03 April, 2012

Google faces more antitrust claims in EU, this time for travel search

Posted: 03 Apr 2012 09:36 AM PDT

Expedia and TripAdvisor have just filed complaints about Google’s travel search features as part of a larger antitrust probe the search giant is now facing in the European Union.
Altogether, including the new complaints brought by the online travel companies, European Commission spokesman Antoine Colombani told press today that his office has received 13 formal complaints as part of its ongoing probe, which started in November 2010.
Sources for Agence France-Presse said the Expedia and TripAdvisor complaints centered around Google Flight, a new service that was only launched in September 2011. Moreover, the service didn’t include destinations outside the U.S. until just two weeks ago, when Google Flight opened trips to the EU and other regions.
At the end of 2011, Google chairman Eric Schmidt paid a visit to Brussels to meet with European Commissioner Joaquín Almunia in person. At that time, a Google spokesperson told VentureBeat the company had already turned over thousands of documents as part of the investigation and did not expect any formal censure from the EC.
The probe kicked off when several parties brought complaints against Google for taking unfair advantage of its domination in the world of web search. These parties claimed Google was decreasing the search ranking of unpaid search results for competing services. For example, the claims stated that Google might lower the ranking of a shopping and product search website while increasing the ranking of Google Shopping results.
Another allegation is that Google set a lower Quality Score for its competitors' sponsored links (Quality Scores help the company to set its ad prices; a lower score would mean a lower ad price). Finally, the search company is accused of setting up “exclusivity obligations on advertising partners, preventing them from placing certain types of competing ads on their web sites, as well as on computer and software vendors, with the aim of shutting out competing search tools."
The EC’s office should be ready to make public its findings as soon as this month. Saying a preliminary report may be completed after Easter, Alumnia told press last week, "We want to advance in our investigation but we want to advance on a solid basis, not because of a letter or some pressures."

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 09:31 AM PDT
BigDoor, a white label gamification platform maker, has raised $5 million in new funding from the Foundry Group. The platform allows non-game online publishers to “gamify” their web sites by adding game mechanics that improve user interaction and engagement.
The tools include loyalty programs, leaderboards, badges, leveling up, virtual currency, and virtual goods. And the company is also introducing today its Gamified Rewards Program. That lets publishers reward users for engagement with various kinds of rewards.  Web sites that used the new program in private beta saw a three-fold increase in the number of web site registrations.
Rivals include Bunchball and Badgeville. Altogether, Seattle-based BigDoor has raised $13 million.  BigDoor is offering different options for the level of gamification a company can implement. It has a free version for sites with less than 25,000 monthly visitors.
BigDoor has analytics and client reports as well. On average, the company says it can life user loyalty 153 percent on average. It can improve engagement by 672 percent, 355 times better social sharing, and nine times in average revenue per user for customers such as Dell and Nickelodeon. The company will use the money to expand its business.
"Improving user loyalty and engagement is one of the biggest challenges facing online publishers today," said Keith Smith, chief executive and Co-Founder of BigDoor. "BigDoor addresses this pain point and provides a mechanism for growth by creating engaging experiences that keep consumers coming back for more. Gamification is a buzzword that's received a ton of hype, but we have the data to prove that we've cracked the code on making gamification deliver huge lifts in user loyalty and engagement."

Filed under: games

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 09:20 AM PDT

Pinterest has finally confirmed co-founder Paul Sciarra (pictured, left) has left the company.
As he moves forward in his career, his next stop is an entrepreneur-in-residence stint at Andreessen Horowitz, one of the more important venture capital firms in Silicon Valley.
“Of course, I'll continue to be there for the company: now, as an advisor, an owner, and — as always — a dedicated pinner,” Sciarra writes on the company blog.
Yesterday, the rumors had run rampant that Sciarra was leaving Pinterest behind. Given the startup’s recent and rather meteoric climb to web traffic dominance and mainstream success, we weren’t the only ones who found Sciarra’s timing troubling.
“Although it's hard to imagine today, I lost sleep when we launched the first version in early 2010 over whether anyone except a handful of close family and guilt-ridden friends would ever use it,” Sciarra noted in the post. “Now,
millions of people from all over the world use Pinterest, and it's on a trajectory to make pinners of so many more!”
In his new EIR role at Andreessen, Sciarra will be advising one of the most exciting portfolios of startups the tech community has to offer. Andreessen recently raised a $1.5 billion fund to continue its investments in startups like Airbnb, Zynga, Bump, camera maker Lytro, Skype, Twitter, and yes, Pinterest.
“I hope that eventually leads me back to doing what I've done for the past three and a half years — namely, building cool things with awesome people with unexpected results,” Sciarra concludes.
Sciarra and college pal Ben Silbermann launched Pinterest in 2010. Today, the startup could be worth as much as $500 million. Members use the virtual pinboard site to pin products to collections called boards, an activity that’s become so popular even the president is doing it.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 09:02 AM PDT
Kindle Apps
Online retail giant Amazon is testing a new mobile app store service that allows users to make purchases within the app itself, according to a report from BusinessWeek.
An Amazon-branded app store would directly compete with both Apple’s iOS App Store and the Google Play store (formerly the Android Market). Amazon’s platform appears to allow both in-app purchases/upgrades as well as subscriptions, according to co-founder of fitness company Skimble Maria Ly, who has been a part of Amazon’s pilot program for about a month.
Amazon will take a 30 percent cut of everything sold within an app, Ly said. That commission fee is pretty standard for app store platforms, and it’s also the same rate offered by Apple to its App Store and Newsstand clients.
It’s unlikely that an Amazon App store with this kind of functionality would be approved for use on Apple iOS devices, as it would undercut its own business. Google’s Android OS doesn’t discriminate against competing app stores, so it’s likely that Amazon would be able to really gain some traction. Since Amazon already operates its own Android app store, presumably the in-app purchasing service would be a direct extension of that.
The biggest benefit of an Amazon app store would be in boosting media sales from owners of its Kindle Fire tablet. At $199, the Kindle Fire is a loss-leader and relies on purchases being made via the tablet to generate a profit. So, an Amazon-branded app store with in-app purchases seem like a natural fit.
We’re contacting Amazon for more information about the new app store service, and will update this post with any new information.

Filed under: media, mobile, VentureBeat

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 09:00 AM PDT

Foursquare’s place check-in is moving into new territory Tuesday. Online food ordering and delivery service Delivery.com is integrating with Foursquare so that customers can virtually check in to a businesses when they place an online order.
Through the integration, the appropriately named food and beverage delivery service will enable its customers to connect to Foursquare to not only check-in when they order on the web, but also view food hotspots, sort results by check-ins, see venue photos, reviews, and tips, and leave tips of their own.
“Shopping online has been a singular type of business,” Delivery.com CEO Jed Kleckner told VentureBeat. “There is a need and interest on the part of the consumer to understand what other people have to say about things they want to purchase … we can provide that depth.”
Delivery.com is very much a competitor to popular food ordering sites such as GrubHub and Seamless, and has 500,000 users, supports 10,000 merchants, and operates in more than 50 U.S. cities. But it has grander ambitions and hopes to assist all merchants in the perishable goods category. To that end, the company recently expanded to include online grocery shopping and already allows ordering from wine and liquor stores.
“[Foursquare integration] educates the consumer and enriches the Delivery.com experience for our existing customer base,” Kleckner said of Tuesday’s site-wide release.
Foursquare platform evangelist Akshay Patil confirmed with VentureBeat that this is the first time a site of this size has enabled virtual check-ins. But in disappointing news to those looking to stay inside and still ramp up Foursquare cred, Delivery.com Foursquare check-ins won’t count toward points, mayorships, or badges. Check-ins will, however, feed into and enhance the data pool that powers Foursquare’s Explore discovery tool, we’re told.
The data exchange is one that could add infinite value to the Delivery.com experience, and the site could also experience a healthy network effect where new customers are pulled in from the messages pushed out by those checking-in at check out.
Founded in 2004, Delivery.com is based in New York and has roughly 50 employees. The company has raised an undisclosed sum of venture capital.

Photo credit: spike55151/Flickr

Filed under: social

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 08:54 AM PDT
breezi 2
Drag-and-drop website builders are nothing new, but Breezi is hoping to shake the space up just a little bit. Breezi’s website builder is aimed at “creative types” and designers who are clueless about website building but want complete control over how their website looks.
I say the service is for obsessive designers, because Breezi provides “pixel level control” over the look and feel of a website created on its platform. Down to the darn pixel, you can control how much space anything takes up on a page, how large the font displays, how wide a column is, and anything else a designer might freak out over. True to its drag-and-drop nature, you don’t have to muck around in HTML or CSS to exert your full control.

“Breezi is a website editor for people who want pixel control. We are bridging gap between Dreamweaver and template pickers, offering website building to people who are designers, but not coders,” said Breezi co-founder Chris Anderson in an interview with VentureBeat.
The interface looks like it was built with graphic designers in mind. Certain features mimic actions you’d see in Photoshop, such as the image editor. Breezi also includes apps, which add features, such as carousels and galleries, and social networking widgets to a website.
Because even the most savvy designers needs a place to start, and no website builder would be complete without them, Breezi has several templates to choose from. And like any good old website builder, you can tear them apart to your liking.
If pixel level control doesn’t matter to you, there are a ton of other website builders out there such as WixMoonfruit, and Basekit to build a website, which all have full drag-and-drop features. Or you could also buck up, learn a little HTML and CSS, and build a website with WordPress or Blogger. Codeacademy will even help you learn HTML now.
Breezi is open to the public now and is making the service free for anyone who signs up before the end of April. The service was created by Freshout, a Berkeley, Calif. product development agency, and is self-funded.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 08:45 AM PDT

Seventeen months and 30 million users after Instagram first swept away iPhone owners with its artistic and social photo-perfecting application, the startup is finally releasing a version for Android users.
“We’re really excited about Instagram for Android as the next big step for our company,” Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom told VentureBeat. “This release brings us closer to the idea that we can help every person on earth share their lives and discover the world through a series of beautiful images.”
Instagram, for those who’ve yet to be exposed to it, launched in Oct. 2010 on the App Store and immediately appealed to those looking to transform mobile photos into pieces worthy of conversation. The startup’s 17-month fairy-tale journey has been nothing short of dreamy, a fact not lost on investors who may be in the process of pumping $40 million more into the small San Francisco-based company.
The adventure continues with the Instagram for Android app, almost a perfect replica of its iPhone counterpart. The Android app, available to those running Android 2.2 and above, features the familiar design, every available filter, and the exact same algorithms as the iPhone app has. It’s available for download today in every country and supports English, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish translations.
“We've been meticulous about translating the Instagram experience to the Android platform,” Systrom said.
But that’s not to say it’s a perfect port. Tilt Shift, the app’s beloved feature for shifting focus, didn’t make the initial release, but will make a later appearance. Also still in the dark room for now are three relatively minor features: Share from Feed, Live Preview, and Share to Flickr.
Share from Feed is the “…” button that lets users share a photo to Twitter and Facebook from the stream (not to be confused with standard photo-sharing features in the capture upload and posting process). Live Preview, meanwhile, is the rather cool but completely unused feature users can employ to preview filters through the camera lens. Less than 1 percent of all photos taken use this feature, Systrom said.
With Instagram for Android out, the startup’s broader appeal will be put to the test. In waiting so long to launch on a second mobile platform, the company may have alienated an important community of users on the number one mobile operating system.
Think on that, and then consider that more than 430,000 people put their name on the waiting list for the Android app on the day the list was launched.

Filed under: mobile, social

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 08:00 AM PDT

The Tap Lab has raised $550,000 to finance mobile games that are layered on top of real-world locations. The idea is to create experiences that “extend beyond the edge of our screens and into reality.”
Investors include the founding team of Harmonix, Alex Rigopoulos and Eran Egozy, who are the creators of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Others include Google’s Don Dodge, Mike Dornbrook of Common Angels, and other angel financiers.
Cambridge, Mass.-based The Tap Lab has spent the last year building a real-world game engine, much like Red Robot Labs’ R2, for location-based games. The Tap Lab’s first release that will take advantage of this effort is TapCity 2, which launches this summer.
Co-founders Dave Bisceglia and Ralph Shao started The Tap Lab in 2010 after graduating from Boston University in May 2009. The company was a member of the last graduating class of TechStars Boston. As part of that effort, they created their original TapCity multiplayer mobile game, where you build and defend a virtual city based on the places you visit in real life.
Much like the original Booyah game, it is a lot like playing Monopoly in the real world, where you can own various locations. TapCity 2 will let players virtually explore the entire world. Players earn points from completing tasks at the real locations and purchasing virtual versions of real products in those venues in the game.
"We believe there is so much more to location-based gaming beyond the check-­in,” Bisceglia, chief executive, said. “There is an enormous opportunity to create games that invite players to compete and collaborate in the real world.”
Dodge said he was interested because The Tap Lab is focused on mobile, social, local, and games. TapCity 2 won the South by Southwest AppCircus competition last month, and it will show off the new game at PAX East in Boston.
Rivals include Booyah, Red Robot Labs, Grey Area Labs, and PerBlue. The latter is launching its own new game this week dubbed Parallel Mafia.
“We think that location-based gaming is more interesting in the real world,” Bisceglia said in an interview with VentureBeat. “We are diving deeper by categorizing bars, restaurants, clubs and other places. We stylized a virtual venue and give players jobs based on what that place is.”
The company has five employees, and it plans on adding more. The Tap Lab is focusing on iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) for now. Bisceglia said that the original game and prototypes have taught the company what works and what doesn’t. The encouraging part was that the active users played the game for 25 minutes a day or more.
[Image credits: The Tap Lab and Kevin Rooney]

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.

Filed under: games, mobile, social, VentureBeat

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 08:00 AM PDT
Video games aren’t all about depicting violence. They can change the world for the better too.
The Institute for the Future and the Rockefeller Foundation have created an online game dubbed Catalysts for Change that helps people brainstorm about ways to attack poverty. The game invites players to share their own ideas for helping the destitute or to build upon more than 600 ideas that have been already created by 11 nonprofit groups from all around the world.
Jane McGonigal, designer of Catalysts for Change and chief creative officer at health-focused game company SuperBetter Labs, said that gaming has come a long way from Pac-Man to helping solve global poverty. This big problem affects 1.29 billion people according to World Bank estimates. McGonigal is part of a growing movement of changing the world through games.
"Games are powerful tools for breaking through the limits of our thinking,” McGonigal said. “They use competition to build cooperation, and as games spread across the Internet, they provide a great platform for linking ideas around the world for a common purpose."
By using an engaging medium that can hold everybody’s attention, the organizers hope to create a worldwide conversation on a level that has never been done before. The game will trigger real-time collaboration on issues that are relevant in local centers of poverty such as Mumbai, India. The goal of the collaboration is to produce innovations such as improved sharing of housing.
In an email, McGonigal said that the game will be played on the Foresight Engine, which her team created in 2010 as a social “micro-forecasting” platform. It takes a quick idea about the future and gets people to react to it quickly. One person plays a forecast on top of someone else’s forecast, taking the idea a step further.
“By having as many people as possible from diverse backgrounds generate and react to as many micro-forecasts as possible, you can often get to more surprising, and novel, ideas about the future,” McGonigal said.
Catalysts for Change incents a player to make a forecast that no one else has made yet. It also encourages them to take someone else’s idea one step further. To play, all you need is access to a web browser and the ability to read and write in English. Twitter streams are also available in French or Spanish.
The game includes a live workshop on April 4 with social enterprise consultants at Intellecap. Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, will moderate the forum, and the ideas generated from it will be featured in a live blog. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Rodin will start a conversation with leaders in international philanthropy, development, technology, design, and social innovation.
"The public, private and social sectors have worked to tackle poverty, vulnerability and exclusion for years," said Rodin. "While the lives of countless people and communities have been transformed as a result, the persistent level of poverty and vulnerability that remains requires new and innovative thinking.  Using technology to engage a new set of actors from all over the world will provide unique perspectives, allowing us to identify new ways to solve problems and address poverty at its root causes."
Catalysts for Change will be played over just 48 hours using Twitter-like 140-character messages. Players play their cards, which each have one idea. Participants will then build on others’ ideas. The game will offer celebrity awards. McGonigal will select the card or chain that best uses gaming principles to identify concrete concepts that could transform the landscape of poverty. Pre-game missions are available on the Facebook site.
McGonigal is a well-known developer who has worked on titles such as the ilovebees.com campaign, an alternative reality game that promoted the launch of Halo 2, and the social-issue game World Without Oil. She is a fellow at the Institute for the Future research group in Palo Alto, Calif. The Foresight Engine was used before with the engineering group IEEE to solve water access problems, and it was also used with the Myelin Repair Foundation to speed the delivery of new medicines to market.
Players can access some pre-written forecasting material to inspire their own brainstorming. These ideas have been generated as a result of a two-year collaboration. Players can also take on one of four roles: Evidence Collector, Capacity Builder, Rules Architect, or Storyteller. McGonigal says that realizing what kind of role you can take will help you become a better change agent. More than 900 people have signed up already.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 07:05 AM PDT
EU, European Union
The European Union’s antitrust Commission has opened up two new investigations that will explore whether Motorola Mobility is unfairly licensing some of its patents, the organization announced today.
The investigations follow complaints from two of the biggest technology companies in the world. Back in February, Apple filed an official complaint against Motorola Mobility for violating agreements to fairly license standards-essential patents. Specifically, Apple focused on the 17,000 patents Google will get its hands on when its purchase of Motorola Mobility is complete. Weeks later, Microsoft  filed an official complaint with the EU against Motorola, focusing on its patents related to web videos.
All the Motorola Mobility patents in question are to be licensed on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. The FRAND classification means the owner of a patent must license it to other companies for a fee because the technology is considered essential to an industry. Both Apple and Microsoft claim Motorola isn’t abiding by these terms.
The antitrust commission explained:
"Following complaints by Apple and Microsoft, the Commission will investigate, in particular, whether by seeking and enforcing injunctions against Apple's and Microsoft's flagship products such as iPhone, iPad, Windows and Xbox on the basis of patents it had declared essential to produce standard-compliant products, Motorola has failed to honour its irrevocable commitments made to standard setting organisations."
It looks sort of like both Microsoft and Apple are taking advantage of Motorola Mobility changing hands to one of their biggest rivals. U.S. and E.U. regulators approved Google’s purchase of the company for $12.5 billion in February.
Euro sign photo via Yurchyks/Shutterstock

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 06:43 AM PDT
Goodsie is a drop dead simple service for setting up a stlylish e-commerce site. Since it launched, says founder and CEO Jonathan Marcus, the service has signed up 1,200 sellers, each paying $15 a month. And it’s growing at 20 percent each month. Today it introduced a suite of premium features: email marketing, real time sales analytics, and mobile optimization.
“We cut out the whole complex CMS when it comes to making a great online shop,” Marcus told VentureBeat by phone. “So in the same way, we are hoping to cut out spreadsheets and third-party tools for people who want to scale up their sales. They will find everything they need in one place.”
Merchants can design an email campaign using a drag and drop interface that integrates with Goodsie’s backend. The real time sales analytics show who the best customers are and which products are producing the best profit margins. They also show sellers where consumers are coming from, both in terms of geography and online referrals like Facebook and Twitter.
The premium package is going for $40 a month. Goodsie raised angel financing last year from folks like Path’s Dave Morin and Techstars’ Dave Tisch. Marcus says the company’s cash flow is sufficient right now to continue to grow. “We’ve gotten by so far without doing a ton of marketing, so once we see how these new features work, expect us to ramp things up in the middle of this year.”

Filed under: Entrepreneur, mobile, social

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 05:34 AM PDT
Over the last 10 years Everyday Health has built one of the biggest tech companies native to New York, with more than 500 employees centered here in Silicon Alley. Today the company cemented its presence as the number one health site on the web when it announced that it was partnering with YouTube as the first network dedicated to health in the video giant’s new channel initiative.
“It kind of feels like the early days of cable,” said Peter Slavin, the network TV veteran and multiple emmy award winner who is heading up production of the new shows at Everyday Health. “There is a ton of opportunity here, but no one has completely sorted out how things are, or are not, supposed to be done, ” Slavin said as we chatted over champagne cocktails at a swank launch party in Manhattan’s Crosby Hotel.
Everyday Health currently reaches 30 million monthly uniques visitors, both through its own site and the sites it manages for stars like weight-loss celebs Jillian Michaels and Joy Bauer. It will now be tapping into the astonishing 800 million monthly uniques that pump through YouTube every month. “They have truly built a network as powerful as Facebook,” said Everyday Health co-founder Michael Keriakos. “And we find that when our readers land on articles with video, they spend more time, and end up clicking through to more content.”
The company has raised $153 million in venture funding. Currently it’s growing and profitable, but the real buzz is around a potential IPO. Rumor is that Everyday Health previously got all the way to the road show before deciding the timing wasn’t right. The company is likely watching the markets carefully to see how things go with Facebook’s public offering before deciding if it wants to try again.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat, video

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 04:00 AM PDT

Earlybird Venture Capital, a Berlin-based VC firm, has just raised $100 million for its fourth fund. That’s half the amount the firm hopes to raise, and it brings all Earlybird fundraising to date to $700 million.
The firm is focusing on “disruptive global consumer and enterprise internet and technology businesses originating from Europe, with an emphasis on German-speaking countries,” the firm revealed in a statement emailed to VentureBeat last night.
“The new Earlybird fund builds on Earlybird's top tier performance in adverse market cycles over the last 14 years,” said Earlybird managing partner Hendrik Brandis in the statement. “We are proud that we have been able to attract a high quality group of existing and new investors from all over the world.”
“We are deeply committed to founder success and in helping entrepreneurs build tomorrow's category leaders,” said Earlybird managing partner Christian Nagel in today’s release. “In addition to maintaining our continental investment focus, we plan to significantly add to our seven existing portfolio investments in Berlin, which has become a nourishing ground for global tech companies.”
Berlin is, in fact, becoming something of a tech hotspot. Soundcloud, which recently raised a hefty $50 million, calls Berlin home. And Ashton Kutcher has been pumping some money into multiple Berlin-based tech companies.
Already, Earlybird’s portfolio includes general tech and health-focused technology companies, among them, Carpooling.com and SocialBakers, a DEMO company we’ve covered repeatedly in the past.
Earlybird was founded in 1997 and has seen 20 of its portfolio companies successfully exit to date.

Filed under: deals, VentureBeat

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 03:00 AM PDT

Skout CTO Niklas Lindstrom and CEO Christian Wiklund
The makers of web and mobile applications for location-based flirting have landed a local conquest of their own.
Five year-old Skout has raised $22 million in funding from esteemed venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
“[Skout] is really helping people to meet new people … which is a part of human nature,” Skout CEO and founder Christian Wiklund told VentureBeat. “We have cracked the nut on providing a safe, fun, and healthy experience.”
San Francisco-based Skout, quite the Valley veteran, has been around since early 2007. It first started off as a Loopt-like location-based app but later pivoted to focus specifically on real-time, local connections. Skout launched its location-centric iPhone dating application in 2009 — a novel idea at the time. The application took more than a year to hit one million registered users, but today it adds one million new users each month, Wiklund said.
Skout is especially popular with 25- to 35-year-old busy, urban professionals in large metro areas and has impressively high engagement figures. The social application for iPhone and Android, which Wiklund likens to a mobile bar, rock concert, or salsa class, processes 300 million messages per month, and the average user signs in eight to nine times per day for a total of 45 minutes of application usage.
The five-year ride hasn’t always been so rosy. Eighteen months ago, Skout was down to three employees and its future looked rather bleak. But thanks to a combination of organic growth, paid user acquisition, and success on Android and Apple app stores, the company now has 50 staffers and pulls in enough money through virtual goods and ads to break even.
With the infusion of $22 million, however, Skout will go in the red as it spends to take over the world. The company will be investing heavily in global expansion and hiring more than 80 people to work in its San Francisco office.
“We want to really anchor Skout globally … and for that we need a big war chest,” Wiklund said. “With this money, we can deploy [Skout] very efficiently and aggressively and fork lift the whole business.”
This is San Francisco-based Skout’s first institutional round of funding. The company previously raised $4.6 million in Angel funding.

Filed under: deals, mobile, social

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Posted: 03 Apr 2012 03:00 AM PDT
When you think about PDFs — those maddening, borderline-useless, wish-they-were-obsolete files only a print designer could love — you probably think about Adobe. But at least one startup wants you to think of Nitro instead.
Nitro is an Australian-founded, San Francisco-based startup that’s all about editing, reading, signing, and convering PDFs, and the company has just raised $3.5 million.
The new infusion of cash should help the company continue its product development and marketing; however, reps for the startup tell us it’s already doing pretty well in terms of adoption. The company’s free product, Nitro Reader, has had 75 million downloads and gets around 3 million unique users each month.
However, around 150,000 paying customers have upgraded to Nitro Pro, the startup’s PDF creation and editing suite. The Nitro spokesperson tells VentureBeat that today’s funding will help the company double in size by the end of 2012.
Here’s a brief demo video showing how Nitro Pro works:

So, where’s Nitro heading next? If you enthusiastically hollered, “Into the cloud!” you’d be right. Part of this new round of funding is intended to take Nitro from a downloadable software suite to a cloud-based business collaboration workflow for the enterprise. Buzzword-eriffic!
Nitro was founded in 2005. This is the startup’s first institutional round of funding; until now, the 50-employees-strong company was bootstrapped.
Today’s funding comes from Starfish Ventures, a venture capital firm with roots in Australia. Starfish’s portfolio centers on life sciences, green startups, and tech companies, including design marketplace DesignCrowd, integrated circuit-maker g2 Microsystems, and Space Time Research, which (we were somewhat disappointed to learn) is not a time-travel outfit but rather a Big Data startup with an eye on the enterprise.

Filed under: deals, VentureBeat

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 10:32 PM PDT

How is Square taking on the threat of PayPal, Google, and an increasing roster of mobile payments competitors? Judging from the news today, it’s hiring a bunch of smart folks.
The credit card reader company has brought on board the co-founding engineer of Google Wallet, Rob von Behren, as well as former Tesla and YouTube communications head Ricardo Reyes, the NFC Times and Businessweek report. The moves follow Square’s recent hiring of former PayPal VP Alyssa Cutright.
But Google isn’t sitting still when it comes to Google Wallet. The company announced today that it’s acquiring payments company TxVia, bringing with it over 100 million payments accounts, which will certainly be a big help to Google Wallet.
Both the Square hirings and Google’s purchase are clearly meant to fill gaps within their businesses. Square needs as many smart payments minds as it can find as it fights for legitimacy and mind share against the likes of PayPal Here and Intuit GoPayments. Square has done a great job of drumming up hype for its credit card reader, but now it needs to further innovate to keep up (for example, the company recently rolled out new encrypted readers). By bringing on Von Behren, Square could be signaling more interest in near-field communications technology.
Google, meanwhile, desperately needs to make Google Wallet more robust and encourage more users to sign up for it. Google VP of Wallet and Payments Osama Bedier writes about the purchase:
Since 2008, TxVia has supported the management of more than 100 million accounts. They've partnered with the industry's best known brands, and their leadership team has played an instrumental role in defining the fast-growing prepaid card segment of emerging payments. In this time, TxVia has also certified and directly connected to the major payment networks, which establishes a solid foundation for Google Wallet and our partners to drive innovation on a global scale and in a partner friendly way.
It’s certainly not a good sign that Google keeps losing Google Wallet engineers. In addition to Von Behren, Google also lost Wallet co-founding engineer Joshua Wall and product lead Marc Freed-Finnegan, who went on to build their own mobile payments startup, Tappmo. The defections show that there’s an internal lack of faith surrounding Google Wallet, which thus far is only available on a few NFC-enabled Sprint phones.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 09:01 PM PDT
Kinect Star Wars has been in the works for a long time.
When Microsoft first demonstrated the Kinect motion-sensing system in June 2010, it showed off the Star Wars game as a work in progress. The game made another appearance in a live demo at E3 in June 2011. Kinect Star Wars drew a lot of attention because it had mainstream appeal across generations and was also something that the hardcore gamers could latch onto as a final test as to whether Kinect could really work as advertised.
In the game, you can wield lightsabers by swinging your arm around in faux combat with evil Sith warriors, Trandoshan lizard men, or combat droids. The aim is to make you feel like a real Jedi Knight. Developers Terminal Reality, Good Science, and Microsoft Studios worked hard on this game for years to fulfill the promise of motion-sensing gameplay.
Like many other fans in the galaxy, I was willing to overlook little problems. After all, I grew up with Star Wars, and I share the common fantasy of one day becoming a Jedi Master. Unfortunately, Kinect Star Wars wasn’t worth the wait.
This flagship game confirms what I already knew about Kinect: It just doesn’t work good enough to be as fluid and magical as it should be. Kinect isn’t accurate at sensing your movements and translating them into precise controls. The sad thing is that this title had a lot of potential for a mass audience. Who wouldn’t want to swing around a lightsaber and pretend to have Jedi powers? But the game just tries to be too many different things — a fun party game, a casual kids title, and a serious game for hardcore players and adults — and doesn’t deliver on all of them.

Good exercise
If any game forces you to get off the couch, this one is it. Playing Kinect Star Wars for hours at a time is physically taxing. I recorded a few thousand steps on my counter after playing for a couple of hours. I was sweating profusely by the end of it, and that was even with the frequent breaks that come with load screens. In fact, I was never so pleased to see load screens in my life so that I could get a break. It is fun enough to keep you in constant motion.
With Kinect Star Wars, the control that works the best is jumping; you can vault up into the air, do a spin, and then land behind your enemy. That’s a lot easier to do than picking up an object and tossing it, and the animated result is far prettier than what you actually do in your living room.
The exertion is considerable. In the middle of a fight with a lot of battle droids, you don’t get a break. That exercise may be good for gamers, but it may turn off some. And even the gamers who like it need a break. It’s better to trade off players if you can. I got my 12-year-old to substitute for me when I was out of breath. But when she got winded, I had to take her place.
The good thing is that I was motivated to continue playing because it was good exercise and because the exercise seemed like fun. The problem is that not everybody is going to feel the same way about saying goodbye to the couch.
An easy user interface
Kinect Star Wars is relatively easy to learn how to use. You stand in front of the TV and camera, wait for it to recognize you, and then you jump into the game. If you want to pause at any point, you simply walk out of the camera’s view. The game pauses and then waits for you to return. The only problem is that it takes a while for Kinect to recognize you when you walk back in.
When you go into battle, everything is intuitive. If you want to swing at an enemy, you swing at them. If you want to kick them, you kick with your foot. To drive something, you hold your arms out forward. You don’t have to go through an endless tutorial or wade through a manual. A five-year-old could pick it up quickly.
Entertaining mini-games
Kinect Star Wars justifies its existence through its mini -games. You can play two-player or single-player games in short bursts of time. These fun distractions include podracing, which allows you to race through the canyons like Anakin Skywalker did in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Another mini-game is Duels of Fate, where you can battle with imperial foes one-on-one with your lightsaber, working your way up to Count Dooku and Darth Vader. You can also play Dance-Off, a Dance Central clone game where you try to match the moves of dancers. And you can rampage through a city as a Rancor monster on the loose.

I had the most fun in the Rancor Rampage mini-game (pictured above). You are a monster who has escaped from the pit under Jabba the Hutt’s fortress on Tatooine. The Rancor stomps over to Mos Eisley and wreaks havoc, destroying everything in sight from Imperial troopers to buildings. You pull on the ground in a crouch to make the Rancor run. You bring your arms down to smash the ground. You can pick up civilians and toss them around. It is extremely bad behavior and a lot of fun if you have a frustrating day. Eventually, the Imperial forces will close in on you and take you out, or the time will run out. You can destroy Naboo, Mos Espa, Mos Eisley, and Felucia with one of four different Rancors. If you want to sweat and go crazy, this is your mini-game.
The Podracing game is a basic racer. You hold your arms in front of you and then drive the Podracer. You raise an arm to turn one direction or the other. The canyon speeds by at a fast pace, but the visuals don’t look that good. You can compete in six races across five planets: Tatooine, Felucia, Utapau, Bespin, and Coruscant. You can unlock multiple pilots and Podracers including a secret pilot, Sebulba. It’s not a particularly deep experience and qualifies much more as a part of the casual game than the hardcore racing simulation. I found it boring after just a few minutes of play.
The Duels of Fate lightsaber fighting could be a lot of fun, if the Kinect controls worked better. I had a hard time getting the gestures right. In the duels, you can’t just swing in free-form combat. You have to block your opponent’s moves and then take your turn attacking. It’s an incredibly rigid and repetitive form of combat, and it takes all the art and magic out of being a Jedi.
I was able to block overhead and right-hand strikes easily. But Kinect rarely got it right when I was trying to block a low strike or a strike coming in on my left side. When you lock swords, the natural thing to do is a Force push with your free hand. But you can’t do that. Instead, you have to push back with your body at the enemy, forcing them to step back. After ten minutes, you will know all the moves and get bored trying to do more.
Galactic Dance Off turned out to be a refreshing surprise as a mini-game. In it, you are a performer, dancing for your life in front of Jabba the Hutt and his palace entourage. You start with a funny song, I ain’t no Hologram Girl, which is a parody of Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl.
“I heard you were doggin’ ships, and you didn’t think that I would hear it. People hear you bragging like that, get the engine binders fired up.”
The hilarious lyrics made me laugh, and it was amusing to see Princess Leia strut in her slave girl outfit. You have to compete against Leia for the most points scored while dancing. As with MTV’s Dance Central video game series, you match the moves of the dancers as accurately as you can. You can dance in Jabba’s palace, in Bespin (the Cloud City), Coruscant, and on the Death Star. It’s cute to see the Star Wars family of characters strut to the music. This is one of those rare intersections where both kids and adults can have a lot of fun. Accuracy helps in this part of the game, but Kinect does a good job recognizing your whole body’s movements, so bad controls don’t hamper you here.
Because these mini-games are fun, the title lives up to the goal of being entertaining for family or party players. Kids will probably like it a lot.

Variety of combat
Another thing to like about Kinect Star Wars is the variety of experiences it offers in terms of gameplay. You can swing a lightsaber, pick up enemies with the Force and push them into walls. You can drive podracers, landspeeders, and speeder bikes. And you can be a gunner in a Millennium Falcon-like spaceship, shooting down Trade Federation fighters. Whenever you get close to being winded by doing one form of combat, the game’s story changes course and forces you to learn something new. That keeps you from getting too tired from physical exertion.
Of all the different ways of fighting, I liked the space combat the best. It was easy to do. You simply hold your arms out and move the target reticle over an enemy. Firing is automatic. You can wipe out masses of enemies simply by sweeping your arms back and forth. One part where you had to dodge different closing doors was pretty cool, and it actually took some skill. But space combat was a relatively short part of the game, and it wasn’t enough to make the whole experience memorable.
The problem with the space combat was that it was entirely on rails. You had no freedom to maneuver or fly yourself. That’s a pretty limited experience, and I’ve seen it done better in many other places. The developers clearly had to dumb down the controls because of the Kinect’s limitations. Piloting vehicles is clearly not one of Kinect’s strengths. Still, it works well enough and rewards you with cool explosions.

Inaccurate Kinect controls
The heart of the game is swinging a lightsaber. If you are right-handed, you use your left hand to wield The Force, picking up enemies and tossing them aside. You swing at enemies with your right hand. You can also kick enemies or jump up in the air. When you jump, your character does a flying leap over an enemy and lands on his or her feet, ready to attack from behind. If you play in cooperative mode, then you can pick up an enemy and someone else can take it out. As I mentioned, the easiest move for Kinect to recognize and get right is the jump.
When Kinect first appeared, I cut it some slack. Games such as Dance Central were so cool that I tolerated a lack of accuracy. But this deep into the cycle, the developers still haven’t mastered matching the Kinect controls with player ability. The system rarely recognized my gesture when I tried to kick. In any given fight, the system will miss one or two of your strikes. In combat, that’s pretty bad. It could cost you your life if the game weren’t so forgiving.
Since this game took so long to make, I expected Kinect to work flawlessly. I guess we’ll have to wait for Kinect 2 for that to happen. If you couple the inaccurate controls with some tasks that aren’t so easy, the result is frustration.
For instance, as you fight on Kashyyk (the Wookiee planet), you have to deal with these giant, spider-like machines. As you pass by them, you have to toss a bomb that attaches to the spider’s metal leg and blows it up. The problem is that, with Kinect, you have no idea exactly when and where to throw the bomb. You have to die over and over again and guess at the appropriate moment. The game has many sequences like this.

A lousy story
The story is entitled Dark Side Rising, and it involves a group of Padawans, or youths who are training to be Jedi. They arrive on Kashyyk to learn how to use the Force. The training session is mercifully brief, but it exposes many of the flaws such as inaccurate Kinect controls and relatively primitive animations of characters. The campaign goes on for maybe four hours, but it’s mostly action and not a lot of fun.
The Padawans, led by the trained Jedi Master Mavra Zane and Yoda, are thrown into combat as the reptilian Trandoshans invade the planet. The youths unravel an evil plot to draw the Galactic Republic into a war. The fighting moves from the forests of Kashyyk to the jungles of Felucia, into space, and then the Core World Coruscant. Along the way, you take out a million combat droids and Trandoshans, and the boss fights range from Sith lords to blowing up reactor cores.
There was absolutely nothing entertaining or moving in this story. You had to follow Master Zane. But your character, a Padawan customized to your own choosing, has no lines of dialogue. That’s right, your character doesn’t speak. By default, you are the central player in the game, and you don’t talk. It’s a silly design choice, and it shows just how half-hearted an attempt at a story this is. Your fellow Padawans also say nothing during the game.

Dull enemies
In casual mode, the enemies are incredibly easy to kill. Since the game is aimed at kids and adults, there usually isn’t a satisfying kill scene when you do finish off your opponent. (You’ll have to wait for the R-rated version of Star Wars to come out first). When you run into a tougher battle droid, you can usually finish it off by jumping and then slashing repeatedly.
When you finally have to deal with some Sith lords, the battles gets harder. Still, they don’t really taunt you. These boss fights are frustrating because of the constrained Jedi duels and the inaccuracy of Kinect. The only thing that stops you from pounding the enemies into complete and utter submission is that the game tires you out. One of the silliest missions is when you have to pick up some objects and toss them at something. The process is so inaccurate that it slows down the pace of the combat to a crawl.

Bad animations, bad dialogue and nondescript characters
The animations of duels are augmented so that you look a lot more heroic than you otherwise would. And it’s true that the Jedi do move in cool ways, and that makes you feel like you’re moving around a lot more than you really are. But every few moments, a horribly bad animation of a character in motion will remind you that you’re in a game and not a true Star Wars fantasy. The faces of the characters are cartoon-like, and they’re so bad that they make the somewhat lousy faces in Mass Effect 3 look truly amazing. Very few of the characters in the game actually say anything.
Mavra Zane is the main character of the story part of the game, but she is simply a bossy Jedi with no real personal nuances. She leads you into battle and tells you where you have to go next. In that respect, she’s nothing more than a hotel concierge. Her lines might as well be, “This way to your next battle sir. I would say something interesting but my developers have prohibited him from doing so.” The character with the next-largest number of lines is a C-3PO-like character who is exceedingly annoying.
The game has some glitches. I once jumped over a barrier and got to a spot where I wasn’t supposed to be yet. That was because there was a battle droid waiting to be killed on the other side of the barrier. I had to maneuver my way back to the other side of the barrier, kill the droid, and then move on.
3D viewing
You can watch the game in a stereoscopic 3D mode. But this part is a gimmick. Don’t spend your money on it if you don’t already have either a 3D TV or 3D glasses. The 3D makes the whole experience blurry and disorienting.
Kids may be happy with this game. And if you want to break it out for a party, the Dance Off game is funny. It’s so rare to find a game with a sense of humor in it these days. The Rancor Rampage is quite entertaining. And so this Star Wars title has enough redeeming qualities to satisfy people who are in love with the George Lucas property.
But the writing in the main story put me to sleep. And the Kinect controls are so inaccurate that they take you out of what should be a magical fantasy experience. Clearly, more time wouldn’t have helped this game. Better writers might have salvaged it, but it amazes me that no one told the team to start over and get it right.
Score: 70/100
Kinect Star Wars was released on April 3, 2012 for the Xbox 360. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Filed under: games

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 09:01 PM PDT
Israeli social and mobile game startup Dragonplay has raised $14 million in a first round of funding. The investors are Accel Partners, Entrée Capital, and Founder Collective.
This is a large amount of money for a Series A funding for a mobile and social game startup. But Accel has made big bets before, such as its $42 million investment in Angry Birds publisher Rovio and its early investment in Facebook. It has also invested in game companies Playfish, Gameforge, and Mindcandy.
Tel Aviv-based Dragonplay is making multiplatform games that run on both social networks and on mobile platforms. The company is focusing on card, casino, and board games and is best known for Live Holdem Poker Pro. That game has more than 12 million installs on Google Play (the former Android Market) and 2 million monthly active players. The category is a hot one because of the chance that online casino games could become legalized gambling outlets at some point in the future.
Chief Executive Sharon Tal founded Dragonplay in 2010 with seed capital from Entrée Capital. The company will use this recent investment to expand on Android and Facebook and has already moved early into the Android market. It has launched three free-to-play apps in the last 12 months: Live BlackJack, Farm Slots, and Sea Battle.
“The Accel team has backed some of the most admired gaming companies in the world," said Tal. "We are proud to be joining its portfolio and look forward to working with the team to make Dragonplay a truly global, cross-platform leader in our space."
Dragonplay has 23 employees.
"Dragonplay benefits directly from the spectacular growth of Android (estimated at more than 800,000 new activations per day), the emergence of smartphones as a primary gaming platform, and the impressive growth of the virtual goods market" says Adam Valkin, partner at Accel Partners who has joined the board of Dragonplay.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 07:21 PM PDT
Another cog has fallen into place for the music and movie industries’ plan to transform major internet service providers into a copyright violation task force.
Today ISPs and media companies announced new plans for the Center for Copyright Information (CCI), a joint organization set up to curb illegal downloading and streaming of copyrighted content. Former lobbyist head Jill Lesser was named the organization’s executive director. The CCI’s six main directors all have ties to either ISPs or entertainment companies, but it’s advisory board does feature several tech/privacy advocates, including Public Knowledge CEO Gigi Sohn, iKeepSafe.org President Marsali Hancock, Internet Education Foundation Chairman Jerry Berman, and others.
Both the Recording Industry Association of America and Motion Picture Association of America met with several ISPs last July to discuss voluntary policies to discourage internet subscribers from illegally downloading music, movies, video games, and other software. The ISPs participating in the anti-piracy measures — Comcast, Cablevision, Verizon FiOS, Time Warner Cable, and others — should be ready to implement the new policies by this summer. Those policies include having each ISP set up its own method of tracking subscribers’ internet activity as well as setting up the CCI.
The CCI will support a new anti-piracy initiative called “graduated response”, which allows media companies to contact ISPs about users suspected of piracy and allows ISPs to subsequently send notices to educate those users about the consequences of copyright infringement. Users who are repeatedly notified can face suspension of their Internet service, bandwidth throttling, and “other measures that the ISP may deem necessary to help resolve the matter,” according to the CCI. Anyone who feels they have wrongly been accused of piracy can appeal by requesting an independent review of their internet activity, which costs a cool $35.
In regards to the graduated response initiative, Lesser said she plans to focus on “education and deterrence, not punishment.” That’s somewhat comforting, but ultimately we’ll have to see how the group operates once everything is set in motion this summer.
Authority figures photo via auremar/Shutterstock; Via Ars Technica

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 06:24 PM PDT
In the wild world of the app economy, there is an overwhelming concern about the cost of bringing users to apps. Budgets can be in the millions now for marketing an app launch, but execs from Iddiction and Tapjoy said at VentureBeat’s Mobile Summit 2012 today that it doesn’t have to cost that much to bring in new users.
Lead GamesBeat writer Dean Takahashi sat down with Iddiction CEO Andrej Nabergoj and Tapjoy VP Chris Akhavan to talk about user acquisition at the Mobile Summit event. Both Iddiction, which focuses on providing a platform for app discovery, and Tapjoy, which focuses on in-app advertising and discovery, have realized strategies for grabbing users’ attention and pushing them toward deserving apps for less money.
Tapjoy especially has been in the middle of the conversion about user acquisition since Apple banned lucrative pay-per-install apps, which Tapjoy had been pushing, about a year ago. Tapjoy changed some of its strategies to push Android apps instead and created a $5 million Android Fund to help game developers port their apps to Android.
Akhavan said that its Android Fund has been quite successful in helping promote and build a new generation of Android apps. He noted that with Tapjoy behind these small and mid-size players, they are able to grab users for much less than one of the big developers. “We’re figuring out the most cost-effective way to target your audience,” he said.
Iddiction CEO Nabergoj, on the other hand, stressed that his company is helping developers by providing a platform for building apps and giving them analytics. “We’re trying to build an exchange for developers and help expose their apps for free,” Nabergoj said.
Tapjoy’s Akhavan said that while Google has done a good job with app placement, it could do better. In the future, he said, targeting will greatly improve and companies like his will be able to help developers acquire more users.
“In the future, availability with targeting will be more prevalent,” Akhavan said. “You’ll be able to target by gender and be more relevant to target your audience. And of course, privacy will remain an important concern in this.”
Iddiction’s hope for the future is that the mobile industry’s biggest players will have better standards. “This is still a primitive time,” Nabergoj said. “There are not the same opportunities for everyone. Doodle Jump was able to build a massive brand without any marketing, but companies don’t often get to shine like that.”
Mobile Summit 2012 photo: Heather Kelly/VentureBeat

Filed under: mobile

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 05:25 PM PDT

StumbleUpon kicked its turnaround into higher gear Monday with the hire of its first-ever vice president of sales.
Teal Newland, a former Digitas executive and Disney brand strategist, has joined the long-running web discovery engine and will oversee StumbleUpon’s advertising sales efforts, the company announced Monday.
StumbleUpon, the random click-to-uncover-the-web service, is a startup created by Garrett Camp, Geoff Smith, and Ram Shriram. The site first launched in 2001, was acquired by eBay (where it nearly lost all relevance) in 2007 for $29 million, and then was sold back to its original founders in 2009.
The then newly independent company fought its way back from obscurity, landed $17 million more in funding, and surpassed 20 million users in October of last year. The reborn startup says it now serves more than 1.2 billion content recommendations each month.
As a popular serendipitous content discovery aide, StumbleUpon has managed to attract 75,000 brands, publishers, and marketers to its Paid Discovery platform. The ad product, akin to Facebook’s Sponsored Stories offering, allows advertisers to promote and target their content in a holistic, site-appropriate fashion.
Newland, who has the hook-up with big brands such as Delta and Intel through her former Digitas gig, has been brought on board to hawk the Paid Discovery platform and help the now 11-year-old company bring in more revenue.
StumbleUpon has offices in San Francisco and New York. Newland will be based in the New York office. The company declined to disclose revenue information.
Photo credit: StumbleUpon

Filed under: media, social

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 04:56 PM PDT

Get used to the term “chief design officer,” because they’ll soon be even more important to companies than chief marketing officers, according to Marc Curtis, chief customer officer of design firm Fjord.
Speaking at VentureBeat’s Mobile Summit event, Curtis said design is now experiencing a similar revolution to marketing decades ago. The chief marketing officer, or CMO, rose to power because consumers began to eat up marketing as much as actual content.
“We’re beginning to see the very best products marketing themselves through design,” Curtis said. Indeed, we need only look at Apple’s huge jump in value, mostly due to the company’s design focus under late CEO Steve Jobs.
He recounted one experience during a fire drill where he noticed all the Mac users grabbed their laptops, whereas he didn’t see any Windows PC user do the same. “Apple users aren’t prepared to see their devices burn,” he said.
Curtis pointed out how Microsoft and Nokia’s partnership, which unified their individual focus on great software and hardware design, helped both companies create devices (the Lumia 800 and 900) that could finally take on the iPhone.
Design will become so important, Curtis says, that chief engineers will eventually be reporting to chief design officers (again, think Apple).

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 04:34 PM PDT
kids playing with tabletAt VentureBeat, we come across a lot of funding news every day. In order to bring you the most information possible, we're rounding up the quick-and-dirty details about the funding deals of the day and serving them up here in our new "Funding daily" column.

YogiPlay raises $1 million for kid-friendly games

YogiPlay provides a platform of mobile games for kids three to eight. Parents can monitor their kids’ activities and kids can play on their parents’ phone or tablet with the platform. The company is still in stealth but announced today it has raised $1 million in seed funding from DN Capital and Richmond Park Partners.

Plink grabs cash for offline Facebook Credits loyalty programs

Monday, Plink announced the closing of a $633,000 round of funding at a $5 million valuation. The company creates loyalty programs for restaurants and retailers that earn shoppers Facebook  Credits. Angel investors Matomy Media Group and Ahlborg Acquisitions led the round.

MoeDelo raises $4M for accounting services

Russian SaaS accounting service company MoeDelo raised $4 million Monday from Klever Internet Investments Limited. The company provides bookkeeping services to small businesses in Russia.

Funding Circle secures funding for crowd investing

Funding Circle has raised $16 million of funding to facilitate crowd investments for startups from anyone, not just accredited investors. The company connects small businesses with anyone who would like to invest in them. Index Ventures and US-based Union Square Ventures led the round.

Sapphire Energy gets $14 million for algae-based fuel

Sapphire Energy just announced a whopping $144 million in funding. The company coverts algae into a petroleum replacement that can be used in existing gas tanks. Monsanto, Arrowpoint Partners and other private undisclosed investors led the round.

2tor nabs $26M for online degrees

Online degree program 2tor announced a new $26 million round of funding Monday. The company partners with universities to offer online courses and degree programs. The round was led by Tondern Capital, an affiliate of Hillman Ventures, with participation from existing investors Bessemer Venture Partners, Highland Capital, Redpoint Ventures, Novak Biddle Venture Partners, and City Light Capital.
If you've got funding news to report, send it our way at tips@venturebeat.com.
Girls playing with tablet image via Shutterstock

Filed under: deals

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 04:12 PM PDT

On the road to redemption, social app maker Path is releasing version 2.1.1 of its mobile app and will now protect the privacy of its users by hashing user contact data.
In February, private social network Path was caught with its hand in the contacts cookie jar and was found to be uploading members’ address book data to its servers. The company became the poster child of a social app data privacy scandal that attracted the ire of Congress.
Path, rumored to be closing a $20 million round of funding, now hopes it can wash away the stain with a far more righteous approach to friend-finding.
“With the release of Path 2.1.1, we are enhancing our security by hashing user contact data so that it is anonymized,” Path said in a blog post Monday. “This means last names, phone numbers, email addresses, Twitter handles and Facebook IDs. We collect this data to connect you with those who are closest to you.”
The hash approach, as VentureBeat detailed in a post on apps accessing data, is a an alternative to sending and storing private user data. A company can compare hashes, rather than the full text of phone numbers and email addresses, to make friend matches without needing to “see” the actual names, numbers, or email address of members' contacts.
“This enabled us to implement the same 'Find Friends' functionality that so many apps nowadays use without compromising the privacy of the address book,” Forkly co-founder and hash system proponent Martin May said at the time of the Path scandal. “It's pretty easy to replicate … It's not very complicated,” May told VentureBeat.
“We hope our actions set a new standard in this field as we strive to serve you, our users, first,” Path said.
Photo credit: B Tai/Flickr

Filed under: mobile, social, VentureBeat

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 03:18 PM PDT
oddwerx robots
If you ever thought that what your iPhone is really missing is a robotic body, you’re in luck. OLogic just launched a Kickstarter campaign for an autonomous smartphone robot that can move around and interact with other phone-bots.
OLogic developed the modular, wireless, and hackable robots, called Oddwerx, last year at Google I/O. Now the company is hoping to mass market them, which is why it turned to Kickstarter. The crowdfunding platform has launched a lot of products, and OLogic is hoping Oddwerx will be another success story. The Kickstarter campaign ends April 24 and still has more than $50,000 to go to reach the $66,000 goal.
If you give $100 to the Kickstarter project, you’ll get a kit to build a robot and an app with two cartoony “personalities” that interact with each other and humans. If you are feeling particularly generous and have 10 grand to give away, you’ll get a dinner with the OLogic team, two deluxe robots, prototype sensors, and embroidered jackets.
"We have packed tons of advanced robotics R&D software into this robot, to give it a broad spectrum of audiences,” said Brandon Blodget, vice president of tech development at OLogic. “It is suitable for two audiences, those who want to just run robot apps, use the built-in personalities, and the works-out-of-the-box social interaction, and developers doing research with items like ROS (Robotic Operating System) from Willow Garage."
Beyond a mobile phone robot, the company has built a platform and an open API for developers to expand upon the technology to create games, virtual pets, educational tools, and whatever else can be dreamed up with the technology. The robots are compatible with iOS and Android, and OLogic hopes developers will build on the technology and create some interesting applications.
OLogic presented at DEMO Fall in September 2011. The company is based in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Filed under: mobile, offBeat

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 02:20 PM PDT

Say what you will about Bay Area weather, but as we kick off our second Mobile Summit event at the Cavallo Point resort in Sausalito, things are looking a bit like heaven.
We’ve collected some of the brightest minds in the industry to discuss pressing issues like the mobile platform wars and the mobile commerce revolution. But we can’t deny that part of the draw is the gorgeous location right by the Golden Gate Bridge.
The event is set to begin this afternoon with panels featuring speakers from Verizon Wireless, Fjord, Iddiction, and TapJoy. But the real meat of the Summit takes place tomorrow, where we have some major fireside chats lined up, including discussions with Mercedes’ CEO and Nokia’s head of innovation. We’ll also have a variety of breakout sessions to spur on conversation.
Amid the discussions, drinks, and frolicking by the Bay, we’re hoping that the Mobile Summit will once again be a place where major decisions affecting the mobile industry will be made.
If you’re among the select few joining us at the Summit, we welcome you. For everyone else, you can catch our event coverage starting this afternoon.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 02:14 PM PDT
Found is a neat new Mac application that wants to be like OS X’s Spotlight, but for all the files you have stored across cloud services, including Dropbox, Google Docs, and Gmail. Currently in beta, Found is aiming for a mid-May release in the Mac App Store, where it will be free.
“We wanted to step back and say, what are some of the basic problems people have had with their search?” said Found co-founder Stephen Brady in an interview. He and his partner, Vijay Sundaram, decided the fragmentation of files across multiple devices and cloud services was a big issue today, one that could be solved with a single application.
The concept is simple: Need to find that photo of your cat wearing a bow tie, but don’t know if it’s in one of your three Gmail accounts, on your desktop, or in a Dropbox folder? Double click the Control button or click on the Found icon (it’s a titled F, not a pink stealth fighter) in the menu bar, and the Found search box will slide out from the left side of your screen. Start typing the name of a file or app (“cat tie”), and the results will appear in real-time, date ordered. You can narrow down the results by including a file extension (“jpg cat tie”). Arrow down and each search result will show as a preview in the middle of your screen. You can tab to jump between sources. When you do locate that photo of your kitty, hit Enter and it should open.
The Found application is in beta, so there are still some kinks to be worked out. Gmail attachments don’t seem to open if you’re logged into a different account in your browser, and it’s not yet as fast as Spotlight for searching your hard drive.
But even in beta, there are some nice touches that reflect smart, careful design and make me optimistic for the final product. For example, you can drag and drop a found file to anywhere else on your computer, including onto an open Gmail message where it will be added as an attachment. What will really make the product a must have is the addition of other services. Brady says he hopes to add support for Evernote, Box, and Salesforce in the near future. If they manage to link it to multiple devices, it would be a killer utility for every person with scattered files.
If you don’t want to wait until May to use the app, you can sign up for an invite for the beta version of Found on the company website.
The company was founded in 2010 by Stephen Brady and Vijay Sundaram, who met while working together at Microsoft. The co-founders are not yet divulging their plans for making money off the application, which will be free and have no ads. The San Francisco-based startup has five employees and has received 1M in seed funding from NEA and Rembrandt Venture Partners.

Filed under: cloud, VentureBeat

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 02:04 PM PDT

After months of tentative talks and rejected offers, Oracle and Google are finally heading to court in a lawsuit that puts the fate of the Android operating system in the balance.
In a memo penned today (which we’ve embedded below), Magistrate Judge Paul S. Grewal wrote that Google and Oracle had reached an irreconcilable impasse in their talks and, “In the end, some cases just need to be tried,” wishing both companies luck as their trial begins in San Francisco on Monday, April 16.
Oracle first filed suit against Google in 2010 claiming the search company had infringed on Java-related intellectual property.
Java is the programming language that forms the backbone of Android, Google’s blockbuster success of a mobile operating system. The Java IP in question, including a slate of specific copyrights and patents, had only recently been transferred to Oracle when that company finalized its acquisition of Sun Microsystems in early 2010.
Last summer, Google indicated it may have been willing to settle out of court in the matter. However, after some delays and a judge-ordered stay in the proceedings, the talks have apparently ended with no satisfactory resolution in sight. Ergo, a trial.
An Oracle victory in court could add up to billions in damages, and given that Google’s revenue per device is quite low — perhaps adding up to less than $550 million since Android’s debut in 2008 — any per-device licensing fee would put a damning dent in Google’s Android revenue.
Googlers have previously and repeatedly reassure VentureBeat that Android is not going anywhere anytime soon. "From a consumer standpoint, consumers should not be concerned about losing their Android phone,” a Google spokesperson said in a recent phone chat. “There's no indication that Android is under threat… We're actively pushing back on Oracle to preserve choice in the marketplace in the long term.”
Still, as Oracle — an unquestioned heavyweight in the patents department — and Google head to court, it’s hard not to cringe a bit when we think about how Android could get mangled in the process.
We’ve reached out to Google for an update on the lawsuit and will keep you posted as this story develops.

Image courtesy of laihui.

Filed under: mobile

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 01:53 PM PDT

Women might be outnumbered in tech, but there’s one area where we outnumber the dudes: virtual freelancing.
Yes, according to one study, women make up 55 percent of the online marketplace of freelancers. Data from talent firm Zinnov show the online talent pool is between 4.5 and 5 million strong, with more than half that number being composed of women.
Other stats from the same study show the market of female freelancers is growing quickly, with more than 100 percent growth in the women online freelancer population during 2011. While women currently make up less than half the overall workforce, Zinnov said its study showed women more willing to work virtually to give themselves a better work/life balance. In fact, some sites, such as Shelancers, focus exclusively on the needs of female freelancers (although for employers, using such a site may violate employment law, but hey, it’s a nice thought).
Altogether, the study concludes that between 10 and 15 percent of the total workforce could be composed of virtual freelancers over the next several years, with strong support from women workers.
Around 40 to 45 percent of the online talent pool is based in the United States, the study showed, with between 12 and 15 percent of online freelancers calling India home. Canada and China are also hubs for virtual freelancers.
As far as job types are concerned, the vast majority of jobs and fastest-growing verticals for online work are multimedia (including web design), writing and editing, and technology jobs such as web programming. Zinnov expects to see niche skill sets such as SEO and mobile development continue to increase in popularity and demand.
Using online or virtual freelance help is a relatively new phenomenon that we’ve talked about in some detail in the recent past. Online freelancers are more affordable for small businesses and can give a lot of flexibility to newer companies, especially cash-poor, bootstrapped startups.
To get the data for this study, Zinnov analyzed 30 of the largest marketplaces for virtual freelance talent, including powerhouses like Elance, oDesk, and Freelance.com. The research showed the marketplace trending toward $1 billion by the end of 2012, with Elance, Guru, and oDesk claiming the lion’s share of those transactions and jobs.
Top image courtesy of ostill, Shutterstock

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Posted: 02 Apr 2012 01:26 PM PDT
Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone is now outselling all other smartphones combined, including prominent Android devices, on AT&T and Sprint, according to new data from Canaccord Genuity.
“We believe iPhones are outselling all other smartphones combined at Sprint and AT&T and selling at roughly equal volume to all Android smartphones at Verizon," Canaccord Genuity analyst told AllThingsD today.
That’s quite the achievement for Apple’s popularity. The iPhone came out on top even with strong Android challengers like Samsung’s Galaxy S II and Galaxy Nexus phones and other Android devices. Sprint sold 1.8 million iPhone 4S devices last quarter while AT&T activated 7.6 million iPhone units in its last quarter.
The iPhone has been successful around the world, but the U.S. is its biggest stronghold. Canaccord Genuity said that Apple’s biggest threat for market share in the near term for Europe and Asia would be Samsung, which posted strong gains in the “seasonally weak” March quarter.
Click the table below for a more detailed look at the carrier smartphone share data: