or the end result of a planned excursion. Swooping under a bridge to collect an aerocache was hugely satisfying, as was climbing over 14,000 ft to the highest point on the island, and this guided exploration, more than anything, represents what Flight does best.

Free Flight mode is available from any of the thirteen airstrips, and the weather conditions, seasons and time of day can all be quickly altered, to give a diverse range of flying experiences. Taking off in a thunderstorm with a strong prevailing wind proved impossible in the Icon A5, and resulted in some hilarious false starts. The Boeing PT-17 Stearman, on the other hand, coped admirably with bad weather, and taking to the skies at dusk with rain lashing down and a red glow dimly visible on the horizon, was a surprisingly beautiful experience.

In addition to user defined flying conditions, there are a number of flight control assistance options in Flight, which can be switched on and off, to help newcomers or enhance the experience of veteran pilots. These options are automatically turned on at launch, but even as a relative rookie to the genre, I found myself switching some of them off after a few hours, which actually gave the game a more satisfying feel.

Forgiving hardware requirements

My somewhat aging PC coped well with Flight on low and medium graphics settings, but the frame rate dropped significantly with everything set to high. However dense or detailed the scenery becomes on the ground though, the sky always remains the star of the show, with the variety of weather conditions and times of day available offering players some gorgeous vistas, even on low settings. In this respect Microsoft has done an admirable job of balancing graphical performance with accessibility for a wider audience.

Filed under: games

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A roundup of stories from the Game Developers Conference

Posted: 10 Mar 2012 12:46 AM PST

Our GamesBeat team is exhausted after five days of covering the biggest show for game developers in San Francisco. Here’s a day-by-day roundup of the major stories that we wrote from the Game Developers Conference this week. We’ve also thrown in stories from Microsoft’s pre-GDC press event. As you can see, it was a busy week for game news.

Here’s the headlines and links to stories in reverse chronological order:


Microsoft warns that OnLive Desktop's Office streaming app violates license

Flurry launches AppSpot mobile app ad platform

How Thatgamecompany designed its new game, Journey

The DeanBeat: Tips from Ubisoft on making a happy game industry acquisition


See what Tim Schafer is doing with all your (his) money. Kickstarter crowdfunding was a big topic at the GDC.

Konami and others will make games for Zynga.com

Core game sales drop like a rock in February

Electronic Arts reveals new Mass Effect 3 and Star Wars online numbers

Angry Birds Space gets geeky with awesome real-life demo from NASA (video)

Gaikai signs up Warner Bros.' Lord of the Rings Online game for instant demos

Peter Molyneux departs Lionhead Studios and Microsoft to found 22 Cans


Facebook's tips for getting your mobile game noticed

Browser-based games get real 3D graphics with latest Unreal Engine and Flash technology

Heyzap launches mobile API to add high-level analytics

Game developers salivate over the new iPad's specs

EA lines up three Battlefield 3 expansions for 2012


EA to launch Medal of Honor Warfighter on Oct. 23

Google promises a unified social and mobile game platform

EA revives Sim City for 2013 launch — with curvy roads

Nintendo 3DS tops 4.5 million units in US within first year

Halo 4 quotes: The hype, the excitement, and the…huh?

Casino wars: Big Fish Games acquires mobile casino game maker Self Aware Games

Alex St. John's Magi.com launches social gaming hub (exclusive)


Zynga reaches beyond Facebook with Zynga.com

Numecent spins out Approxy cloud-gaming startup

Numecent emerges from stealth with "revolutionary cloudpaging technology" for digital delivery

How to design a game for your teenage daughter

Funzio spreads out with games for Google+, Chrome Web Store, and Android

Facebook paid $1.4B to game developers in 2011

6L teams up with 16 mobile game developers and plans big marketing spend per title

Apple's iOS runs HTML5 games three times faster than Android

Forza Motorsport fans can look forward to Forza Horizon and Porsche expansion

Star Wars Kinect lets you rampage like a monster using gestures (preview)

iSwifter makes iPad game streaming available to all PC game companies (exclusive)

Trials Evolution creative director discusses going bigger, multiplayer, and female riders (interview)

Steel Battalion Heavy Armor combines Kinect and controller commands (hands-on preview)

11 new things we've learned about Halo 4 (with video)

How Fable: The Journey will use the Kinect in revolutionary ways (interview with Peter Molyneux)

[Photo credit: Dean Takahashi's picture of Sony's Move/virtual reality demo]

Filed under: games

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Microsoft warns that OnLive Desktop’s Office streaming app violates license

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 11:55 PM PST

The OnLive Desktop app enables users to run a Windows desktop on an Apple iPad or Android tablet, freeing users from their PCs even if they want to use Microsoft Office. It’s a great innovation from cloud-streaming firm OnLive, but Microsoft said this week that the app is apparently in violation of licensing terms for Microsoft’s operating system.

"Some inquiries about these scenarios have been raised as a result of recent media coverage related to OnLive's Desktop and Desktop Plus services. Additionally, the analyst firm Gartner raised questions regarding the compliance of these services last week," Joe Matz, corporate vice president of worldwide licensing and pricing at Microsoft, said in a blog post on Wednesday. “We are actively engaged with OnLive with the hope of bringing them into a properly licensed scenario, and we are committed to seeing this issue is resolved.”

We haven’t yet heard back from OnLive about this development. OnLive launched the OnLive Desktop app for the iPad in January and it enabled users to use PC apps on an iPad through cloud streaming. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup first started streaming games in 2010 using its unique cloud technology, which executes applications in web-connected data centers and then streams video of the apps to users’ machines.

The benefit is that high-end apps can run on low-end hardware and apps that were never designed to run on mobile devices can do so. Then the company brought the OnLive Desktop to Android tablets. The OnLive Desktop Plus service comes with a super-fast browser and costs $4.99 a month. OnLive is also launching an enterprise version soon.

Gartner questioned whether OnLive might violate Microsoft’s licensing terms.

"Organizations and end users should note that OnLive Desktop Plus may present Microsoft licensing risks for organizations if consumers install the product on company iPads or use it to edit company documents from personal devices," Gartner said. "Neither Microsoft nor OnLive has provided clear guidance on how users of these [service] products must comply with Microsoft licensing requirements."

Matz said, "Customers that want to work with partners to have them host Windows 7 in a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure solution on their behalf, can do so when the customer provides the partner licenses through the customer's own agreements with Microsoft. The hosting hardware must be dedicated to, and for the benefit of the customer, and may not be shared by or with any other customers of that partner.”

As we noted earlier, the OnLive Desktop cloud service is potentially disruptive to a number of different parties in the documents and web-browsing ecosystem. OnLive has built a robust global cloud, or web-connected data centers, that can operate apps on your device as quickly and responsively as if the apps running in the data centers were actually running on your local device. OnLive says the cloud works so fast that you won't notice that the app isn't running locally.

OnLive Desktop is ultimately a threat to Intel's consumer microprocessor business, since users will be able to access demanding applications with low-end hardware. They may have no reason to use a high-end PC to access a lot of heavy-duty applications. This phenomenon, envisioned many years ago by people such as Google Chairman Eric Schmidt when he worked for Sun Microsystems, is known as "hollowing out the PC." It means that heavy-duty internet-connected servers, or the cloud, could reduce the need to have a lot of processing power in a PC. The more powerful the cloud, the less power you need in your PC.

Not only could this cloud streaming disrupt the PC, it could also help the standing of the Apple iPad. When the iPad came out in 2010, observers said it was a great device for reading documents, but not for creating them. Now, with OnLive Desktop, creating documents on an iPad is a breeze. You no longer need a PC to do that.

Microsoft is rumored to be working on a version of Office for the iPad.

OnLive chief executive Steve Perlman started patenting the ideas for this kind of product as far back as 2002. The OnLive Desktop allows you to combine the touch gestures of a tablet with an on-screen Windows keyboard and handwriting recognition. That lets you conveniently view and edit complex documents on a tablet with the same efficiency as if you were editing them on a PC.

Rivals for cloud storage or virtualization include Dropbox and Box, but OnLive isn't offering a quick-restore backup service just yet. Rivals for desktop virtualization include Mokafive and Citrix.

[Photo credit: Dean Takahashi]

Filed under: cloud, games, mobile

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Flurry launches AppSpot mobile app ad platform

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 11:32 PM PST

Mobile analytics firm Flurry announced a new mobile app advertising platform called Flurry AppSpot.

Peter Farago, vice president of marketing at Flurry, said the platform  combines Flurry’s analytics with a new ad platform aimed at unlocking the full potential of the mobile app advertising space. The platform is designed to make targeted campaigns and reaching high-value consumers easier for ad agencies, direct advertisers, and ad networks.

Flurry will provide services such as ad serving and network optimization based, and advertisers will pay Flurry only when they use premium targeting to earn additional revenue. These services are tied to Flurry’s analytics data, which tracks more than 30 billion user sessions a month across 160,000 apps on more than 500 million mobile devices.

San Francisco-based Flurry says that consumers are spending 23 percent of their time in apps (vs. TV, Online, Radio and Print) but only 1 percent of advertising dollars are allocated toward mobile today. The gap exists because it isn’t easy to target the entire app-using audience. But Flurry argues that its reach and depth of data can help publishers and advertisers bridge the gap.

For example, if Nike wants to reach 18-year-old to 24-year-old women for a new shoe, their ad agency would use Flurry to buy ads, target the audience, and reach people on multiple mobile platforms using the Flurry AppSpot ad platform. Flurry uses its demographic data to target the ads at the right people and then it reports back the results about whether the users clicked on the ads or otherwise engaged with it. Because the ads hit the right demographic, they are likely to be received more effectively.

In this case, app publishes supply the inventory into which ads are served. Ad campaigns fill that inventory with ads that are targeted at particular users. Flurry’s data enables better targeting, allowing relevant ads to be shown to the right users.

"Compared to online advertising, mobile app advertising can be simpler, better and more powerful," said Simon Khalaf, president and chief executive officer of Flurry. "In online, there are simply too many moving parts between the advertiser and the publisher, including ad servers, ad exchanges, supply side platforms, demand side platforms and data management platforms. In the app advertising world, Flurry AppSpot delivers an optimal path between advertisers and publishers, adding in ground-breaking targeting and analytics."

Flurry’s backers include Draper Fisher Jurvetson, InterWest Partners, Union Square Ventures, Menlo Ventures, and First Round Capital.

Filed under: dev, games, media, VentureBeat

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Apple recognizes DVD digital copies in iCloud (R.I.P. UltraViolet?)

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 07:05 PM PST

Apple TV, DVD digital copies via iCloud

Apple will now recognize DVD digital copies as movies purchased through iTunes, which is good news for consumers — especially those who own an Apple TV set-top box.

The company recently announced an updated version of its Apple TV device that features a major software upgrade. Aside from the refreshed user interface, the new Apple TV software allows iTunes users to stream music, movies, and TV shows through the device via iCloud. However, the company neglected to mention that DVD digital copies will also be available through the iCloud service in its announcement.

Film distributors started including a “digital copy” of a movie with the purchase of a physical DVD a few years ago. It was partially an attempt to justify charging more for the DVD, but initially it wasn’t very useful for most people. The experience of watching the digital copy was a bit annoying because it required entering an authorization code to prove you actually bought the movie (if you didn’t have the code, the movie wouldn’t play).

The industry is now shifting its focus from those digital copies to a new UltraViolet platform, which allows the owner of the DVD to watch a streaming version of their movie on various authorized devices. It’s very similar to what Apple is trying to accomplish with iCloud, except most people probably haven’t heard of UltraViolet.

Now that iTunes recognizes DVD digital copies, more people are likely to start using the iTunes movie store rather than buying a DVD from a brick-and-mortar retail store or a digital copy through an official UltraViolet retailer. And that means the film companies will have to give Apple a cut of the profits instead of taking it all for themselves.

Is this the beginning of the end for the UltraViolet platform? It’s really too soon to tell, but the movie companies would do well to amend their own efforts in favor of an official partnership with Apple. For example, giving people who buy a physical DVD an iTunes digital redemption code.

Via Electronista

Filed under: cloud, media, VentureBeat

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Foursquare updates to include merchant business hours

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 05:42 PM PST

In the name of educated exploration, check-in and place-discovery application Foursquare is now providing members with merchants’ hours of operations.

The incremental update, introduced Friday, means that people can turn to Foursquare for a detailed breakdown of a venue’s business hours. The operational information, should businesses provide it, may even include happy hour times, kitchen hours, and any other special periods.

The subtle enhancement, in conjunction with newly added menu items and updates to the company’s Explore tool, helps bring the service closer to its goal of becoming a one-stop shop for location-based content. It could also prevent people from swapping over to competitor and newly public company Yelp for the same info.

We should note, however, that since businesses have to add their hours manually for each of their venues, it could be awhile before this feature becomes a standard part of the Foursquare experience.

Photo credit: f2point8/Flickr

Filed under: mobile, social, VentureBeat

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Loopt was a lemon, dropping to just 500 daily active users prior to sale (updated)

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 04:23 PM PST

A company that was at one time said to be seeking a valuation of $500 million sold three years later for a paltry $43.4 million. The company in question is none other than Loopt, and its demise can be attributed to the loss of its lifeblood: users.

Loopt’s daily active users — the folks opening and running the location app on any given day — were disappearing, VentureBeat has learned. Specifically, Loopt had as few as 500 daily active users at one point recently, a source familiar with the company’s app activity told VentureBeat.

When reached for comment, Loopt CEO Sam Altman said the 500 DAU figure is “off by orders of magnitude.”

Once a pioneer in the location-based application arena, Loopt was picked up by prepaid debit card company Green Dot in a head-scratching deal that was most likely orchestrated as a marriage of convenience by joint investor Sequoia Capital. (Sequoia has invested millions in both companies.) Based on the disastrously low daily active user figure, it seems fair to speculate that the deal was a forced merger designed to conserve capital and talent — and maybe even save a little face.

Green Dot could certainly find value in Loopt’s patent portfolio, and Loopt CEO Sam Altman, in an interview with AllThingsD, spun the sale as a way to tie location to payments. But really the exit is admission that Loopt, as an application designed to connect people, failed to innovate fast enough as up-and-coming startups such as Foursquare found more creative ways to connect people and places by way of mobile devices.

That’s not to say Foursquare will avoid a similar fate. History tends to repeat itself. The New York-based company raised $50 million at an estimated $600 million valuation last year, but has since been struggling to redefine itself as more than a check-in service. There’s also trouble at the top. Co-founder Naveen Selvandurai announced this past week that he was leaving the company. Kara Swisher at AllThingsD called the situation tense and we’ve heard from multiple sources that Selvandurai was pushed out.

With all the turmoil and turnover in the location-based application space of late, it seems fair to resurface the question of whether the genre is overrated. Perhaps location is a feature and not a business, after all.

The post was updated with a comment from Loopt.

Photo credit: Domiriel/Flickr

Filed under: deals, mobile, social, VentureBeat

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Apple sells through its entire online stock of new iPads

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 03:43 PM PST

If you’re planning on getting the next generation of Apple’s iPad and haven’t already pre-ordered one, prepare to wait a little bit longer.

The company’s website has changed the expected shipping date for the new iPads from March 16 to March 19 in the U.S and 2 – 3 weeks in the U.K. This means Apple has completely sold through the initial stock of iPads intended for online pre-orders. I’m assuming the waiting time will increase again with this news hitting all the tech blogs.

So basically, if you want a new iPad on the launch date, you’ll have to wake up super early on March 16 to line up outside an Apple store or one of its authorized retail partners, such as Best Buy or Radio Shack.

While this version of the iPad doesn’t have a number attached to its name, it does have some notable upgrades. The biggest of these is probably the device’s “resolutionary” (yay puns!) high-definition Retina Display, which was previously only available on the iPhone 4 and 4S. It also features  impressive battery life and a more powerful A5X processor.

Have you pre-ordered a new iPad yet?

Photo of Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller by Heather Kelly/VentureBeat.

VB Mobile SummitVentureBeat is holding its second annual MobileSummit 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 themobile industry. You can find out more at our Mobile Summit site.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Apple to expand Texas presence with new $304M campus

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 03:11 PM PST

Apple is planning a new $304 million campus in Austin. Rick Perry, Texas governor and failed Republican presidential candidate, announced the news today, just in time for Austin’s annual festival of Mac-lovin’ nerds, SXSW. The location will handle customer support, accounting, and sales for the company.

This kicks off a week of SXSW announcements that are soon to be flowing out of Austin, Texas. Perry’s statement said the Apple project would add 3,600 jobs in Austin, where Apple already has a large headquarters with an existing staff of about 3,500. The Texas Enterprise Fund, a state program for creating jobs and encouraging businesses in Texas, will kick in $21 million over the next decade for the project. It’s the largest amount the fund has sunk into a single company since it started in 2003.

“Investments like this further Texas’ potential to become the nation’s next high-tech hub,” said Perry in a statement.

A hipster-rich college town, Austin has a prime and growing pool of tech-job applicants. Home to the University of Texas, the city has a population of almost 700,000 with a median age of 30. A growing tech spot, Austin is sometimes called the “Silicon Hills” (every entrepreneur-town needs a catchy nickname).

Texas image via ShutterStock

Filed under: VentureBeat

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War of the wallets: Paypal takes on Google in digital money battle

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 03:00 PM PST

Paypal is demonstrating a new digital wallet at SXSW Interactive today.

At the conference, Sam Shrauger, a vice president at Paypal, revealed that the Paypal wallet will free consumers’ money to let them “connect it, filter it, personalize it, share it, and make it work for the way that you want it to,” the exec wrote in a blog post.

That’s some high-falutin’ talk, but what does it all mean?

Paypal’s wallet is a set of creative new features that will start rolling out in late May. Basically, these features will let you combine funds from various sources, divide payments into installments, delay payments until after you’ve decided you like the purchase, and more. Altogether, they add up to more flexibility for consumers.

First, the company wants to separate the purchase experience from the payment experience. This would allow you to take something home, test drive it, demo it, and pay for it later. Paypal wallet will also let you pay for a larger purchase in installments and even use different types of virtual currencies for a single purchase, meaning you could pool your airline miles from Delta, your Hilton Honors loyalty points, and a $50 Visa gift card to buy one totally awesome item rather than three semi-lame ones.

The Paypal wallet will also let you do some weird, semi-complicated financial maneuvers. You can set up sub-accounts to designate funds for specific purposes. You can set rules for different purchase amounts, and you can tie certain payment options to specific merchants, e.g., only use your blue MasterCard for Amazon.com purchases.

Paypal wallet is also bringing in personal lists, which you can use to find goods or services you want and do some comparison shopping along the way. Finally, Paypal is dabbling in what it calls “found money” — deals and coupons for items on your personal lists that you unlock once you walk into a relevant store.

Schrauger concludes that rather than competing directly with Google Wallet and linking funds to a mobile device, Paypal is trying to think about money in even more futuristic ways.

“We are reimagining money to free it in its digital form so that it can work better for everyone,” he wrote on the company blog. “These features and examples are only the beginning: moving forward, we're only limited by our ability to imagine what's possible.”

Image courtesy of PeJo, Shutterstock

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Cha-ching! Chegg raises $25M more for textbook and education platform

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 01:46 PM PST

Textbook rental service Chegg has raised nearly $25 million in equity funding, according to a form D the company filed Friday with the Securities and Exchange commission.

“The funding is led by existing investors to fuel the growth of the business,” a company spokesperson confirmed to VentureBeat.

Founded in 2005, Chegg gives students studying at more than 7,000 colleges nationwide a way to rent and order textbooks online. The service has 4.5 million users, and has been aggressively working to support digital textbooks in recent months. It also offers course reviews and homework help, and refers to itself as a “social education platform.” In January, Chegg launched an HTML5 electronic textbook reader for device-agnostic reading.

Today’s $24,983,416 equity funding round includes participation from 17 investors, according to the filing.

Santa Clara-based Chegg has more than 200 employees. The company has previously raised $221 million across a combination of equity and debt funding rounds. Investors include Insight Venture Partners, Gabriel Venture Partners, Ace Limited, Pinnacle Ventures, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Photo credit: EricGjerde/Flickr

Filed under: deals, VentureBeat

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Pulse adds local content, partners with Patch, Zagat, Groupon, and more

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 11:53 AM PST

Pulse has gone from college project to social news powerhouse in two years’ time. Friday, the blossoming business is taking a leap forward by going local.

Pulse, made by startup Alphonso Labs, has launched Pulse Local to provide application users on smartphones and tablets with local news, sports, food content, and deals, all sourced from third-party partners such as CBS Local News, Patch, Bleacher Report, Zagat, Groupon, and LivingSocial.

Pulse is a news-reading application for consuming and sharing content from a variety of social feeds and publishers. It competes with Flipboard and a smattering of similarly purposed apps, such as Zite. The application first launched in 2010 on the iPad, and is now available for iPhone, iPad, Android, Kindle Fire, and Nook, has become ubiquitous and touts 13 million users who read upwards of 200 million stories each month.

The local play will provide the application’s growing user base with even more quality content to browse in an aesthetically pleasing mobile environment. It may also establish a viable revenue stream for the young company.

“We’ve been working on this for the last six months,” co-founder Akshay Kothari told VentureBeat. “It clearly creates a very personal experience.”

People can now open the application and find local content from a variety of sources across four different categories: news, sports, food, and deals. CBS Local News and Patch are the two largest providers of local news, but smaller publishers such as The Bold Italic and Gothamist have a place inside Pulse, as well. This the first third-party distribution deal for Patch, the local news network from AOL, Kothari said.

Local deals from Groupon, LivingSocial, and Gilt are designed to be revenue-generating content. Kothari wouldn’t disclose exact terms of Pulse’s relationship with deal providers, but did say that his company is earning revenue in two different ways: for deals bought by way of Pulse and for new subscribers acquired through Pulse.

Pulse’s revenue-oriented relationships with deal partners may foreshadow future money-making opportunities. The application hinges around content provided by more than 250 partner publishers, Kothari said, and while these deals have been entirely centered around distribution, talks with publishers have started to progress to include discussions on monetizing traffic.

“We want to keep a focus on content,” Kothari said. “Even when we think about commerce, we really want to focus on how we can connect really interesting content to commerce. Advertising should not feel like advertising. It should be engaging content that people want to engage with.”

Palo Alto-based Alphonso Labs has 20 employees and has raised north of $10 million for Pulse.

Filed under: media, mobile, social, VentureBeat

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6 promising startups spotted at the Launch Festival

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 11:39 AM PST

There were quite a few interesting companies presenting their ideas at the Launch Festival in San Francisco this week.

These were the startups that struck me. (I only attended the first day of the conference.) For the purposes of this story, “interesting” means that they caught my eye. It’s not a prediction that they will become huge companies, because it’s too soon to say and there are many risks. This list is based entirely on first impressions, not my usual in-depth analysis of data and products. But I like the problems that they are tackling.

Wanderfly: Travel is one of the largest online markets with advertisers willing to spend money. Yet, no one has done a really good job at trip planning, which is at the top of the funnel. Travel is such a visual, visceral experience, yet most products focus on text. Wanderfly puts the focus on pictures. It also attempts to personalize recommendations based on the traveler. Some people only like to stay in 5-star hotels; others enjoy hostels. I met with founder Christy Liu after the show and she had a solid grasp of the space. The big challenges for Wanderfly will be user acquisition at a reasonable price and balancing the needs of content creators against consumers.

TheComplete.Me: Online dating is another market begging to be disrupted. Match.com is an old model that really hasn’t changed very much, despite big advances in the rest of how we communicate online. TheComplete.Me tries to integrate data from social networks and friend graphs to mimic some off how offline dating works. The big challenge here will be getting liquidity. The reason online daters go to match is that’s where everyone else is.

Scoot: I’m a big fan of sharing, and Scoot’s plan to put rental scooters throughout the city resonates. It’s reminiscent of bike sharing in cities like Berlin and Washington, D.C. One of the big challenges with Zipcar, Getaround, and other such services in cities like San Francisco, is that parking the cars is a real pain. Scooters largely eliminate that. The scooters are all-electric. The big challenge here is getting the scooters deployed in enough density to be meaningful. I would love to see this done like bike sharing models, where one-way rentals are supported, unlike the Zipcar model. 

City Maps: City Maps is trying to make maps more visual. Instead of looking like computer generated maps that we’re used to seeing on Google Maps, they look like the tourist maps that you might see in a hotel magazine. The big advantage here is that you can pick out neighborhoods that are interesting more quickly. The maps also include tweets and offers from nearby businesses. The challenges here are the cost of data collection and that local is an important part of Google’s strategy. It seems like an acquihire.

Rawporter: With the rise of smartphones, anyone can be a journalist. When the US Airways plane landed in the Hudson river, Janis Krums took the photo seen around the world. If he had been working for a mainstream publication, that might have won a Pulitzer Prize. Rawporter wants to enable news outlets to find people who are near a scene and ask them to take specific photos or videos. Solving the two-sided market problem is going to be a challenge. Without a network of reporters, there is no reason for a news outlet to search the site. Without news outlets searching the site, there is no reason to sign up to report.

Zing Checkout: Zing provides a point-of-sale solution to small- and medium-sized retailers. Unlike Square, it supports management across multiple branches. It also supports traditional aspects of retail point-of-sale, such as receipt printers. I thought its faux receipt with the company’s pitch was a cute touch. The big challenge here, as with any company targeting SMBs, is a high cost of sales.

Filed under: Entrepreneur, VentureBeat

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Secure file-sharing service WatchDox raises $9M

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 11:35 AM PST

WatchDox, a file sharing service for highly sensitive documents, announced it has raised $9 million in its latest round of funding.

WatchDox helps companies share highly sensitive data across across several devices and collaborate on documents in a secured environment. The service is like a more secure version of DropBox for businesses and government agencies.

Before a file is even shared, WatchDox also provides layers of security to documents to restrict how they can be viewed and shared. With a Microsoft Office plug-in, document owners can control whether or not a shared file can be printed, copied, or emailed. You can even set limits on how long someone else can access the document and track geographically where the document has been downloaded or viewed. And if someone downloads a file secured by WatchDox and then looses the device, the file can be remotely destroyed.

Similarly to Google Docs, WatchDox’s Workspace lets you create documents that can be worked on by a team of people in a protected environment. You can control who can access a specific data room, where sensitive documents can be upload and worked on by a group of people.

WatchDox’s service is available as a plug-in for Microsoft Office and Outlook, two native applications called WatchDox Uploader and Sync, and with iOS and Blackberry apps. The company is developing an Android app.

WatchDox faces competition from Accellion, which also offers secure file sharing and document collaboration for businesses across multiple devices and YouSendit, a secure file sharing service.

This latest round of funding for WatchDox was led by investment firm Blackstone, which announced it will begin using WatchDox’s services.

WatchDox has previously raised $14.4 million from Shasta Ventures, Gemini Israel Funds, and Shlomo Kramer. The company is based in Mountain View, California and was founded in 2007.

Lock on screen image via Shutterstock

Filed under: cloud, deals

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How VentureBeat plans to bring all killer, no filler news from SXSW

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 11:18 AM PST

SXSW Interactive has evolved in recent years to a maelstrom of sound and fury. This year, a million apps will launch, a million companies will make big announcements, a million hearts will be broken.

So, how best to filter out the noise, leaving only the biggest names, the best products, and the most important news? Stay tuned — once again, VentureBeat has your back.

To help you get the most of out your SXSW news, we’ve lined up a series of brief video interviews with top-shelf companies. From Google and Facebook to Ford and GE, we will have news and futuristic predictions from the biggest names in American technology and industry.

We’ve got the most relevant startups lined up to chat with us too — and yes, some of them will be breaking big news in these interviews. Since SXSW is all about the intersection between tech and entertainment, we’re talking with companies like Rdio, Roku, and Hulu.

On the entertainment and culture side, we’re also going to chat with executives from the Discovery Channel, CNN, the TODAY Show, and Universal Music Group, all of whom have flocked to Austin to demonstrate how they are bringing traditional content channels to a wired audience. We’ve also got a real live guitarist from a band that people have heard of. Holy crap, you guys.

Finally, for the truly tech savvy, we have a lineup of a few fascinating minds on the developer, designer, and security side. We’re talking to IBM’s X-Force, Github, Twilio, and one particular hacker-designer who shall remain nameless.

Between Sunday, March 11, and Thursday, March 15, stay tuned to VentureBeat to get the scoop — all the SXSW news that matters, and nothing else. It’s gonna be all killer, no filler, as the kids say, and we hope you’ll enjoy it.

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Filed under: VentureBeat

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Another batch of AOL top execs departing soon

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 10:08 AM PST

Tech/media company AOL might be cutting a number of employees that work on its communication products, like its e-mail client and AIM instant messaging service.

The layoffs, which would include two top executives, are expected to be announced by AOL soon, according to an AllThingsD report that cites unnamed sources familiar with the matter. The report indicates that AOL will cut about 40 employees, including SVP of business operations Eric Van Miltenburg and VP of AIM Jason Shellen.

Under CEO Tim Armstrong, AOL is in the process of transitioning away from its roots in the communication products and dial-up ISP business. The company’s new strategy is to focus on becoming a major media and advertising powerhouse, which has resulted in major revenue declines for the company over the past few years. Despite AOL stopping the revenue bleeding in Q4 of 2011, the company is still trying to find ways to cut costs.

AOL has had several of its top executives depart the company over the last six months, including Chief Technology Officer Alex Gounares, Huffington Post Media Group head engineer Tim Dierks, former AOL senior exec Brad Garlinghouse, and a number of high-ranking editorial employees.

VentureBeat has reached out to AOL for confirmation about the layoffs and will update the post with any new information.

Layoff image via Shutterstock/Stephen VanHorn

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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Talent crunch: New York startups start offering $5,000 bonus to new hires

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 10:04 AM PST

With big dogs like Facebook and Twitter building out their engineering offices in Manhattan, the little guys have to up their recruiting game. A band of seven Silicon Alley startups has come together to form Come Work In New York, an organization hoping to entice top tech talent to stay scrappy in the Big Apple. From its presser:

Dispatch, makers of a soon-to-launch cloud collaboration service, has partnered with YipitAviaryLoosecubesOrdr.inChatID, and Tutorspree to create Come Work in New York, a campaign to invite talented people from across the country to be part of the technical revolution that's happening in New York right now. To that end, each startup is offering a $5,000 bonus plus relocation help to attract great talent to come join their teams. The companies are looking for talented developers, designers and problem solvers eager to move to New York, a city that is quickly emerging as one of the top startup hubs in the nation.

Most of the teams participating in Come Work in New York are less than 10 people, so new hires can have a big impact on shaping the future of each company. Each team is tackling tough problems as well. Yipit deals with huge amounts of new data each day. Aviary processed more than 10 million photos in January alone. ChatID is one of the leading contributors to XMPP, the technology that powers chat for Facebook and Google.

Personally we’re a proponent of the get ‘em young, keep ‘em loyal approach. Why spend big bucks on expertise when the new Academy for Software Engineering is going to be cranking out its first class starting this September?

Image via Flickr user Blacren

Filed under: dev, Entrepreneur

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How Facebook built out its new location features

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 10:00 AM PST

Earlier this week, Facebook launched a boatload of new features for third-party apps. If you want a look under the hood, you’re in for a treat this morning.

In a new blog post, Facebook engineer Karan Mangla explains how the new features came to be.

To recap the new features and corresponding APIs, Facebook gave third-party developers the ability to add location and friends as properties to any update, photo, or link. To accomplish this feat, the social network rolled out a whole herd of new APIs and documentation. You have your location-setting API, your friend-tagging API, your improved places search API, and your location-reading API.

Mangla said the company has been working hard on beefing up Places and other location functionality for the past year and a half. Location-tagging is now a universal feature for all photos and statuses, and there’s even a new map view for Timeline, so you can see your activities represented geographically rather than chronologically, if you choose.

Creating that map was a special challenge. Without the “lazy load” type of scrolling action in a chronological Timeline page, all location data from a user had to be fetched and presented at once, which Mangal said created a huge data load for Facebook to process. To handle the issue, the team “created infrastructure to farm out data fetching to multiple servers,” Mangal wrote. “On every page load, a single server fetches the IDs of all pieces of content that can be displayed for the current user. This server then breaks up this data into smaller chunks, and each chunk is sent in a request to another server to actually fetch the data and do privacy checks. The responses from these servers [are] then combined to create the timeline map display.”

Also, to make location features more accessible, particularly to GPS-lacking feature phone users, the team built out a new location search feature that took into account places a user was likely to be that also matched up with the first three letters in a search query.

“Developing the universal search infrastructure allowed us to work around this issue and provide users the ability to search for places on any phone, improving search quality with location if it's available,” Mangal wrote. “This significantly increased the set of users who could check in to a place via their mobile phones.”

You can check out the rest of Mangla’s comments on the Facebook Engineering Blog

Image courtesy of Anneka, Shutterstock

Filed under: dev

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Suffering SXSW fatigue? Get feedback from Austin Ventures and VentureBeat

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 09:57 AM PST


Too much noise?

Are you an entrepreneur looking to push your big product idea to the next step?

Consider shutting out the noise of SXSW for a few minutes (there are tens of thousands of companies vying for attention here), and sitting down with me and some partners from Austin Ventures, one of the best venture firms in Austin. We’ll give you some calm but efficient feedback on your idea. Whether it be on your product, go-to-market strategy, business model, or technology, we’re offering our free advice, no strings attached.

For sure, this is part of our ongoing drive to meet amazing entrepreneurs, for a number of reasons.

First, on the VentureBeat side, we’re looking for great stories to write, and there’s nothing better than finding an entrepreneur with a kick-ass idea. Second, this is part of our global effort to invite the best companies to launch new technology products at our DEMO conference in April.

We’ve got time to meet with ten companies on Sunday, March 11, from 9:30am until 1:30pm at the Hilton in downtown Austin (Room 415A). This is the last call, and you can apply here.

Otherwise, a few others from the VB team and I will be attending SXSW and participating in all kinds of things. Here’s a breakdown:

  • This year, we'll also be co-hosting our own lounge at SXSW at the Hilton in downtown Austin, and we hope you'll drop by. From Friday, March 9 to Tuesday, March 13, we're inviting developers, techies, entrepreneurs, and VCs to relax, recharge, drink, and grub with us and Alcatel-Lucent's NG Connect team. Along with IDA Singapore — a program that cultivates the IT industry in Singapore, making it the premiere launchpad to Asian markets — we'll be conducting a series of interviews with hot startups live in the lounge. Our friends at Flurry will also have an area in the lounge.

Looking forward to seeing you in Austin!

Filed under: DEMO, VentureBeat

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How Thatgamecompany designed its new game, Journey

Posted: 09 Mar 2012 09:30 AM PST

Kellee Santiago is co-founder and president of Thatgamecompany, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based game studio she started with Jenova Chen. After three years of work, the company’s Journey game on the PlayStation 3 will go on sale as a downloadable title on the PlayStation Network on March 13. The game has already gotten accolades from game critics, including a high rating of 90/100 from GamesBeat. In the game, the player goes on a solitary journey across the desert to a distant mountain. The visual effects of the wind and sand are beautiful, and the story is told without any words.

Thatgamecompany’s work has drawn attention because it has avoided violence in games and is steering into emotionally engaging content that very few others in the industry are doing. In doing so, it has become one of the models for innovation among independent game studios.

Santiago gave a TEDx talk in 2010 on how video games can be considered art and was challenged on that assertion by critic Roger Ebert, who said that video games can “never be art.” But judging by the outstanding reviews that Journey is getting, Ebert may have to eat those words.

We caught up with Santiago at the Game Developers Conference this week. Here is a transcript of our talk.

GamesBeat: How is your GDC this year?

Kellee Santiago: I helped organize the Indie Games Summit this year, it’s been really great so far. I’ve been happy about that.

Gamesbeat: That seems like a lot of work, a lot of games coming in.

KS: Yeah. I was at TED Active last week too. When the first session started yesterday I thought, “I’m at another conference.” [laughs] “Oh, God.”

GB: I played the game all the way through, and the second time through with my 15-year-old daughter. She remembered Flower.

KS: Oh, wow! Cool.

GB: And my joke was, you know, you guys take too long to make these things. [laughter] Three years to make this one?

KS: Yeah, it’s definitely our biggest endeavor to date. We got up to about 13 people, compared to Flower, which was about seven people over two years.

GB: And it was about three hours, is that the gameplay…?

KS: It kind of depends on what sort of player you are, but I think if you go pretty much straight through the experience, it’s two to three hours.

GB: Is that shorter than Flower? I think I remembered Flower being a little longer.

KS: No, that’s what’s interesting. It depends. I know just anecdotally, people who have e-mailed us and such have said their flower experience was around three to five hours. Whereas I can play through it in 45 minutes. Journey takes me usually about 90 minutes, being the super pro player because I know how to go through it.

GB: So what are you guys thinking of with some of the design, when you target a short amount of time that way? Compared to shooting for a five or ten-hour experience…

KS: Well, there’s a couple of things that factor into the length of play. One is, we do want players to have the ability to go through the entire emotional arc in one sitting, so you can really absorb that whole experience in one sitting if you want to. But also, our goal is really to…

GB: Is that like a trip to the movies?

KS: Kind of. Certainly we borrow a lot from Holllywood film structure. Jenova has spoken in the past about the three-act structure that he tries to implement, and the overall emotional arc as well, of Flower and Journey. But also, we’re really searching for an experience that feels right. It’s such an intangible thing, but the flow of it feels appropriate, the contrast and comparison of the emotions from level to level have a good beat. In that way, it’s sort of evaluating it at the level I would compare to an editor, a book editor or a movie editor, where there’s certainly some ideas in mind about possibly the length of the experience, but really what you’re looking for is almost an intuitive, gut feeling to it. That the beats and the movement from beat to beat make sense. That’s our primary motivating factor. As opposed to just a somewhat arbitrary number like five hours, six hours. For me personally, the first Portal game is a great example of that, where it was maybe a two to three-hour experience, but there was nothing additional. In general, it doesn’t feel like there was anything missing, and there was no excess.

Filed under: dev, games

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