26 March, 2012



Japanese man says Google autocomplete is keeping him unemployed, gets court order

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 09:34 AM PDT

Google Search

A Japanese court has issued a provisional order today for Google to delete specific terms from its autocomplete search feature.

The decision was based on a man’s claim that the autocomplete results for his name were associated with over 10,000 negative terms, according to a report from Mainichi Daily News. The man, who isn’t named in the report, claims that he lost his job as a result of the search query association. He also apparently reached out to Google prior to taking the matter to court in October 2011.

“It could lead to irretrievable damage such as a loss of job or bankruptcy just by showing search results that constitute defamation or a violation of the privacy of an individual person or small and medium-sized companies,” said the man’s lawyer Hiroyuki Tomita.

The feature in question gives users a list of possible search queries as they type into the search bar. Google’s new instant search feature does this by automatically pulling up results as you type. And anyone who has attempted to search for something can probably attest to the humorous results mid-way through a very generic search query. For instance, I tried to type in the query “Is anyone afraid of” for a screenshot example. But the ridiculousness occurred after only “Is a” — prompting such useful suggestions like “is Anderson Cooper gay,” “is apollo 18 real,” “is Angelina Jolie pregnant,” and “is adam levine gay.” (Here’s a screenshot for proof.)

It’s difficult to assume Google is at fault here. The autocomplete results are just suggestions based on what everyone else is searching for. We also don’t know the man’s real name, which could unfortunately be associated with negative terms regardless of the situation (such as in real life).

Google is currently reviewing the court order. The company issued the following statement to VentureBeat:
“Autocomplete is a feature of Google search that offers predicted searches to help you more quickly find what you're looking for.  These searches are produced by a number of factors including the popularity of search terms. Google does not determine these terms manually–all of the queries shown in Autocomplete have been typed previously by other Google users."

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Tim Cook, distinguishing himself from Jobs, visits China for first time as CEO

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 09:02 AM PDT


Apple CEO Tim Cook is visiting China today for the first time as chief executive, with the company saying it is planning "greater investment" in the world’s most populous country.

Cook previously visited China while Steve Jobs was still CEO to look into conditions at Foxconn’s controversial plants where Apple’s products are made. Jobs himself never visited the country, which is second only to the U.S. in Apple sales, so Cook’s first trip as CEO signifies China’s growing importance and Cook’s embrace of markets outside the U.S. Cook noted in January that demand for the iPhone in China was “staggering.”

On top of being pictured by Chinese citizens at an Apple Store in Beijing (see photo above), Cook apparently met with unnamed “Chinese officials.” We can only guess as to who Cook is meeting with, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he was meeting with the heads on mobile carriers to talk about getting the iPhone and iPad on other wireless networks, especially China Mobile, the world's largest carrier by customers. Apple recently signed a deal with China Telecom to carry the iPhone, but it would really make a dent with China Mobile offering it as well.

Apple is also in the midst of a major court battle for rights to the trademark on the iPad, so Cook could be meeting with folks to discuss recent developments. Bankrupt Chinese firm Proview is trying to get the iPad banned in the country on trademark grounds.

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Mojang’s Minecraft hits 25m downloads, $80m in revenue

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 09:01 AM PDT

Minecraft Vista

Minecraft, the hit indie open-sandbox game now coming to XBox 360 in May, has made over $80M since it’s beginnings as a company in October 2011, according to a blog post in the Financial Times.

A game that’s been compared to a virtual Lego set, Minecraft has been downloaded 25 million times, with over 5 million of those purchasing the full game.

The Financial Times also notes that while, it’s still far short of the 700 million downloads that Rovio’s Angry Birds can claim, it’s been extremely profitable for the Sweden-based company Mojang, with creator Marcus “Notch” Persson sharing his own $3.7m dividends with his employees across the rest of the 25-employee company.

Carl Manneh, Mojang’s managing director, says, "The core mechanic is very similar to Lego – the simplicity of placing and removing blocks and you can do whatever your imagination tells you to do. That's the strength. The side effect is that when you build something, you have the urge to show it off to someone." There are over four million YouTube videos and podcasts of gamers doing just that.

Most of this $80M came in before the game’s higher profile of late, even before Minecraft came to iOS and Android smartphones. Lego is putting out a Minecraft-flavored building set, and the company brings in over $1M in revenue from merchandising through companies like Think Geek, Jinx, and Happy Socks. The increased visibility may have helped in some ways, and the Mojang crew continues to get offers from Hollywood producers to do TV shows, according to Manneh, who says that while they’re open to doing so with the “right idea” and the “right people,” the company focus is on developing games and growing their business.

Mojang has not raised funding through any other means than game sales and merchandising, a marked contrast to the oft-compared Rovio, who raised $42m last year to develop Angry Birds Space.

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A driving trendsetter

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 09:01 AM PDT

This sponsored post is produced by Chevrolet. As always, VentureBeat is adamant about maintaining editorial objectivity.

Note: The 2012 Chevy Volt has an EPA-estimated 94 MPGe ; 35 city, 40 MPG highway. Actual range varies with conditions.

The Chevy Volt* is unique among electric cars because it runs on two sources of energy. You have an electric source – a battery – that allows you to drive gas-free for an EPA–estimated 35 miles. And there’s also an onboard gas generator that produces electricity so you can go farther. So if you want to drive using only electricity, you can. If you want to drive using electricity and gas, you can do that, too. Hear what one proud Volt owner had to say about how the electric car has reinvented his driving experience.

Meet Billy Bell of Orlando, Florida. One might think he loves his Volt because he's driven more than 1,600 miles without gassing up. That's because through regular charging and keeping commutes within the EPA-estimated 35 miles per charge, Volt drivers are able to achieve extraordinarily low gas usage.

But for Bell, it goes beyond just saving on fuel costs. "I feel more connected to my Volt than I have with my previous cars — and not just because my phone is connected to it," says Bell. He's referring to the fact that iPhone and Android users can download the OnStar RemoteLink mobile app to check charging status, and even schedule future charging times**. He also likes the feeling of being the first kid on the block with a new toy, so to speak. Bell was the first person at his company to get an electric car. "My studio installed a level 2 charger for me and then made an announcement that anyone else that drove an EV to work would also get a free charger to plug into," he says. Since charging time is about four hours, it can get done during the work day. "Since then, I’ve had lots of people at work asking me about my car, and my coworkers love to ride to lunch with me."

Going with the Volt wasn't a decision that Bell took lightly at first, however, especially since he traded in a Mercedes Roadster to do it. "Most of my friends probably thought I was crazy. But I work in the tech industry and I’ve always been an early adopter. I’ve been wanting an EV for several years now," he says.

Now that he is an EV owner, Bell has found that being a Volt driver has made him infamous, at least for a little while. "I’d been going to the different charging stations around Orlando, taking pictures of my Volt charging up and then posting them to an album on Facebook called, 'Yeah, but where can you charge it?'" he explains. One of my photos was taken at the local zoo's charging station next to two Prius cars. About a week later, he met a new work hire, who saw the Volt model Bell keeps on his desk and asked if he owned one. "Then he asked if I parked at the zoo the previous weekend." Turns out, the new coworker was one of the Prius owners. "Needless to say, he rode to lunch with me and had a lot of questions about the Volt that day."

Beyond the perception of others, though, Bell is grateful for what the Volt does for him on a personal level. "Driving the Volt puts a smile on my face every day, and I could never go back to a non-electric car.

Are you a satisfied Volt driver? Share your amazing story here.

*Volt is available to order at participating dealers. Quantities limited.
**OnStar is standard for three years on the Chevy Volt. Visit onstar.com for coverage map, details and system limitations.

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Disney to launch Animal Kingdom Explorers hidden-object social game

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 09:00 AM PDT

Disney’s Playdom scored big with Gardens of Time, the most popular game on Facebook last year. Now the company is announcing a new title in the fast-growing hidden-object social game genre.

The new Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers game is being built by the Playdom division and is inspired by Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park near Orlando, Fla. The game shows Disney is quite serious about remaining a big player in the lucrative social gaming market, where it hopes to outrun rivals such as Zynga by using its big brands.

Players search through scenes in the game to find hidden objects.

The hidden-object genre is huge on the casual web, but mostly as single-player games. Last year, the genre appeared as a social game on Facebook with the launch of Mystery Manor from Game Insight, but it really broke loose with Playdom’s Gardens of Time, which still has 6.4 million monthly active users.

In the Animal Kingdom Explorers game, players can create and nurture their own wildlife nature preserve around the Tree of Life. They can search for hidden objects in dozens of natural scenes from around the world, from the Rocky Mountains to the Amazon Rainforest.

The game is aimed at the older female users on Facebook, but it could have broader appeal, said Eric Todd, vice president of product at Playdom and creative director on Animal Kingdom Explorers, in an interview with VentureBeat.

“We wanted to pick a theme that was more universal, and everyone loves animals and nature,” Todd said. “We went to the park and we knew that this was the game we wanted to make.”

Other hidden-object games have narrowly focused on fans of Victorian-era mysteries. But this game should appeal to those who have interest in animals, nature, and exploratory travel, said Patrick Hsieh, lead producer of Animal Kingdom Explorers.

Two of the scenes, Harambe and Anandapur, draw inspiration directly from Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park. Players can become part of the Global Wildlife Research team and look for rare and endangered species. In that respect, the game is educational. It also has a story and characters that lead the player through at least six chapters with a total of 36 scenes. The game launches in the coming weeks and new updates will be timed for Earth Day on April 22.

The market for social games is becoming a lot more competitive, and the hidden-object genre is also heating up. Rivals include Zynga’s Hidden Chronicles and Making Fun’s Hidden Haunts. To stand out, Disney chose to focus on a well-known intellectual property, Hsieh said.

“It has iconic images and themes that come from the park,” Hsieh said. “It has educational value with facts about animals and the environment.”

The art style is photorealistic and users have to find objects in a scene within a certain time period. They can challenge their friends to timed matches and build out their own nature preserves as they progress.

The Playdom team in Palo Alto, Calif., focused on details and ran them by the park’s operators. They loved the ideas and helped build out the game, Todd said. The scenes are based both on places in the park and on natural settings from around the world.

Right now, users can’t create their own scenes, but that might be under consideration for the future, Hsieh said.

Filed under: games, social, VentureBeat

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Angry Birds Space introduces the age of the mobile game blockbuster

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 08:40 AM PDT

By getting 10 million downloads in three days, Angry Birds Space has vaulted the mobile game business into the stratosphere of bonified entertainment blockbusters.

It’s hard to calculate how much money the game has generated because prices range from 99 cents for Angry Birds Space on iOS to $6 on Windows PCs. At $10 million at a minimum, that puts Rovio in a different league among mobile game publishers.

Still, the mobile game industry is still young and its revenues are still much smaller when viewed against the backdrop of other entertainment hits. If it were a movie’s opening weekend, the $10 million take wouldn’t be so impressive, as Hollywood’s The Hunger Games proved over the weekend with box office receipts of $155 million.

And in its first 24 hours, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 generated $400 million in its first 24 hours of sales on the PC and consoles in November.

But looked at from the sheer number of users, Rovio’s 10 million customers is impressive. The Modern Warfare 3 user count was just 6.5 million people making purchases in the first 24 hours. At around $10 each, The Hunger Games’ opening audience was perhaps 15.5 million people.

Worth noting as well: Rovio is selling a lot of non-game merchandise through partners such as Walmart. It is also selling virtual goods inside the game, with in-app purchases of 99 cents or more. There is no limit to the number of virtual goods purchases that users can make in the game.

All told, Rovio has reached far more users across the globe, with more than 700 million downloads of the whole Angry Birds series since December 2010.

“That’s a pretty significant achievement that has not happened on iOS or Android before,” said Matthaus Krzykowski at mobile search firm Xyologic and an occasional consultant for VentureBeat. “For comparison, it took a juggernaut like Pinterest more than one and a half months to get to such numbers.”

Rich Wong, a partner at Accel Partners, the venture capital firm that is a backer of Rovio, said that the spectacular Angry Birds Space launch is due to great execution and other factors, including the fact that there are far more smartphones and tablets in the market today than one or two years ago.

Rovio also leveraged third-party promoters such as T-Mobile, which created a 300-feet-long slingshot with a Red Bird on the Seattle Space Needle (pictured). It also leveraged Walmart, Samsung, and National Geographic for cross promotions and collaborated with NASA for publicity that raised the game’s visibility.

Rovio was able to debut Angry Birds Space on iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad), Android, the PC, the Mac, and the Barnes & Noble Nook eBook reader on day one. It is also working on versions for other platforms such as Windows Phone 7.

Andrej Nabergoj, chief executive of App-o-day mobile discovery site Iddiction, said, “Angry Birds Space is really polished game. It’s a textbook example on how to build on existing intellectual property. If the original Angry Birds was a surprising success, nothing was left to coincidence here. Deeper game play, gorgeous graphics, innovative physics, reinterpretation of the original music. But most importantly, as extremely well-coordinated and innovative global marketing campaign involving the space station, installations, etc. Angry Birds Space repositions and re-establishes Rovio as one of the leading and most innovative mobile gaming companies.”

Tim Merel, managing director at Digi-Capital, a boutique gaming investment bank, said, “It points to the strength of the brand, and in particular the potential for Angry Birds to turn Rovio into one of the first true transmedia games companies to come out of mobile. The potential for Rovio as an entertainment platform  company is very strong, and 2012 is likely to be a pivotal year for realizing that vision. Delivery on all fronts (other game types, TV, film, toys etc.) is what the company has the potential to achieve commercially, so it will be fascinating to see how” the team chooses to do so.

Peter Farago, vice president of marketing at analytics firm Flurry, said that the only thing that comes close in numbers is Draw Something, created by OMGPOP (now acquired by Zynga), which took five weeks to get to 20 million downloads.

Jeff Scott, editor of 148Apps Network, said, “It’s great that it still has such life left in it. Rovio has said that it is bringing three to four additional Angry Birds games out this year. If they continue to pull these huge numbers they may well be on their way to (their stated goal of) ‘being bigger than Disney.’”

Filed under: games, mobile

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Apple badly wants its nano-SIM to become industry standard

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 07:45 AM PDT

SIM card

How much does Apple want its nano-SIM technology to become the new industry standard? Enough to offer the design royalty-free to other companies, according to FOSS Patents.

For those not in the know, a SIM card is the tiny chip that sits inside of all cell phones. It’s the piece of technology that allows wireless carriers and device manufacturers to distinguish your phone from all the others like it. Right now, there are two SIM card designs being used in the industry: one used by RIM, Motorola, and Nokia; and another used by Apple.

While both camps think their SIM designs are better, there can only be one industry standard. Apple’s chip is smaller, which means there’s more room for components within a handset. It’s also the standard that’s used by the European Telecoms Standards Institute (ETSI).

Normally, you could chalk up Apple’s insistence on using nano-SIM to the fact that the company would stand to make lots of money through licensing deals. But since Apple is allowing competitors to license the technology patent for free, it could mean that the company really isn’t just trying to turn a profit. The only demand from Apple is that nano-SIM be acknowledged as the official industry standard.

SIM photo via 3355m/ShutterStock

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.

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AT&T confirms Nokia’s Lumia 900 for April 8 at $100, along with a slew of new devices

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 07:27 AM PDT

AT&T has officially confirmed the release date of Nokia’s long-awaited Lumia 900 Windows Phone: it’ll land on April 8 for just $100 with contract.

Additionally, AT&T is launching several other enticing devices on the same day, including the HTC Titan II Windows Phone, the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket HD, and the Sony Xperia ion.

That’s a lot of new hardware, but the real star of the day will be the Lumia 900. Announced back at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the Lumia 900 is Nokia’s first stab at the high-end smartphone market in America, even though it’s priced as a mid-range entry. At $100, the Lumia 900 will make many consumers take a second look at Windows Phone, and it’ll likely chip away at sales from similarly priced Android phones.

The announcement comes on the heels of a pretty big marketing flop for Microsoft, in which an Android user was cheated out of winning the company’s Smoked by Windows Phone platform. But I don’t think that fiasco will make much of a dent on potential Lumia 900 sales.

The Lumia 900 sports a 4.3-inch AMOLED Clear Black display — a big improvement over the Lumia 800′s 3.7-inch screen, LTE 4G speeds,  1.4 gigahertz CPU (though unfortunately not dual-core — those Windows Phones are expected later this year), and a front-facing camera for video conferencing. Notably, the Lumia 900 also features a huge battery (1830mah), which should help it survive a day's worth of heavy usage.

You can start pre-ordering the Lumia 900, which will be available in black and cyan, on March 30. A white version of the phone is coming on April 22.

Via CNet

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.

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Gree launches second U.S. social mobile game, Alien Family

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 07:00 AM PDT

Gree made a splash last week with the launch of its first mobile social game for the U.S. market, Zombie Jombie. Now the Japanese company is launching its second U.S. game, Alien Family.

The first game was more than just bait for Gree’s mobile social gaming network. It hit the No. 1 spot for top free role-playing game, top free strategy game, and became No. 9 on the top free games chart. It is No. 37 on the top-grossing apps list and No. 12 on the top games of the Apple App Store. The rollout of new games is aimed at snaring a share of the mobile social game market, which Gree and its rivals believe will become a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry in the West. Gree is already a billion-dollar company, largely due to the success of its mobile social gaming network for feature phones in Japan.

The new iOS-exclusive game takes place after a catastrophe scatters a race of friendly aliens. Players help the aliens create a paradise on Earth while searching for new friends and lost relatives. The free-to-play game has more than 80 unique aliens and social features. Players create their own alien village by building, farming, fusing, and exploring. It’s the sort of cute RPG that does well with audiences in Japan. The test is whether Americans will like it.

Gree is in the midst of a big rollout of its social mobile game platform, which will debut in the second quarter. The company plans to spend $50 million to market the platform. That’s as much money as Sony is spending to market the PlayStation Vita portable gaming device.

Gree is in a race to create a platform for social mobile before rival Japanese firm DeNA grabs its own beachhead in the lucrative U.S. market, where the mobile gaming craze is just catching on and is starting to follow the pattern of Japanese gamers.

GamesBeat 2012 is VentureBeat's fourth annual conference on disruption in the video game market. This year we’re calling on speakers from the hottest mobile, social, PC, and console companies to debate new ways to stay on pace with changing consumer tastes and platforms. Join 500+ execs, investors, analysts, entrepreneurs, and press as we explore the gaming industry's latest trends and newest monetization opportunities. The event takes place July 10-11 in San Francisco, and you can get your early-bird tickets here.

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Angry Birds Space zooms to 10M downloads in just three days

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 06:59 AM PDT


Houston, we don’t have a problem. Rovio’s latest Angry Birds game for iOS and Android, this one set in outer space, has received 10 million downloads in just three days, the company announced via its Twitter account Monday morning.

Angry Birds Space was launched this past Thursday amid a planet-wide marketing blitz and acts a sequel to Angry Birds, Angry Birds Seasons, and Angry Birds Rio. The space-y successor features the Angry Birds gameplay users are used to, except this time you have to deal with different gravitational fields. NASA even helped to promote the game before launch with a real-life Angry Birds physics demo from the International Space Station.

In his Angry Birds Space review, lead GamesBeat writer Dean Takahashi notes that the “gameplay is at once familiar and also more fun, because the space setting allows for some interesting new zero-gravity physics effects. … In the game, there are lots of small planets and asteroids, each of which has a atmosphere-like circle around it that exerts a gravitational pull on the bird's flight. If you aim a bird correctly, you can use the gravity to create a secondary slingshot effect that swings the bird, increasing its speed.”

The game made headlines on Friday when Rovio’s execs sent mixed messages about whether Angry Birds Space would land on Windows Phone. After the company’s CMO said the company had “no plans” to port the game to Windows Phone, Rovio CEO Mikael Hed corrected the record and said it actually would come to the platform eventually (there’s no launch date in mind yet).

Angry Birds Space costs 99 cents on iPhone, free (with ads) for Android phones, and $2.99 for HD version on iPad and Android.

Check out the Angry Birds Space promo video by Rovio below:

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A marketing time-bomb explodes: Android user wins Windows Phone Challenge, gets cheated by MS staff

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 06:28 AM PDT

Nokia Lumia 800

Sahas Katta, owner of a Galaxy Nexus Android smartphone, strolled into Microsoft’s Santa Clara, Calif. store on Sunday to compete in the company’s widely-publicized “Smoked by Windows Phone Contest” — but he walked out cheated of a victory by hapless Microsoft employees.

Katta, who wrote about the experience on his blog yesterday, was asked to “bring up the weather of two different cities.” He proceeded to beat his Windows Phone rival since he already had two weather widgets set up on his Android homescreen, and he also disabled his lock screen (a feature built-in to the operating system).  But even though he technically won the challenge, Microsoft employees ultimately said he lost, offering a variety of excuses.

When pressed for a real answer, one of the employees told him Windows Phone won “just because.”

We can’t confirm that things went down the way Katta describes, but his method for beating the Windows Phone Challenge seems sound. Android does let you turn off the lock screen, and it’s not tough to put multiple weather widgets on a single home screen. The Windows Phone, on the other hand, had to be unlocked before its home screen was accessible (where it had two live tiles for weather). The challenge boiled down to one action on Android (just turning on the phone) versus two on Windows Phone (turning on the phone, and unlocking the screen).

Microsoft launched the contest at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, in an effort to show how much faster Windows Phone can perform certain tasks. It has since evolved into a larger marketing campaign to show up its smartphone rivals. Microsoft initially offered a $100 prize to potential winners, but as of this weekend it has ramped up the prize to a laptop worth $1,000. (Losers also have the option of getting a free Windows Phone.)

In many ways, the Windows Phone Challenge was a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode into a PR nightmare. Microsoft employees always have the advantage, since their phones are primed for the specific challenges of the contest (Katta didn’t know he would be racing to compare weather, for example, he was just lucky to already have the widgets set up on his phone). And in the rare instance someone does beat Microsoft in the challenge, it’s invariably an Android phone that offers specs no Windows Phone can touch — not exactly good PR for MS.

“I was quite excited to take the challenge, but left the Microsoft Store in distaste,” Katta wrote on his blog. “I sure hope the purpose of this marketing ploy is to attract new customers by demonstrating the highlights of Windows Phone, not frustrating them instead.”

Katta went on to say that he’d be up for a rematch at some point. Microsoft’s Ben Rudolph, the man spearheading the Smoked by Windows Phone contest, apologized to Katta on Twitter and invited him to return to the store for another challenge.

While I’m sure some Microsoft employees will get a thrashing for this fiasco, the damage is already done. The Smoked by Windows Phone contest is now tainted, as it has turned Katta into something of an Android folk hero, and I don’t expect it to be around for much longer.

Update: Rudolph has offered Katta an apology, along with a laptop and Windows Phone to make amends. It’s a gracious offer, but the big question remains: why didn’t he offer this from the beginning?

Photo Devindra Hardawar/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.

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Guild Wars 2 challenges MMO establishment with hybrid business model (preview)

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 06:00 AM PDT

Flaming fire imp in Guild Wars 2.

The massively multiplayer online (MMO) games business is about to get even more competitive. Market leader World of Warcraft (WoW) dodged a bullet when the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) put only a minor dent into its customer base, which still sits at an imposing 10.2M. But the next challenger is already on its way in the shape of NCsoft‘s Guild Wars 2, due for release later this year.

The first generation of Guild Wars games sold over 6M units. Guild Wars 2 will not just appeal to that existing fan base. The pleasant surprise of our beta weekend experience was how welcoming the sequel is to new players. Guild Wars 2 has addictive gameplay with a gentle learning curve. The lack of a mandatory subscription fee will tempt newcomers to give it a try.

Business model: neither free nor fee

Guild Wars 2 sits somewhere in between the established business models for MMOs. When the first commercial online game worlds started in the 1990s, monthly service fees in addition to the purchase price became the norm, justified by the ongoing costs of game improvements and server operations. The emergence of the free-to-play model, where users pay nothing upfront but may make optional purchases for virtual items or services, disrupted the industry to an extent that many established MMOs scrapped mandatory monthly fees in lieu of microtransactions. As a result, the quality of free-to-play MMOs has been rising, offering a viable alternative for hardcore gamers.

Guild Wars 2 operates on a mix of these two business models. Customers must purchase the PC game, which carries an MSRP of $59.95 for the standard edition, but pay no recurring subscription charges. The game will offer a variety of virtual items for purchase instead, says Mike O’Brien, President of Guild Wars 2 developer ArenaNet: “We think players should have the opportunity to spend money on items that … offer more ways to express themselves … on account services and on time-saving convenience items … But it's never OK for players who spend money to have an unfair advantage over players who spend time.”

Getting started: map for success

A Charr character patrols the countryside outside the Black Citadel in Guild Wars 2.

Three of five races and all eight classes were playable during a recent beta weekend. Character creation offers a wide range of visual customization details and multiple-choice options about the hero’s origins. Each race has its own distinctive starting area and the action gets going quickly. My brand-new Charr engineer was immediately thrown into an ongoing battle and helped defeat an imposing boss even before he hit level 2. The early going is certainly busy, but an excellent game-world map and well-dosed tutorial tips ease new players into the game.

Getting around is a breeze with portals generously scattered throughout the landscape. Once unlocked by exploring, they allow instant teleportation. Not sure which direction to head? Talking to scouts adds points of interests to the map, someone in need of help is never far away. It’s fun just to zoom around the game world map and wonder where to venture next. I particularly liked the dotted breadcrumb line my character leaves on the map screen, it’s useful for retracing steps and just looks cute.

It doesn’t take long to stumble upon a “dynamic event”, indicated by an orange circle on the map. Any player can jump in and participate in a joint effort to fight back an enemy invasion or collect certain items spread about an area. Events are pretty frequent and usually just a short walk away; at times I found two different ones competing for my attention at the same time. They are basically surprise quests that may lead to follow-up events and can be a great way to meet new people.

Guild Wars 2 also offers adventures for five player groups working together to fight extra tough monsters, similar to WoW’s instances or SWTOR’s flashpoints. The developers are planning to have eight large instanced dungeons and about two dozen smaller mini-dungeons ready by the time Guild Wars 2 is released.

Combat, controls, tactical choices

Norn guardian casts the Tome of Wrath skill in Guild Wars 2.

Basic gameplay is standard role-playing fare. You create a character, you explore the world and kill things, get rewarded with experience points and better gear to face more challenging tasks. Depending on the class and weapons choice, characters unlock a growing number of special attacks.

In MMOs like World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic, higher level characters have dozens of abilities at their disposal, overwhelming the player with numerous hot key bars. But Guild Wars 2 limits the number of skills a player can access during battle. Building a custom deck of skills becomes an important tactical component, particularly for the Player vs. Player (PvP) endgame. Two characters might belong to the same class, but can have different play styles and abilities.

Other than that, combat feels a lot like typical MMOs. Guild Wars 2 is not an action game; the outcome of a battle is primarily determined by stats and calculations. But fighting feels exciting because special abilities can be triggered while moving around and quickly selecting the right skill in any given situation is crucial. Players also have to pay attention to each ability’s cooldown timer, which determines when it can be used again.

The graphics: you get what you pay for

There are a good number of veteran MMO role-playing games out there that are free to download. The Lord of the Rings comes to mind and now even the relatively new (and pretty) Aion is joining the free-to-play circus. But five minutes into Guild Wars 2 and you get why the developers think they’ll be able to demand 60 bucks. The visuals in Guild Wars 2 are ahead of the MMO competition. Compared to the cartoonish art style of WoW and SWTOR, the artwork here has a more realistic, detailed fantasy look with beautiful landscapes and some impressive character models.

SWTOR has spoiled us with the quality of its storytelling and the consequences of player choices. Guild Wars 2 doesn’t seem to reach those lofty heights with its “personal story” quests, but they bring a little extra drama to the game. As my character progresses, he can participate in an unfolding storyline that is told through voiced conversation scenes. There isn’t any way to influence the dialog, and I didn’t grow overly attached to the other story characters during the opening chapters.

Competitive gameplay

Trebuchet shots rain down on a stronghold under siege in Guild Wars 2's World vs. World mode.

The first Guild Wars built up a huge fan base because of the quality of its competitive Player vs. Player (PvP) component, and its heir doesn’t disappoint in that department. Upon entering the lobby for team PvP, my character was bumped to the maximum level of 80 and outfitted with proper equipment to ensure that all participants are on equal terms. Players are allowed to re-configure their deck of skills before entering a battle. I tried a couple of rounds of conquest games on different maps. Two teams are pitted against each other; capturing and holding control points and defeating enemies racks up points.

The populations of three game servers are competing against each other in the sprawling “World vs. World” maps, fighting an epic ongoing warfare on a grander scale. Every player on a server benefits if his side is doing well here because territorial control grants small percentage bonuses on gold loot and healing, for example. Because of the limited number of players participating in the beta event, we weren’t quite able to get a feeling for the full scale of World vs. World warfare. The size of the maps, the number of strategic points, and the resource gathering for building war machines are all promising ingredients for a long-term PvP conflict.

Closing comments

During my beta adventures I only scratched the surface of Guild Wars 2. The amount of content and gameplay options, combined with the lack of a monthly subscription fee, makes this a very compelling product. It should appeal to most MMO players and even to fans of single-player RPGs like Bethesda’s multi-million selling The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.

Guild Wars 2 does a much better job than its predecessor of offering interesting content for solo players and creating the feeling of a dynamic, live game world. I got to do cool things quickly with minimal amounts of irritation and confusion. Though I focused on the firearms-wielding and turrets-building engineer, the seven other character classes seem equally interesting.

I also liked that the character progress is more evenly paced than in most other MMOs. Take WoW for example, where new characters gain levels at rapid speed, but later in the game it seems to take forever for that experience bar to fill up. But taking my Guild Wars 2 character from level 30 to 31 didn’t consume significantly more time than going from 5 to 6. If the game maintains this rate, making it to the maximum level 80 shouldn’t feel like the grind that other role-playing games like to put players through.

Bonus items of the Guild Wars 2 Collector's Edition.Game performance during my beta experience was surprisingly solid, with only a few slowdowns in areas where large player groups clumped together for an event. The development team is in the process of stress-testing the server loads, so we will have to see how the release version performs with large player groups in one area.

Guild Wars 2 is supposed to be released sometime in 2012 for Windows PCs only, staring at $59.99 for the standard edition. A digital deluxe version with extra virtual items is priced at $79.99, and a $149.99 collector’s edition comes with additional physical goodies like art prints, a “making of” book, and a 10-inch game character statue.

Filed under: games

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There’s a new sheriff in town: Microsoft leads raids on big time botnets

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 05:10 AM PDT

On Friday of last week, U.S Marshalls entered office buildings in Pennsylvania and Illinois that are believed to be home to some of the biggest botnet armies on the web. But the law enforcement was just backup for the real investigators, Microsoft, who had secured a warrant from a federal judge to gather evidence and deactivate servers used by the criminals to infect people’s computers and harvest their personal data.

Since when did Microsoft enter the front lines of fighting cyber-crime? The new initiative was created by Richard Boscovich, formally a federal prosecutor, now a senior lawyer in Microsoft's digital crimes unit. Microsoft brought a civil suit against the alleged botnet rings, arguing that the criminals violated its trademark by impersonating Microsoft in emails they used to spread their virus.

"Taking the disruption into the courthouse was a brilliant idea and is helping the rest of the industry to reconsider what actions are possible, and that action is needed and can succeed," Richard Perlotto, director at the Shadowserver Foundation, told the NY Times.

The Friday raids targeted the Zeus botnet, which is franchised out by its creators to criminal gangs for anywhere from $700 to $15,000, depending on the level of customization desired. In its legal complaint, Microsoft said that the Zeus botnets had enabled the theft of more than $100 million from victims since 2007 and that 13 million computers were infected with some form of software associated with it.

Image via Flickr user aanjhan

Filed under: security

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Build-your-own-website service Wix.com adds HTML5 support

Posted: 26 Mar 2012 05:00 AM PDT

Monday, drag and drop website builder Wix.com launched its HTML5 website builder, which builds websites with video and animation for devices that don’t support Flash.

Creating a website these days is extremely easy. Drag and drop website builders for the coding inept are all over the Web, from Wix.com and Moonfruit, to Breezi and Basekit. Even popular content management systems such as WordPress and Blogger will hold your hand and help you personalize your website or blog, even if you can’t tell HTML from CSS.

Wix.com is hoping to give customers a more widely compatible website building experience by offering HTML5 features. HTML5 is important because many mobile phones and tablets, including the iPad, can only access video and audio embedded with HTML5, not Flash. If you’ve ever seen the little blue box that looks like a Lego block on a website while on an iOS device, you know that Safari on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch doesn’t support Flash. Wix.com is the first drag and drop website builder to offer HTML5 support, but expect others to follow.

Wix.com’s new HTML5 builder allows people to build websites with video and audio embedding, along with animation, such as moving images. The HTML5 support is meant to make it easier for the average person to add more complex features to their website. Wix.com claims that with its HTML5 builder, you can add customized text input, search capabilities, and location tracking to sites built using its service.

No details on what the HTML5 builder will cost, but Wix.com offers free and premium plans that range from $4 to $16 per month, so it will likely follow those pricing plans.

Wix.com is based in Tel Aviv, Israel, with offices in San Francisco, New York, and Dnepropetrovs, Ukraine. The company has received funding from Insight Venture Partners, DAG Ventures, Mangrove Capital Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners, and Benchmark Capital.

HTML5 image via Flickr user DavidMartynHunt

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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MOG, rumored to be selling to HTC, finally makes its iPad debut

Posted: 25 Mar 2012 07:40 PM PDT


Streaming music service MOG has just released a brand-new app for the iPad, a curious move for a company rumored to be in talks to sell itself to Taiwanese device manufacturer HTC.

Although MOG serves up a great streaming music product relative to its peers, it hasn’t attracted as much buzz as Spotify or as many paying customers as long-time player Rhapsody. It’s this position as a smaller player fighting a tough fight that has likely pushed the company to pursue the option of being acquired by HTC-owned Beats Audio. HTC was rumored to be launching its own streaming service, but MOG, with its deals already in place, might be an easier fit.

The new MOG iPad app takes stylistic cues from the service’s website and iPhone application. Features include the option to listen to music in a higher audio quality than its peers at 320 kbps, unlimited downloads of songs for offline play, music recommendations, personalized radio stations based on artists you like, high-resolution album art, Airplay support, and more.

To get access to the service on the iPad, you must pay for a $10-per-month subscription. Additionally, MOG offers a free ad-supported version of the service on the web, an ad-free $4.99 per month web-only subscription, and an ad-free option for web and mobile access at $10 per month.

Check out more screenshots from MOG’s iPad app below:


Filed under: media, mobile

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Square renames Card Case app “Pay with Square”, adds merchant discovery and social elements

Posted: 25 Mar 2012 06:30 PM PDT


Hot mobile payments startup Square has upgraded its customer-focused Card Case app for iOS and Android, which can let you pay hands-free at Square merchants, with a new name (“Pay with Square”) and the ability to discover nearby Square merchants.

Square is hard at work trying to disrupt the way merchants and customers do transactions. Recently, the company launched its Register app for iPad to help its more than one million merchants ditch their cash registers. On top of that, its regular Square app for Android and iOS is helping merchants take credit cards using their phones, and the Pay with Square app helps customers by speeding up transaction times.

Now the updated Pay with Square app will add more disruption to the marketplace by encouraging Square customers to visit Square-enabled merchants. Using GPS and Google Maps (see above) on your iPhone or Android device will let you see where the nearest Square merchants are located. When you tap on one of those merchants, you can also see relevant info like hours of operation, menus, specials, coupons, comments, and more.

The app also adds in social elements to viewing merchants. When you look at your merchant list, you can now tweet about a merchant on Twitter, text message details about the merchant, or e-mail a link to the merchant. Facebook sharing functionality will be added “soon.” From the same merchant view, you can also now favorite specific merchants for future reference.

Square Director of Products Megan Quinn told VentureBeat that more than 75,000 merchants have now signed up for merchant discovery. Just a few weeks ago, Quinn said, that number was at 40,000, a sign merchants are enthusiastic about taking part. “With all of these features, we’re enabling a more personal transaction,” Quinn said.

Pay with Square is available for download now for iOS and will be available for Android shortly.

San Francisco-based Square's funding now totals about $137.5 million. It last raised a huge $100 million third round led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, with the company's valuation rumored at more than $1 billion.

Check out more images from the new Pay with Square app below:

Filed under: mobile

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Yahoo appoints three new directors, despite an impending proxy battle

Posted: 25 Mar 2012 05:51 PM PDT


Lately, Yahoo has proved it isn’t scared of getting into a bloody fight. First with its formal patent lawsuit against many large social networks, and now with an act of defiance that’s sure to rile up some of Yahoo’s biggest shareholders.

Today the company announced that it’s hiring three new high-profile directors, but one of the company’s largest shareholders, Dan Loeb of Third Point, doesn’t feel that the board was taking his suggestions for four new directors seriously and he’s planning to file a preliminary proxy statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, as VentureBeat reported last week.

The new directors announced today are former Discovery Communications COO Peter Liguori, former American Express EVP John D. Hayes, and former IAC chief finance officer Thomas J. McInerney.

Given that Third Point has a six percent stake in Yahoo, Loeb had his own slate of proposed directors, including former NBC chief Jeff Zucker, former MTV chief operating officer Michael Wolf, turnaround expert Harry Wilson, and himself, naturally. He claims that his candidates each got one brief call from the current board, which wasn't even classified as an official interview.

"The Board remains open to hearing Third Point's ideas and to working constructively with Third Point, but believes that appointing Mr. Loeb to the Board is not in the best interest of the Company and its shareholders," Yahoo said in a statement. The company also stated that it was open to hiring Wilson and one other director to be mutually decided upon, but Loeb apparently rejected that offer.

It appears that Third Point will follow through on its plans to wage a proxy battle. In a response to Yahoo’s announcement, the investment firm issued the following statement:

Third Point, Yahoo! Inc’s is disappointed by today’s announcement by Roy Bostock, the Company’s lame duck outgoing Chairman, and its Board of Directors.  Since we launched our campaign for a better Yahoo!, our goal has been clear: to fix a dysfunctional Board by adding new Directors who are truly independent and squarely aligned with shareholders to increase Yahoo!’s value.

Third Point offered several significant compromises to strike a deal and avoid a proxy contest.  Today, the Board has shown yet again that they are unable to execute deals that are in the Company’s best interests.  Sadly for shareholders – who will once more bear the costs – the consequence of the Board’s refusal to accept Third Point’s shareholder-friendly proposals will be a time-consuming and distracting proxy contest that the Company can ill-afford.

The Board’s decision today demonstrates once again that one of Yahoo!’s paramount principles of corporate governance is “Shareholders not welcome”.  In the absence of independent shareholder oversight, the Yahoo! Boards of the past five years have given shareholders five CEOs and strategic plans in as many years and seriously damaged the value of the core business, a fact masked only by the increasing value of Yahoo’s Asian assets.

Since the Board has left us with no choice but to take our case directly to our fellow shareholders, Third Point intends to move forward with a proxy contest.  Yahoo!’s shareholders deserve a voice and a choice.  We intend to provide them with one at this year’s Annual Meeting.

Filed under: deals, media, VentureBeat

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Senators ask feds to investigate employers who ask for Facebook passwords

Posted: 25 Mar 2012 01:55 PM PDT

Two U.S. senators are asking the Attorney General to investigate claims that employers are asking workers to submit personal Facebook login information as part of the job.

We first heard about this strange new trend last week. Apparently, there are some human resources professionals who ask applicants to hand over Facebook login credentials, including their user names, passwords, and security questions. Others have simply asked workers to log into their Facebook accounts on a company computer to comb through their accounts later, or have asked their workers to add them as a friend on the social network to gain access to their profiles. Many people don’t want to push back against the requests for fear of being fired, or not getting a job they’re seeking.

Facebook on Friday renounced the practices and told employers to knock it off. And now it seems that federal regulators are getting into the mix.

Both senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) want to know whether the act of asking (forcing?) employees to submit their social media credentials is a violation of the Stored Communications Act, which gives privacy protection to online communications. The senators are also asking the Attorney General to investigate whether the practice also violates the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prevents unintentional access to information on a computer without approved authorization.

Since Facebook deems the practice of employers obtaining their workers’ login credentials as a violation of its terms of service, it’s very possible that it is violating at least one of the acts.

“In an age where more and more of our personal information — and our private social interactions — are online, it is vital that all individuals be allowed to determine for themselves what personal information they want to make public and protect personal information from their would-be employers,” Schumer said in a statement to the Associated Press. “This is especially important during the job-seeking process, when all the power is on one side of the fence.”

Filed under: security, social, VentureBeat

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Wait, really? Windows Live Messenger blocks all links to The Pirate Bay

Posted: 25 Mar 2012 01:08 PM PDT


Microsoft has apparently started blocking all links from torrent search site The Pirate Bay from being sent through its instant messaging service Windows Live Messenger, according to TorrentFreak.

As many people know, The Pirate Bay is the most popular destination for people who’d like to share media files — many of them illegally. And while many ISPs around the world have started explicitly preventing people from accessing the site, its unclear if Microsoft is doing the same.

When someone sends a link from The Pirate Bay through the native MSN Live Messenger app, a message appears that reads: “The link you tried to send was blocked because it was reported as unsafe.” The same is also true of third-party messenger services like Pigdin, according to the TorrentFreak report. While some torrent flies can indeed infect a person’s computer with malicious viruses, it’s highly unlikely that users would have reported The Pirate Bay as “unsafe”. That said, I don’t think Microsoft would blatantly censor particular websites on one service without doing the same on others (Bing, Hotmail, etc.).

It’s been well over five years since I’ve tried to communicate with anyone through Live Messenger.  However, if I was an active Live Messenger user, seeing messages like this pop up would make me stop dead in my tracks.

We’re reaching out to Microsoft for comment about the behavior and will update the post with any new information.

Pirate photo via Noam Armonn/ShutterStock

Filed under: media, social, VentureBeat

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Oh no UDIDn’t! Apple is rejecting iOS apps that access UDID

Posted: 25 Mar 2012 10:57 AM PDT

rejected udid

Apple is stepping up its efforts to reject any iOS application that accesses a device’s UDID, a 40-character code that uniquely identifies each device the company sells.

The UDID codes are important because they allow mobile app developers to test and track their applications. Mobile advertising networks also use the UDID codes for ad targeting purposes, which in turn means developers get a better payout. But now Apple is telling its review teams to reject any application that accesses the UDID due to increased pressure from privacy advocates, according to a TechCrunch report.

There is some worry in the developer community that the new rejections are coming too early for apps to adapt to another tracking standard. Apple first instructed third-party developers to stop using the UDID as a means of tracking back in August with the release of its iOS 5 beta — so, the news isn’t exactly surprising. However, this is the first time Apple has started outright rejecting applications that still use UDID.

Apple could avoid many privacy headaches by killing off UDID access entirely, as VentureBeat’s Devindra Hardawar previously pointed out. The company was sued in 2010 by a Los Angeles man because UDIDs were so easily accessible by apps. Also, many apps share UDIDs, along with other personal information, without users' knowledge.

If you’re an iOS developer and will be affected by Apple’s decision to start rejecting apps that still use UDID, let us know your thoughts in the comment section.

Update 11:51 a.m. PST: Kevin Dent first noticed Apple’s new rejections March 21. (Also, thanks to Gordon Bellamy for the superior headline revision!)

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: dev, mobile, security, VentureBeat

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