06 April, 2012



Instagram, riding its Android app high, is raising more funding

Posted: 06 Apr 2012 08:48 AM PDT

Complain all you want, iPhone snobs: Instagram is still doing great, and they’ve got the investor confidence to prove it.

In fact, rumors are heating up that the startup is prepping to raise a second institutional round of funding. We consulted the office’s Magic 8 Ball (which is also known by its proper name, Sources Close to the Matter), and it told us that yes, an explosively successful startup raising a second round when its first round occurred more than a full year ago is “decidedly so.”

Less humorously, it’s statistically unlikely that Instagram is not planning on raising more money, and striking while the iron is hot (and the Android app hotter) makes total sense. The company raised a modest $7 million back in February 2011.

Last month, unconfirmed rumors of a new funding round included a juicy tidbit about Instagram’s valuation, as well. Sources for the Wall Street Journal pegged the funding amount at $40 million at a $500 million valuation.

Today, Liz Gannes over at All Things D has pegged Silicon Valley power firm Sequoia Capital as the leader of the new round, which her sources claim could climb as high as $50 million at the previously rumored $500 million valuation.

Previous Instagram investors include Andreessen Horowitz, Benchmark Capital, and Baseline Ventures, which firm participated in both the seed and Series A rounds for the startup.

Filed under: deals, VentureBeat

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Google-branded 7-inch tablet expected in July

Posted: 06 Apr 2012 08:19 AM PDT

Google has allegedly pushed back the release of its own tablet computing device to July due to issues related to keeping the price low, according to a report from The Verge that cites unnamed sources familiar with the matter.

Google was first rumored to be working on a Google-branded, 7-inch tablet back in December, with either Samsung or Asus expected to manufacture the device, as VentureBeat previously reported. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said the company plans to market “a tablet of the highest quality,” perhaps in reference to the leading competitors products, such as Apple’s iPad.

In addition to new competition for the iPad, the smaller Google tablet would more directly compete with Amazon’s 7-inch Kindle Fire, both in quality and price. The Google tablet is expected to match the Fire’s $199 price range.

The Verge’s report, however, indicates that Google is altering the design of the device to bring the price down from $249. It also said the tablet is Wi-Fi-only, runs Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), features a Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor, and was made in partnership with Taiwanese company Asustek Computer.

Apple is also recently been rumored to be testing a smaller, 7.85-inch-iPad in its labs. But regardless of whether that’s true, it’s obvious that there’s a consumer demand for the smaller sized tablets, if the price is right of course.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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The DeanBeat: How developers can avoid a bloodbath in fighting for new users

Posted: 06 Apr 2012 08:00 AM PDT

In the past month, what app makers have to spend to get the attention of Apple device users has risen out of control. That’s a tough fact of life that could make survival hard in the Darwinian mobile app ecosystem. Solving this problem is going to require a lot of innovation and clear thinking. And if it isn’t solved, we’re going to see a number of mobile app companies start to die. If Apple and others in the ecosystem don’t handle it right, it could be a bloodbath for developers.

We talked a lot about the consequences of the rising cost of user acquisition at our VentureBeat Mobile Summit 2012 this week at Cavallo Point in Sausalito. Our three session chairs: Gabriel Leydon, chief executive of Machine Zone; Maria Alegre, CEO of Chartboost; and Chris Akhavan (pictured top right), vice president and general manager of strategic partnerships at Tapjoy, drove the discussion about solutions and strategies to deal with the rising costs.

This problem applies to free-to-play games, where companies have to spend money on marketing and advertising to get new users. If they spend more on acquiring users than the lifetime value of those users in terms of future revenues, then the companies will start losing money. The costs have been steadily rising, but the entry of Gree, which pledged to spend $50 million on mobile marketing in the U.S., has pushed those costs over the top. Costs will only get worse this year as companies such as Zynga, Electronic Arts, Gameloft, DeNA, Perfect World, and Tencent battle for mobile market share.

A year ago, the costs were under control because developers like Tapjoy were using low-cost incentivized installs, which rewarded users with virtual goodies for downloading other apps. But Apple shut that down because it led to manipulation of the top 25 charts. Add to that Apple’s crackdown in February on bot-driven third-party marketing services (because they also led to chart manipulation), and costs have trended upward.

Some of the tips are kind of random and they come from people who have had deep experience in this young market. For instance, it pays to release your app on a Thursday, since Apple features apps that appear on that day. Getting featured on Apple’s store is perhaps the best way to get discovered, without having to pay anybody a lot of money.

First and foremost, the best way to control your user acquisition costs is to have a great app. Great apps spread naturally via word of mouth, and they are more engaging and easier to monetize, Leydon said. A developer such as Epic Games’ Chair Entertainment has set itself apart by creating the Infinity Blade series of games with outstanding 3D graphics. Chair could keep going down that road, since mobile devices such as the new iPad are getting better and better. The foundation for high-quality 3D games is in place, with fast processors, great displays, and tools such as Unity 3D. But better graphics is also a dangerous road that led the console game makers to create teams of 100 people or more working for two years at a time.

With a great game, it isn’t so hard to improve your lifetime value and generate organic downloads. If your lifetime value is high, you don’t care as much about your cost-per-install (CPI), or the cost of each new user.

“CPI is a relative number and should be measured in relation to the LTV of your product,” said Adam Flanders, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Glu Mobile. “If CPI is getting too expensive, the focus needs to move to engagement, retention, and monetization of your product to drive LTV up above CPI costs.”

It is possible, and quite scary, that even great apps could get lost in the App Store, which has a total of 598,154 active apps. Sometimes, great apps need a boost to get noticed. And it helps to have a game that is designed for monetization.

Usually, game designers focus only on making a high-quality app. But it can help to have a user acquisition expert involved in the design of a mobile game. That expert can help design the funnel of activities that lead directly from trying out the game to paying real money for digital bits, or virtual goods, that don’t exist in the real world. And so that expert isn’t flying blind, your app has to be instrumented with analytics, said Greg Canessa, vice president of mobile at Activision Blizzard.

The solutions include moving your apps to Android, where the cost of user acquisition has actually been dropping. Tapjoy took its incentivized installs to Android as well. And while Android’s user count has been on a tear, monetization has been weaker than on iOS. So while Android represents a great release valve on costs, it isn’t a panacea.

Another way developers can bring down costs and bring up installs is through services like FreeAppADay or Iddiction’s App-o-Day. FreeAppADay gets millions of users coming to its site to download an app that has been made free for a day. Iddiction’s Andrej Nabergoj, (pictured middle), argues that a curated list of the best apps will be very appealing to a lot of users. Chartboost, meanwhile, lets developers set up their own networks where they cross-promote games of other developers in a kind of barter system. Alegre said this kind of network can disrupt the ad networks that charge money for this kind of service.

Akhavan said that more intelligent targeting is also essential. But it could get harder now that Apple is doing away with user identities known as UDIDs. That makes it harder to know who your user is and thus to target that user with relevant advertising. There are other ways to target users. Groups are forming to create new identification systems. And apps could access a user’s address book, but they walk a delicate line on privacy when they do so. With the UDID in flux, the state of targeting ads is in flux.

One strategy app makers could use is to publish games for other developers or promote the games of other developers within their own apps. That turns the problem around and helps developers take advantage of high CPIs. Another strategy is to try everything, using multiple promotional networks and going to the trouble of analyzing the return on investment for each one of them. If someone creates an analytics dashboard for managing that activity across networks, it would be quite useful to developers.

Of course, Apple could do a few things to ease the problem, too. It could get rid of its top downloads chart and switch to an engagement chart that ranks apps by the number of daily active users. Those are the apps that have users coming back over and over. Of course, you might see something like Draw Something or Facebook dominate that list. Improving how it surfaces and promotes new content through something better than Genius or Game Center is a must. Apple bought app search firm Chomp, and most observers are expecting that to result in improved, low-cost ways to surface good apps.

In the absence of action from Apple, the middle-layer companies could make a difference. Gree and DeNA have built mobile social networks in Japan that have created a lot of virality and improved engagement among users. They’re launching networks in the U.S. that are attempting to do the same thing, although it may be a while before they really work.

Facebook Mobile, which now has hundreds of millions of users, has come on strong on the social front, enabling users to discover new mobile apps based on the activities of their friends. A lot of that may be through what some users consider to be spam. Just a month ago, Leydon wouldn’t have considered putting Facebook Connect into his games. But Draw Something grew to more than 50 million downloads in less than two months, thanks in no small part to the virality of Facebook Mobile. Twitter is also going to make a lot of impact in mobile promotions this year.

The rising cost of user acquisition is a tough problem. It takes the whole ecosystem to solve it. But even at this point in the growth of the App Store, Leydon says there has never been a better time to make mobile games and apps.

Filed under: dev, games, mobile, social, VentureBeat

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New Apple patent could revolutionize product packaging design

Posted: 06 Apr 2012 07:24 AM PDT


A new patent application has revealed that Apple is interested in wirelessly charging its devices… while still in the original packaging on store shelves.

What possible purpose would this even serve? Well, apparently the technology would also allow for data to be transferred in addition to charging the battery, according to a report from AppleInsider.

The patent application, titled “Active Electronic Media Packaging,” would allow Apple to transmit software updates to devices and display things on the screen, like images or product demonstrations. Basically, it would become a new form of advertising for the product that moves beyond just the packaging itself.

“Although typical packaging for an electronic media device may be designed to adequately protect the device from shock or damage, the packaging is extremely limited in other respects,” Apple states in the filing. “For example, the ability to fully view or interact with the electronic media device while still inside the packaging is severely limited in most packaging designs. Although unobtrusive packaging designs have been developed, these designs typically do not allow electronic media devices to be interacted with while inside the packaging.”

Should Apple be granted a patent for this technology, it could become very useful for the future of product packaging design. I’d imagine Apple wouldn’t want to be the only electronics manufacturer to take advantage of this either, so licensing it out to other companies could also be quite lucrative.

But for now, it’s little more than a cool idea that lives inside of Apple’s R&D department.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Startup and the City: 10 signs you work at a startup

Posted: 06 Apr 2012 07:19 AM PDT

Photo of a pile of Twilio T-shirts

Working at a startup is not a typical 9-5 — it’s a lifestyle. If the following resonates with you, then there’s a high probability that you work at a startup … or wish you did.

  1. You can't do anything without wondering if it was user-tested. When ordering from an unnecessarily complicated menu, you make a snide comment about it not being tested on users. The consoles for keeping score when bowling and playing songs at karaoke leaves your heart throbbing for the user testing that could have been. You want to stop and do guerrilla improvements on all machines. Don't even get you started on the vending machine!
  2. You calendar everything and everyone. When your mom wants to talk to you on the phone, you ask her to schedule some time on your Google calendar. When you want to make sure your roommates are all around to help clean the house on a Sunday afternoon, you block the time on their calendar. If something doesn't make it to your calendar, it just won't get done.
  3. You have an app for that. Your friends are still talking about Uber Cab, but you know about Uber's newer, cheaper younger sibling.  You downloaded the app for the Curry Up Now food truck so that you didn't have to wait in the long line for your dosa. Oh, did I mention that you downloaded the app while waiting in line and got a lot of satisfaction from cutting the queue when your order was called?
  4. You have a weekly board game night. Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, Dominion, Resistance, oh my! Going out is cool and all, but really all you want to do is drink beer and play board games. (Bananagrams is probably too literary for you and World of Warcraft was so five years ago.)
  5. You climb at Mission Cliffs at least once a week. You've been known to pitch your best startup ideas while dangling from a crimpy hold. You only climb in t-shirts from Google, Evernote or Twilio.
  6. You visit TechCrunch, Mashable, and VentureBeat’s websites multiple times a day. You're the first to know when a new startup has launched, raised funding, or been acquired. But you know embarrassingly little about the primary election or current affairs in Myanmar. You heard about the State of the Union address on Twitter and you found out who Jeremy Lin was via your friends' Facebook posts.
  7. You use tech words in normal conversation and non-techies look at you like you're from cyberspace. When you are missing a kitchen utensil, you come up with a clever "hack" or "workaround." If you're giving a friend from out of town a tour of your neighborhood (probably the Mission), you're "onboarding" them.
  8. There are tons of great happy hours near your office, but you've never been to one. You love to tell recruits about all the happening bars nearby, but the reality is that everyone works well past the outer limit of happy hour.
  9. Granola bars are a food group. Clif bars, Nutrigrain bars, and Quaker Oats granola bars are all discrete foods within the group. These bars all come from the "fully stocked pantry" that is advertised on your startup's job page.
  10.  Your friends at Google have it so easy! They don't have to buy Subway sandwiches for lunch and their micro-kitchens are stocked with Tcho chocolate.  They can attend yoga classes and go on runs anytime during the day. But you wouldn't trade places with them for anything. They're just a cog in a 30,000-person machine and you're changing the world.

Julia Plevin is a writer and blogger who recently returned to the United States after managing a magazine in Hanoi, Vietnam. She now works at a stealth startup in San Francisco. She's posting occasional columns on VentureBeat about her experiences.

Photo credit: Twilio

Previous Startup and the City columns:

Filed under: Entrepreneur

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Retro revival: PC games raise $6.7M and counting in Kickstarter campaigns

Posted: 06 Apr 2012 06:57 AM PDT

Kickstarter's gone vogue. With a single, bold move by Double Fine's Tim Schafer in early February, the crowdfunding web site propelled itself into the heart of the gaming community. Now, with the signing of the JOBS Act adding additional legitimacy, crowdfunding is poised to become an even bigger force in video games.

Crowdfunding games on Kickstarter lets ambitious, independent developers eschew publisher hurdles in favor of higher financial and creative control. More and more heads within the industry are turning — some of them quite notable, like Twisted Metal creator David Jaffe and Chris Avellone, the lead developer of the classic Planescape Torment — but plenty of amazing projects already eagerly await your perusal. We've gathered up some of the most noteworthy here; check them out below!

Campaign: Pinkerton Road Studios
Current status: $63,367 pledged of $300,000 goal

Jane Jensen, creator of the acclaimed Gabriel Knight adventure series, wants her idyllic farmstead in Lancaster County, Penn., turned into "a remote outpost of gamedom." Along with husband and game producer Robert Holmes, Jensen hopes for a successful shakedown run of "Community Supported Gaming" – a term (coined by Jensen) aptly summarizing the Kickstarter craze – before embarking on three potential full-length adventure titles. "The casual game market is ready for meatier fare, and the hardcore audience is nostalgic for games like these," Jensen said in a recent press release.

Campaign: Make Leisure Suit Larry come again
Original game: Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
Current status: $191,900 pledged of $500,000 goal
The premise of the Leisure Suit Larry adventure series hangs in left field at first glance: Players control the balding, double entendre-speaking, 40-something Larry in his pursuit for (unsuccessfully) seducing attractive women.  Beyond the camp and alliterative affinity, however, lies a franchise adored by fans for its snappily coarse humor. Series creator Al Lowe  joined forces with current rights-holder Replay Games with plans to recreate the first seven games for mobile devices using updated graphics and a modern interface.

Campaign: Shadowrun Returns
Original game: Shadowrun
Current status: $504,331 pledged of $400,000 goal
As one of the most popular pen-and-paper role-playing games around, Shadowrun scores major geek cred for combining aspects of the cyberpunk, fantasy, and mystery genres. Only 28 hours transpired before the fundraiser hit its goal, and Shadowrun creator Jordan Weisman and mobile developer Harebrained Schemes (Crimson Steam Pirates) are forging ahead with a 2D turn-based title set in the Shadowrun universe.

"Crowdsourcing to fund creative content represents truly profound change to the status quo," Harebrained’s Kickstarter entry reads. "While we watch financial models for the creation and distribution of creative content continue to erode, Kickstarter charts a direction for how fans can directly impact development of creative content they want by funding its creation."

Campaign: The Banner Saga
Current status: $392,312 pledged of $100,000 goal
Composed by a trio of artists and designers whose latest accomplishment was the blockbuster massively multiplayer Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Banner Saga "throws you into the end of the world" and tests your mettle against gorgeously bearded men and lithe spearwives in a turn-based tactical RPG. Developer Stoic's art direction strikes a richly colored motif inspired by Viking and medieval fantasy themes. Best of all? Both the PC and Mac versions of the game will release sans troublesome digital rights management systems.

Campaign: Takedown
Current status: $221,833 pledged of $200,000 goal
Sure, modern military shooters pepper the industry like spent bullet casings, but Takedown's burgeoning presence promises something a little different. Hailed as a spiritual successor to staple tactical shooter franchises such as Rainbow Six and SWAT, Takedown emphasizes careful planning and execution versus run-and-gun. The game's setting places a team of private military contractors – that's "mercenaries" for the rest of us – under your control taking on hostage rescues, target eliminations, and stealthy search-and-destroy missions.

Campaign: Wasteland 2
Original game: Wasteland
Current status: $2 million pledged of $900,000 goal
Designer Brian Fargo's track record reads like a sermon from the RPG gamer's bible. His company, Interplay, gave gamers such revered series as The Bard's Tale, Descent, Baldur's Gate, Fallout, and Wasteland. The latter – a post-nuclear-apocalypse survival title that served as the framework for Fallout – is receiving a well-deserved sequel after reaching its target funding amount in just two days. Now with inXile Entertainment (Hunted: The Demon’s Forge), Fargo promises a game “worthy to be a Wasteland sequel, as challenging and rewarding as the original, with all added capacity and dazzle of games today.”

Campaign: Double Fine Adventure
Current status: $3.3 million pledged of $400,000 goal
The one that started it all shattered previous Kickstarter milestones, narrowly missing becoming the first project in the website’s history to hit $1 million in pledges by just 24 hours (ElevationLab’s iPhone dock got there first). Still, reaching a staggering 834 percent donation rate probably caused at least a few gleeful grins at the end-of-week meeting. What’s next for Double Fine? After prophesying that lightning certainly strikes twice — or thrice, or even seven times — Schafer and pals will spend the next six to eight months fashioning a new point-and-click adventure game for mobile devices, PC, and Mac.

What do you think of the surging popularity of crowdfunded games and the meteoric rise of Kickstarter as a bastion of retro revivals? Leave your comments below.

Filed under: games

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HTC takes a beating, Q1 profits down 70 percent, revenue drops 35 percent

Posted: 06 Apr 2012 06:47 AM PDT

It was only a few years back that Taiwanese phone maker HTC was the unstoppable rising star of the smartphone manufacturing business, but things can change very quickly. The company released its audited first quarter results this morning, and they were not pretty: revenue declined 35 percent to $2.3 billion and profit fell 70 percent from $501 million to $149 million.

This mirrors the downturn in fortunes for other mobile manufacturers. Nokia flipped from profit to loss to end 2011. Motorola, which like HTC, has focused heavily on Google Android platform, also posted a loss to end 2011. Only Samsung was able to produce solid results for the end of 2011.

The elephant in the room, of course, is Apple, which posted a monster profit in its last earnings results. As the iPhone has spread beyond its exclusive contract with AT&T, it seems to be eating heavily into sales of premier Android phones.

HTC’s new flagship product, the Evo 4G, is set to start pre-sales on May 7th. Whether this device, which runs on the number three U.S. wireless network, Sprint, will be enough to reverse its fortunes remains to be seen.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Microsoft still paying developers big bucks to build apps for Windows phones

Posted: 06 Apr 2012 05:08 AM PDT

The appeal of smartphones to a lost of consumers is the wide variety of apps they can download. But developers won’t build apps for a platform until there is a proven consumer demand. It’s a chicken and egg problem, and to solve it, Microsoft is paying through the nose to have developers make top apps for Windows phones.

According to a report in the NY Times, Microsoft is willing to pay anywhere from $60,000-$600,000 to subsidize development of the most popular mobile apps. It currently has around 70,000 apps compared to Androids 400,000 and Apple’s 600,000. But it’s missing a number of big name apps like Pandora streaming music, Instagram’s photo sharing service, and Zynga’s casual games.

It’s not all bad news for Microsoft. The article quotes Ben Lamm, who runs the app development studio Chaotic Moon. “We're starting to get requests from firms that want a Windows Phone app," he told the NY Times. “It's still only 5 to 10 percent of our total requests, but very different than a year ago, when only Microsoft was calling us to do work.”

As my colleague Devindra Hardawar reported recently, Microsoft and Nokia have also invested $24 million in the AppCampus program, which offers comprehensive training and support for developers working on apps for Windows 7 and Nokia’s Symbian operating system. If money isn’t enough to woo developers, perhaps a promise of fun times at nerd college will do the trick.

Filed under: dev, mobile

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Kony 2012: Part II debuts in a defense against internet critics

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 10:17 PM PDT

The Kony 2012 video, a slick production whose aim is to use the internet to stop an African military leader with a host of human rights violations, took off like wildfire on social media after it debuted on March 5. The video generated more than 100 million views on YouTube and Vimeo, and it started a huge social media campaign to put an end to the reign of leader Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army that operates in four African nations.

Yet the video inspired criticism. Now the video’s creator, Invisible Children, has created a new video to answer the critics and spur more action. And the new video is taking off too.

As an example of social media for a good cause, the short film drew praise for its ability to inspire action through a combination of grassroots organizing and internet-based social activism. It has clearly established the power of YouTube and the internet as a force for global action. And it has punctured through layers of indifference that many Westerners — including my own kids — normally have about a conflict that is so far away and is of no immediate concern to them.

Few denied that the 29-minute video was moving in its depiction of the brutal guerilla war tactics of Kony (pictured right) or that Invisible Children had expertly crafted its marketing campaign, dubbed Kony 2012, to publicize Kony’s behavior. It made the argument that people power can achieve anything.

“Who are you to end a war?” asked Jason Russell, the film maker. “I’m here to tell you, ‘who are you not to?’”

But it also faced a storm of criticism from pundits and experts who felt it oversimplified a complex African conflict. People pointed to video creator Russell’s own meltdown — he ran naked down his street — as more reason to dismiss the Kony 2012 campaign. (His wife said the stress of the criticism got to him).

The new video, which makes no mention of Russell and is narrated by Ben Keesey, chief executive of Invisible Children, has seen more than 421,000 views in just a day. And it fights back against the critics.

This film is more cerebral than the first one, and it quotes government leaders and others in Africa. It acknowledges facts that it didn’t include in the first video, including that the group was barely operating in Uganda now (where aiding the government seemed like an equally bad proposition) and that Kony’s troops were down to just 250 soldiers. But it notes that Kony’s soldiers haven’t stopped. Since 2008, the LRA has killed 2,400 people and reportedly abducted another 57 since Kony 2012 launched.

The original film called for a worldwide canvassing campaign on April 20. The International Criminal Court is seeking Kony’s arrest. The film spurred the U.S. Senate to condemn Kony, and the African Union pledged troops.

The film has had a remarkable effect on young people. In one scene, it shows Jacob, a young African boy, describing how Kony’s troops cut the throat of his brother. In tears, Jacob said he wanted to die rather than face abduction by Kony’s soldiers. Years later, Jacob was helping to run the Kony 2012 campaign.

My middle school student saw the film and wanted to donate money to the cause. Her interest in the topic has lasted. The other day, she came home with a red Kony 2012 wristband — a fake that someone had purchased on eBay — because another student was handing them out. My high-school student has also been moved to action, in spite of the criticism of the slick video. They want to do something to help, and don’t really care that many critics are writing off the effort. They see it as a cause that speaks to their generation.

Filed under: media, social

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Like Twitter, Path is outsourcing translation to the crowd

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 05:53 PM PDT

Path, the less-is-more social app that lets you connect with only 150 friends at a time, is coming soon to 20 new languages, thanks to the translation power of the crowd.

Like Twitter, Path is taking an interesting crowdsourced approach to bringing its app to new languages — and new audiences.

“The response internationally [to Path] has been amazing,” wrote a Path staffer on the company blog. ”We've heard from students and professors to avid travelers and programmers — all offering time and knowledge to help improve our translations.”

The app will be available soon in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Swedish, Japanese, Korean, and Simplified Chinese. In the future we are planning to add Traditional Chinese, Thai, Arabic, Bahasa Indonesian, Russian, Turkish, Malay, Dutch, Greek, Norwegian Bokmål, and English (UK).

Twitter did a lot of highly visible work in this area. Currently, the company says hundreds of thousands of volunteers have helped bring Twitter to dozens of languages, from Japanese to Farsi.

Path’s new translation center will be powered by Smartling, a bit of website translation software that will help Path capture its content and outsource its translation tasks to a crowd of online volunteers. Would-be translators can log in and apply to start translating. Soon enough, Smartling and Path will start delivering the approved translations in updated versions of the app.

There are tons of markets — especially outside the U.S. and definitely in parts of Asia — where Path’s less-is-more philosophy about online friendships will go over quite well. It’ll be particularly interesting to see whether the translation project ends up having a big impact on the app’s number of active users.

Filed under: social

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Pinterest now the third most popular social network after Facebook & Twitter

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 05:37 PM PDT

As if there was ever any doubt that the “pin” is winning, a new report from Experian says Pinterest is now the third most popular social network in the U.S. behind Facebook and Twitter.

Experian’s “2012 Digital Marketer: Benchmark and Trend Report” says social networking has reached new highs, with 91 percent of  adults using social media regularly as well as 15 percent of all U.S. Internet visits dedicated to social media sites in December 2011. But the landscape of social media has changed greatly in the past year. Pinterest, for example, is virtually coming out of nowhere to now having President Obama “pinning” on the network.

Pinterest surprised many last December when it was revealed as a top 10 social network. The new Experian report says Pinterest’s traffic surged 50 percent between February and January of this year, which is growth that’s stunning in itself. That surge has allowed the site to overtake services like Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Google+ for the third highest number of visits in February. And not only is it fun for users, it’s also a killer tool for marketers.

Adding to the good news, analytics firm comScore also  said recently that Pinterest attracted 17.8 million unique visitors in February from the U.S. alone. In terms of engagement, Pinterest is winning as well, with users spending an average of 89 minutes per month on site. However, the social network still lags behind Facebook, which has users spending an average of 405 minutes per month on its site.

Pinterest is so popular as of late that it even has tons of clone sites trying to take its concept of pinning photos and products by adding a twist. There are travel-focused sites like Trippy, Wanderfly, and Gtrot. There’s several dude-focused sites like Mantersting, Gentlemint, and even Snatchly, a Pinterest for Porn.

Filed under: social

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Kuka Laboratories shows off its educational robot (video)

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 05:25 PM PDT

Kuka Laboratories Robot

Kuka Laboratories is creating robots to help teach young people how robotics actually works and how it will shape future technology.

Robots always seem to capture our imagination. We loved watching NASA’s Mars Rover explore the red planet, squealed when we heard Wall-e say his own name, but now it’s time to learn from them, according to Dominic Bösl of Kuka Laboratories, who chatted with VentureBeat at our Mobile Summit 2012 conference earlier this week. He believes people should learn about the way robots move and interact with the environment to better understand the future of robotics and technology overall.

Kuka is reaching out to mobile companies, looking for new ways mobile technology can enhance Kuka’s educational robots. For instance, some have considered creating whole applications stores for robots, similar to what we have on the smartphone. These apps could give the robot different utility and entertainment functions without the need for extra hardware.

Don’t expect to see this guy in your son’s high school classroom, though. The smallest version of this robot costs 24,000 euros, and the prices just go up from there.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Spotify’s premium service is apparently not paying off

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 05:13 PM PDT

Spotify Family Plans

Spotify’s music service has gained a lot of popularity since it emerged in the U.S. market last summer. However, a new report says Spotify has fewer paid subscribers than expected.

According to unnamed sources associated with music labels that have made deals with Spotify, Spotify hasn’t gained much traction and there are fewer paid subscribers than the labels expected, the New York Post reported. They also told the Post that “People aren’t 100 percent happy. Spotify overpromised,” although it’s unclear if the “people” referred to are Spotify users or the music labels.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported at the end of March that music services, including Spotify, Rhapsody, and Rdio, have generated a 13 percent bump in revenue. Not only did the RIAA’s report show that people were purchasing more music, it also revealed that digital royalties paid by music services rose as well —  a win-win for music labels.

Originally launched in Sweden and then extended across Europe, Spotify made its way across the pond to the U.S. nine months ago and was a hit. Since then, it’s signed up more 3 million paid subscribers worldwide in 13 countries. Out of that 3 million, 600,000 people in the U.S. are paying to use the service.

Spotify has tried to entice is users to pay for a subscription by limiting how much music you can listen to for free. Recently, the company has loosened the reigns by giving people an apparent music free-for-all. Rumors have flown that Spotify is raising a large round of funding that would value it at $3.5 billion, which would mean the company wouldn’t be hurting for cash.

Spotify’s paid subscribers pale in comparison to those of Rhapsody, a 10-year old company that has one million subscribers in the U.S. The music streaming service giant charges $10 per month for web music streaming and $15 per month to play music on a mobile device, slightly more than Spotify.

What do you think? Is Spotify’s paid subscription worth the money?

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11 arrested over stolen Samsung TV technology

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 04:09 PM PDT

Here’s a rare tech story from the police blotter: Eleven suspects have been arrested in connection to AMOLED technology allegedly stolen from Samsung and sold to one of its competitors in the TV manufacturing space.

Sources for the Suwon desk of South Korean news agency Yonhap News stated the stolen tech revolves around next-generation flat screen displays for televisions and was leaked from Samsung’s mobile display division to a rival firm.

The arrested persons include Samsung’s and/or its rivals researchers and employees. One of the arrested former Samsung employees was paid the equivalent of $168,544 for information about Samsung’s AMOLED display technology and subsequently accepted a position at the competitor in question. Police told Yonhap reporters that this suspect then attempted to leak the same information to another manufacturer in China upon becoming disgruntled with his new employer.

The specific technology suspected of having been leaked is one that is quite unique to Samsung’s AMOLED displays. Called small mask scanning (SMS), this technology is a replacement for fine metal masking (FMM), a simple but inefficient method used for one of the many steps in making an OLED panel. (For a full run-down of how OLED displays are made, check out this highly informative and detailed page.)

The point is, Samsung’s signature AMOLED process (including the SMS technology) was supposed to make it possible for that company to produce larger and larger AMOLED displays, all without having to cut the glass substrate. The company was set to debut a 65″ AMOLED TV this year — yep, that’s 10 inches larger than the monster displays they were showing off at CES this year. But talk around the SMS method has been fraught with rumors; apparently, it was hot enough to make Samsung employees willing to share it — and to make competitors want to pay for it.

As the world waits for Korean police to release more details, we at VentureBeat can’t help but ask, who was the rival company? LG has been working on a lot of the same problems with large LED screens; could it be that someone at that company felt like taking an unscrupulous research shortcut?

We’ll keep you posted as news continues to break in this case.

Image courtesy of Hasloo Group Production Studio, Shutterstock

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Twitter sues spammers to beef up security

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 03:49 PM PDT

If you’re sick of Twitter spam, join the club — a club that now includes Twitter, which is taking spammers to court.

Thursday morning, the social media company filed a lawsuit against some of the biggest, baddest perpetrators of Twitter spam. On the Twitter blog this afternoon, we read that the company is specifically targeting the five most-used tools that make Twitter spam possible.

“With this suit, we're going straight to the source,” the company’s statement reads. “By shutting down tool providers, we will prevent other spammers from having these services at their disposal. Further, we hope the suit acts as a deterrent to other spammers, demonstrating the strength of our commitment to keep them off Twitter.”

An email from Twitter HQ to VentureBeat further revealed that even though the startup’s large staff of anti-spam and security engineers are putting up “strong safeguards” against spam content, the company has decided that now is the time for legal action.

“The defendants were in clear violation of the Twitter Rules,” wrote a company spokesperson in the email. “Taking legal action sends a clear message to all would-be spammers that there are serious and costly consequences to violating our Rules with their annoying and potentially malicious activity. We've focused on tool providers; they have willfully created tools that enable others to propagate spam on Twitter.”

Of the five targeted tool providers, one has already been yanked off the web: TweetAttacks. Here’s how that software works. Brace yourself for maximum scumbaggishness:

Other programs and people named in the first lawsuits from Twitter include TweetBuddy, TweetAdder, James Lucero (best known for his how to get Justin Bieber to follow you page), and Garland Harris of Troption.com.

“Taking legal action is just one tactic in our anti-spam arsenal,” our Twitter contact continued. “This week we rolled out a system to more aggressively suspend a new type of @mention spam; last year we implemented a tool to determine if links posted on Twitter lead to malware or malicious content in order to protect users from them, and we're actively growing our spam engineering team to create scalable technical solutions.”

Also, Twitter recently acquired Dasient, a security firm the company says is important to the growing startup’s future plans for a secure and spam-free user experience.

Filed under: security, social

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Apple’s share price surpasses Google’s for the first time

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 02:44 PM PDT


Apple is already much more valuable than rival tech company Google by market cap, but for the first time, it surpassed Google’s share price today, closing at $633.68 a share to Google’s $632.32.

Apple’s ascent over Google in share price represents a psychological victory more than anything, since Apple is actually worth three times as much as Google. No doubt Steve Jobs would be pleased considering that he despised Google for taking ideas from iOS and incorporating them into Android. Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson that Android was a “stolen product.”

After Jobs passed away last October, Apple’s shares fell and then steadily began to rise. In mid-February, its shares broke $500 for the first time. And then in mid-March, the company surpassed $600 for the first time.

Google has also fluctuated much in the past several months. Last June, it saw a low around $473 a share and then began to rise quickly above that. In January, the stock hit a high around $670.

In terms of share price battles, Google and Apple might want to start bracing themselves for upcoming Nasdaq entrant Facebook. Facebook won’t get to those kinds of numbers with its IPO, but give the social media giant a year and we’ll see what happens.

Take a look at the chart below to see how Google and Apple have grown (and shrunk) over the past year:

Apple coins photo: Vitaliy Krasovskiy/Shutterstock

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Apple releases Java update to protect Macs against Flashback trojan

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 02:01 PM PDT


As Apple grows, so will the number of viruses that can affect it systems. Today, it issued a Java update to keep one of these viruses, the Flashback trojan, at bay.

Flashback is a type of malware that is transferred to your computer by masquerading as a safe browser plug-in. When you visit an infected website housing the malware, you’ll be prompted to download a plugin, such as flash, in order to view content. Giving permission allows the malware to execute and download to your computer. Evolved versions of the virus use a hole in Apple’s version of Java to download to your Mac immediately after you open the webpage.

Doctor Web MapRussian antivirus vendor Doctor Web estimates that up to 550,000 Macs have been infected thus far, with over half of those located in the United States.

"There has been a significant increase in Mac malware in the last several quarters, so what we've seen with the Flashback Trojan isn't particularly surprising," said Dave Marcus, director of advanced research and threat intelligence at McAfee Labs, in an e-mail to VentureBeat. "As the popularity of Macs increases, so will attacks on the Mac platform. Users should always take the proper precautions to protect themselves by ensuring that their security software … and all Apple patches are up to date."

Apple latest update to Java patches the hole and closes the malware’s ability to easily get in. But like most malware, the writers will be able to find a new vulnerability and exploit it. Cnet makes the point that Apple uses its own version of Java rather than the public versions, so while this hole had been patched by Java back in February, Apple’s version took until now to fix.

F-Secure explains how to check if you have the malware installed on your Mac. Do a search of your computer using Spotlight for “Terminal” and open the program. In it type the following:

  • defaults read /Applications/Safari.app/Contents/Info LSEnvironment
  • defaults read ~/.MacOSX/environment DYLD_INSERT_LIBRARIES

If you get anything other than “does not exist” back, F-Secure can show you how to remove the virus and do other tests.

Doctor Web has identified some websites that have been infected with the malware, but warns that there are many more out there. These websites include:

  • godofwar3.rr.nu
  • ironmanvideo.rr.nu
  • killaoftime.rr.nu
  • gangstasparadise.rr.nu
  • mystreamvideo.rr.nu
  • bestustreamtv.rr.nu
  • ustreambesttv.rr.nu
  • ustreamtvonline.rr.nu
  • ustream-tv.rr.nu
  • ustream.rr.nu

Trojan horse image via Shutterstock

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Google+ not a ghost town: Social network has 100M active users, CEO insists

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 01:17 PM PDT

Despite multiple reports to the contrary, Google+ is not a ghost town, according to chief executive Larry Page in a statement to investors Thursday.

Page, who’s held the CEO title for one year now, said that the company’s fledgling social network Google+ now has more than 100 million active users (up from 90 million total users in January). To him, the network is part and parcel to helping Google bring to life the next generation of search.

“Well over 100 million users are active on Google+,” Page said. “Activity on the Google+ Stream itself is increasing too. We're excited about the tremendous speed with which some people have amassed over one million followers, as well as the depth of the discussions taking place among happy, passionate users — all evidence that we're generating genuine engagement.”

Of course, Page failed to define “active,” leaving room for the social network’s naysayers to counter with skeptical critiques of the 100 million figure. As one astute Twitter user put it today, “Define active? Me logging into Gmail every day, which automatically shows me as available in G+, doesn’t make me an active user.”

In February, the Wall Street Journal called Google a “virtual ghost town,” citing comScore data that showed new users are signing up but doing little else. The report in question pegged average Google+ usage at three minutes a month per user, a figure that makes the network less engaging than all of its competitors, including long forgotten MySpace.

Thursday, Page appeared to be doing a little belated damage control. The active user figure as well as anecdotal evidence supports the notion that Google+ is not only meeting the company’s expectations, but exceeding them.

“It's still early days, and we have a long way to go,” Page said. “But these are tremendously important changes, and with over 120 Google+ integrations to date (including Google Search, YouTube and Android), we are on the right track.”

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Major tech and gaming companies unite to purge sex offenders from online games

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 12:52 PM PDT

Major tech and game companies will join the fight to purge convicted sex offenders from online video games in Operation: Game Over, according to a report in Forbes. Eric Schneidermann, the New York state attorney general, is leading the charge to remove accounts registered by sex offenders from popular online communities.

Participating companies include Microsoft, Sony, Disney, Apple, Warner Bros., Electronic Arts, and Blizzard.

"We must ensure online video game systems do not become a digital playground for dangerous predators. That means doing everything possible to block sex offenders from using gaming networks as a vehicle to prey on underage victims," said Schneiderman in a statement. "I applaud all the companies participating in this first-of-its-kind initiative for taking online safety seriously and purging their networks of sex offenders. Together we are making the online community safer for our children, not allowing it to become a 21st century crime scene."

New York state requires all sex offenders to register their email and online information. Even with this information, it is easy for sex offenders to assume online aliases and open new accounts. To date, Operation: Game Over has removed over 3,850 accounts belonging to offenders registered in New York. Partnering with major corporations was crucial to making this progress.

"Our partnership with the Office of the New York Attorney General helps further this cause. By leveraging the online identity information all registered sex offenders are required to provide, we are able to help reduce potentially harmful situations," said Microsoft Vice President and Deputy General Counsel. "We're supportive of Attorney General Schneiderman's efforts to make the Internet, including online gaming environments like Xbox LIVE, safer for everyone."

[image taken from Doubleblade]

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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JOBS Act becomes law, but questions linger about potential for fraud

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 12:46 PM PDT

President Obama signed the Crowdfunding Bill, aka the JOBS Act, into law today. It will change the way startups do business in a lot of ways, most notably by making it easier for them to accept smaller investments from a larger number of investors. Chance Barnett, chief executive officer of crowdfunding service provider Crowdfunder, sent us the nifty infographic below helping to explain.

Barnett has been on Bloomberg TV and TechCrunch arguing the merits of the new bill. He said more than $15 million in funding has been waiting on the sidelines that will be invested in over 1000 companies now that this bill has become law. And, like many proponents of the JOBS Bill, Barnett believes it’s a good thing that less wealthy Americans who don’t qualify as accredited investors will now be able to put their money into young businesses and reap the rewards.

But before you plow your retirement fund into sleep masks to enable lucid dreaming or prototype Space Shuttle replacements, hold up a second. The Crowdfunder infographic claims that of the more than $430 million dollars invested in Kickstarter, CrowdCube, and Prosper, there have been zero cases of fraud. While we don’t know of any official fraud cases brought against Kickstarter backers by law enforcement, we would like to take issue with that figure.

Adrianne Jeffries at Betabeat has reported on two separate Kickstarter projects that drew allegations of fraud. Backers put $27,000 into the Tech-Sync Power System before the project was mysteriously cancelled after failing to explain how it could deliver on its promise.

Perhaps more striking is the case of Vere Sandals. The project was successfully funded more than one year ago, on March, 1 2011, raising $56,618 from 1,091 backers. Just five hours ago, frustrated backers were still leaving comments on the project page asking why they had not received their sandals. More infuriating to those who pledged money is that Vere Sandals has begun retail operations, selling shoes directly to merchants, without first completing its commitment to its Kickstarter backers.

“Over a year ago I backed a new company — Vere Sandal Co. — that wanted to get in business. Never had I anticipated that using the backer’s money to finance retail business would be the result,” wrote backer Rajesh Patel. 

“That they were shipping to retailers even as they were making excuses to backers just makes a bad situation worse. Personally I don’t expect I’ll be seeing the sandals, getting my money back or even hearing from these folks. They have made clear how they do things and it is merely a case of ‘backer beware’,” wrote Dan Cohen.

“How can you ship to retailers before the people who backed you over a year ago? This company is a total scam and I want my investment back!” wrote Adam Browning.

There was never an official contract between the backers and Vere Sandals. As Kickstarter’s terms of service make clear, “Kickstarter is not liable for any damages or loss incurred related to rewards or any other use of the Service. All dealings are solely between Users. Kickstarter is under no obligation to become involved in disputes between any Users, or between Users and any third party.”

Hopefully, crowdfunding portals will be responsible stewards for investors’ money and the result will be a boom in small business creation. But clearly, some ordinary people who put their money into crowdfunded projects haven’t seen the return they were promised.

Have you been disappointed by a crowdfunding investment? Know of any examples of crowdfunding fraud? Email us and let us know.

Filed under: deals, Entrepreneur

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YouTube starts automatically converting 1080p videos into 3D

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 12:30 PM PDT

3D Glasses

It turns out that 3D technology is being used for more than just an excuse to re-release old Star Wars movies on the big screen.

Today, YouTube announced that it’s rolling out a new feature that automatically converts all 1080p-quality video uploads into 3D.  The functionality is only available for short-form videos. (Sorry, no full length indie films… yet). You’ll basically be able to toggle the 3D version of the video in the same way that you’d change the video’s quality settings. Of course, you’ll still need a pair of 3D glasses, which everyone should already have after Hollywood’s 3D obsession over the past few years.

The video site first rolled out beta testing for its 3D functionality back in September 2011. Since then, YouTube’s team said it has constantly been at work on enhancing the 2D to 3D  conversion process using several techniques.

In a blog post, YouTube explains those techniques as:

  • Using combination of video characteristics — such as color, spatial layout and motion –  to estimate a depth map for each frame of a monoscopic video sequence
  • Using machine learning from the growing number of true 3D videos on YouTube to learn video depth characteristics and apply them to in-depth estimation
  • Using  generated depth map and the original monoscopic frame to create a stereo 3D left-right pair that a stereo display system needs to display a video as 3D

The real question, however, is why YouTube is bothering with 3D conversion in the first place. Despite its undoubtedly nifty efforts to convert these short videos into 3D, the majority of them are probably going to be on par with the horrible post-conversion 3D of Clash of the Titans (or, as VentureBeat’s Devindra Hardawar pointed out, Airbender) — not Avatar.

But hey, in a world that permits James Cameron’s  Titanic to head back into theaters with the 3D treatment, it’s not surprising YouTube is following suit.

3D glasses photo via Bevan Goldswain/Shutterstock

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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Facebook picks Nasdaq for IPO

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 12:09 PM PDT


In preparation for its upcoming IPO, Facebook has chosen to list its shares on the Nasdaq stock exchange under the symbol “FB,” according to the New York Times.

Facebook will join many other high-profile tech companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon on the Nasdaq rather then the New York Stock Exchange, which successfully courted LinkedIn, Yelp, and Pandora in the past year. While fees would be similar on Nasdaq and NYSE, Facebook likely wanted to be listed on the exchange that is best-known for technology companies.

Many analysts are predicting Facebook will price its shares some time between May and August. In the run up to the company’s IPO, which will likely be one of the biggest ever, Facebook has been filing all sorts of paperwork, including a new S-1 that accounts for Yahoo’s patent lawsuit and personal docs concerning Mark Zuckerberg.

Filed under: deals, social

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Kontagent launches its kSuite DataMine analytics tool for monetizing mobile games

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 12:00 PM PDT

Kontagent is one of the companies that is rich with big data as it provides analytics services to more than 1,000 social and mobile apps with more than 150 million users. As such, it has been able to learn a lot about how to make money from these games.

Now the company is launching its new kSuite DataMine platform that will give social and mobile developers a dashboard so that they can better engage and monetize users. The tool is aimed at database experts, and it allows them to craft their own data queries so that they can extract the most interesting information about users on an anonymous level.

San Francisco, Calif.-based Kontagent has been working on the technology for a year so that game companies and app developers can tune their virtual economies and extract more money out of users. The technology is the same that Facebook uses to mine its own database. This data analysis can give developers a good answer about what is the exact cost of user acquisition. That’s important as torrid growth slows down for a lot of applications.

“It used to cost too much to do data mining in our industry,” said Jeff Tseng (pictured middle), chief executive and co-founder of Kontagent, in an interview with VentureBeat. “This is where there is a lot of room for innovation.”

The DataMine adds a new layer of flexibility and analysis to Kontagent’s existing kSuite analytics platform. It is available as an add-on monthly subscription to kSuite. DataMine provides analysts and business intelligence professionals with access to raw data, not just reports. Users with a basic knowledge of SQL can ask questions, test hypotheses, and slice and dice the data in any way they see fit.

They can figure out why users are leaving a game and what actions to take before they drop out. They can use the analytic tool to maximize virtual goods sales and review cohorts (groups of users) over time. DataMine can answer questions such as (from Kontagent’s website):

  • What last three actions did users take before they uninstalled or failed to return?
  • What last five behaviors did users exhibit before purchasing virtual goods?
  • What are the purchase habits of my highest-value gamers or users?
  • Who are my most viral users, and how can I use that information to attract more of them?
  • What unusual spending patterns or other behaviors signal the presence of fraud or other anomalies?

The big question is whether smaller developers can now do the same kind of analysis that big companies, such as Zynga, can. Zynga has opened its infrastructure up, allowing outside game developers to publish on its platform. But Kontagent can offer analytics — in case developers don’t trust Zynga with their precious user data. Still, Zynga has a huge advantage over its competitors because it is so good at user analysis, Tseng said.

“This is a big area we can address with this release,” Tseng said. “This levels the playing field.”

Miles Lennon, a vice president of product management at beta-testing company GameGround, said that the DataMine enables the smallest features and tests. Rivals include Flurry and Kissmetrics.

In a demo of the system, Evin Levey (pictured left; Dan Kimball, chief marketing officer, pictured right), vice president of product development, showed the different kinds of metrics that Kontagent can provide. It can show installs, Facebook invitations, level changes, page views, and little things, like what happens when you buy a special pig in a farm game. If you have a casino game, what would be the best way to bundle coins for users to purchase? This kind of tool can answer that question after analysts run their experiments.

If a game doesn’t engage the user until the 15th session, something is definitely wrong with it. Kontagent already has a couple dozen beta customers who have tried it out. Data is available on an hourly basis. A formal launch will happen in the second quarter.

“This changes the conversation dramatically,” Tseng said. “There’ no more fishing around in the dark.”

[Photo credit: Dean Takahashi]

Filed under: games, social, VentureBeat

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Textbook replacement service Boundless raises $8M

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 11:59 AM PDT


Boundless, a service that curates free online content for college students, announced today it has raised $8 million in funding. The service works with Open Educational Resources (OER) to make free content available to students.

The company wants to make textbooks obsolete by offering study guides and other educational content. Right now, Boundless offers study materials in Biology, Psychology, and Economics, which are priced lower than textbooks. Co-founder Brian Balfour says that Boundless curates content from OER based on a student’s assignments.

“We build the product directly for the student and therefore also market to them directly. We want to give students [an alternative] to their expensive assigned text,” said Balfour in an email to VentureBeat.

The company has already been slapped with a few lawsuits from textbook publishers. Boundless countered, saying that it’s not taking away from the publishing business but instead offering free content already available.

While Boundless claims that it helps parse the “unstructured and not organized” data from OER, nothing is stopping students from going directly to OER to find free educational content. The service offers more than 600 free “open textbooks” that students can use as well as reference guides for studying different subjects.

One problem with Boundless is that, while it markets itself as a “textbook replacement” service, unless the material corresponds precisely with what’s being taught in a classroom, students will still have purchase a professor-mandated textbook.

Venrock led the $8 million first round, with participation from Kepha Partners, Founder Collective, and Nextview Ventures. The company’s total funding is now $10 million.

Boundless is based in Boston, Mass.

Filed under: deals, VentureBeat

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Pinterest introduces customizable board covers

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 11:30 AM PDT

Bored with your boards?

Pinterest, the visual-bookmarking site and social-network, introduced a new feature Thursday that allows for more self-expression. The site, where millions of people “pin” products to collections called “boards,” has introduced board covers.

“One of the most requested features was the ability to choose a pin to be the cover for each board,” Pinterest said in a blog post on the update. “Today, you'll be able to do just that.”

Boards. Pins. Covers. Say what? If these things are foreign concepts to you, then you’ve missed out on the most mind-blowing social-networking craze to hit the web in years. Pinterest, first launched in 2010, ballooned to 17.8 million unique visitors in February and could already be worth as much as $500 million. It’s particularly loved by arts, crafts, and food enthusiasts, with everyone from Reese Witherspoon to President Obama using it.

The new feature, live now, is as simple as they come. As members mouse over boards, they’re greeted with an “Edit board cover” button, which they click to highlight a favorite pin. The board-cover option also enables users to drag images around for optimal placement.

The board-cover feature, a relatively minor update to the overall Pinterest experience, replaces the former default look in which the most recent pin served as the board cover. It ties in nicely with the recently enhanced profile pages by adding a pinch more overall panache.

Filed under: social, VentureBeat

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Forget Hollywood — U.S. startups are in dire need of copyright protection

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 10:58 AM PDT


The recent debate over SOPA, PIPA, and OPEN has left a bitter taste among those who think the tech industry is in desperate need of intellectual property reform. Add to it the recent shutdown of Megaupload and big-time patent disputes, and it's easy to see how IP enforcement has become a weapon that threatens technological innovation in a way like never before. Despite the mess, a recent trend has left many startups crying out for greater copyright/IP protection: the rise of copycat kings like Rocket Internet in Germany, Fast Lane Ventures in Russia, and others in China, who are quick to "clone" successful U.S. businesses like Pinterest, Fab.com, Airbnb, Groupon, and Zappos in overseas markets. And I'm not just talking about taking an idea and tweaking it; this is about copying a site's entire design, layout, and logo almost pixel for pixel and coming up with some uninspired derivative name (e.g., "Pinspire" instead of Pinterest, "Zolando" instead of Zappos) that reeks of being a cheap knock-off.

Supporters of clones argue that they promote competition, spur faster innovation, and provide access to new products/services in markets that U.S. businesses have not yet entered. They also draw on the "ideas are cheap" theme, playing up the importance of execution. But all of that sidesteps the negative effects of models based on outright copying:

Cloning doesn't promote innovation; it decreases it.

Pinterest, Pinspire

Let me first say that not all copying is bad. Copying something and using it in a way that makes it recognizably different or better is often valuable—think of music remixes, parodies, or fan fiction. Isaac Newton himself said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." We don't want to overly restrict this type of copying. But copying without any sort of improvement or modification hurts innovation because it doesn't add anything to the original and takes away incentives to create the original in the first place. Xeroxing someone else's book and profiting from it as if it were your own is harmful because it takes away that person's incentive to come up with original ideas and is therefore not allowed. This is exactly the type of copying that clones use, and sooner or later it could have detrimental effects on our startup ecosystem by causing entrepreneurs to be less innovative.

It's possible that clones might force startups like Airbnb to roll out new features more quickly than they would otherwise, but do you really think the Airbnb team is not already doing everything it can to go as fast as possible? Everyone knows that life at a startup is about going full-throttle while facing resource constraints and making tradeoffs—Airbnb is going to roll out features as fast as it can regardless of whether clones exist. So to say that clones will promote faster innovation doesn't make much sense. If anything, it removes the incentives to put in the work necessary to be first. Why should a startup go to the trouble of running A/B tests, usability tests, market research, and focus groups to develop an optimal design or feature if someone else is simply going to take the end result and copy it over a weekend?

Healthy competition doesn't mean more of the same thing.

Competition has several benefits including lower prices and greater consumer choice. But successful U.S. startups already face significant competition from others attempting to capitalize on the latest trend. How does adding a clone have a meaningful impact on competition? Consumer choice should be about actually having to decide between two different options, not two of the same exact thing. Pinterest vs. Fancy is the type of competition we need. Pinterest vs. Pinspire is the type that doesn't offer much in terms of additional choice. Claims that clones add value through competition also seem much more disingenuous, given that their founders appear to build them only to sell them back to the original companies they were based on, often at a large premium (as an example, CityDeal, a Groupon clone, was acquired at a price rumored to be north of $100 million).

U.S. startups don't have a fair chance to enter overseas markets first.

Proponents of clones say that consumers in international markets like Germany and China shouldn't have to wait for U.S. companies to expand their services if someone else can provide them today. This argument would have a lot more weight if the lag time were measured in years or even months, but instead we're talking about weeks. Given that imitators claim they can roll out a clone in less than six weeks, U.S. startups don't stand a chance of beating their knock-offs to these new markets.Clones have the luxury of only having to focus on scaling quickly; innovators have to worry about both product development and scaling their business, making it more difficult for them to enter new markets as quickly as clones. The lead-time advantage that tech companies used to rely on has also been severely diminished due to cloud services like AWS, which have dramatically lowered the time and cost to get up and running.

And for those who think that clones are likely to be limited to super-successful American startups who have raised huge amounts of funding, think again. Just look at Wrapp, a Swedish gift-giving service that was just a few months old when Rocket launched a clone called DropGifts, despite the fact that Wrapp's business model is untested and the team only raised a modest amount of funding. Clones are simply making it harder and more expensive for startups to launch in overseas markets. We might even see more U.S. startups staying in stealth longer until they can launch in several markets at once, meaning everyone would have to wait longer to benefit from new products/services.

Two potential solutions that give greater IP protection to U.S. startups would help improve the current clone problem:

International harmonization for enforcement against "close copies"

The recent escalation in international IP disputes has highlighted the problems with different enforcement standards. When you're talking about trying to stop overseas clones, U.S. startups are basically out of luck since IP rules in other countries are either much more lenient or simply not enforced. The U.S. has recently been pushing for international IP harmonization, but unfortunately those efforts have been focused on treaties like ACTA which are designed to protect large content providers when they should instead try to address the issue of protecting U.S. entrepreneurship. There needs to be a mechanism/process in place for allowing U.S. startups to shut down overseas clones that are essentially "close copies" of the original.

Lead time protection for entering new markets

There should be some built-in time that is reserved for the original business to enter overseas markets before it can be copied. This could last just a few months and would at least protect against clones who seek to enter markets within weeks of a launch. After that period expires, clones could start copying but should be required to improve on the original in some way that differentiates it from the original.

Such a move would not be as radical as it sounds. In the 1980s, innovators in the semiconductor industry complained that it took significant time and money to develop new chip designs that were vulnerable to rapid, cheap cloning by competitors, especially foreign ones. This chip "piracy" threatened the ability of U.S. companies to recoup their investments. In response, Congress passed the Semiconductor Chip Protection Act (SCPA) which allowed competitors to use new, innovative designs if they improved on them enough to make something original. As a result, this promoted follow-on innovation, increased competition, and led to U.S. firms dominating the global chip industry.

Tech has remained resilient despite the broader economy's up and downs these last few years in part because it's such a hotbed of entrepreneurship. We should be concerned about the negative effects of startup "piracy" and the risks of deterring startup innovation. So much attention has been given to Hollywood lately about the threat of lost jobs and profits due to content piracy that we're missing the possibility that the piracy that's really going to have that type of impact is startup cloning. Unless we do something about it.

This is a guest post written by Wei Lien Dang, who is currently a JD/MBA student at Harvard University. He studies entrepreneurship, venture capital, and emerging issues in Internet law.

Cloned woman photo via Hasloo Group Production Studio/Shutterstock

Filed under: media, social, VentureBeat

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Multiplayer beta details for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 10:53 AM PDT

Ubisoft announced today that the latest in the Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon series, Future Soldier, will be getting a multiplayer beta, beginning on April 19 and running through May 2. The beta will be available on both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.

According to the press release, up to 12 players will be able to play together, choosing from three different classes, including Rifleman, Engineer and Scout. They’ll be playing across two unique modes, as well. In Conflict mode, teams will battle in sessions of 15 minutes to complete objectives throughout one of the two maps to earn points. In Saboteur mode, the teams will compete to retrieve a bomb and detonate it at the other team’s base, winning the 10 minute round. The beta will include two maps, called Pipeline and Mill.

Want to get in on the beta? If you own Splinter Cell Conviction on the Xbox 360, pre-order Ghost Recon: Future Soldier on XBox 360 from GameStop, or are a PlayStation Plus member, you’ll be able to hop in on the action on the 19th of April.

Ubisoft also announced a companion service that will allow players to “interact with” Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and future Ghost Recon games from tablets, smartphones and web browsers. This free service, called Ghost Recon Network, will launch with the game on May 22 at the same time as the iOS and Android apps to access it.

Players will use the network to customize and share in-game weapons, track their history and their friends’ in-game status, get exclusive rewards like in-game credits and weapons/weapon skins, build and manage their squad, and access detailed game info and heat maps to become a better player.

Ubisoft is a leading publisher of video games based in France with offices in over 26 countries.

Filed under: games, mobile

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SpiderCloud grabs $35M to improve mobile network coverage and capacity indoors

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 10:46 AM PDT


Networking equipment startup SpiderCloud Wireless has raised a new $35 million round amid tough competition, with a plan to upgrade its tech that makes cell phone service better indoors.

Santa Clara-based SpiderCloud’s business is focused on increasing capacity and coverage for network operators and enterprise customers who have more employees than ever using cell phones for calling instead of desk phones.

The company faces competition from carriers like AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon and other manufacturers that have already invested in femtocell technology that uses broadband connections to improve coverage indoors.

SpiderCloud has raised more than $75 million, including the new $35 million round of funding. Its last round raised totaled $25 million in Feb. 2010. Previous investors Charles River Ventures, Matrix Partners, Shasta Ventures, and Opus Capital all participated in the new round of funding. The Wall Street Journal reports that the company raised its latest round at a near $200 million valuation.

"One of the biggest issues in wireless is the lack of in-building coverage," Bruce Sachs, a partner at Charles River Ventures, told the Journal. "There haven't been any good solutions."

SpiderCloud CEO Mike Gallagher told the Journal this would be the company’s final round of funding.

SpiderCloud networking image: SpiderCloud YouTube

Filed under: deals, enterprise, mobile, VentureBeat

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Rumors of a smaller iPad live on, thanks to Apple’s No. 1 fan John Gruber

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 10:36 AM PDT

We’ve already seen a fair amount of rumors regarding a smaller iPad (our own sources pointed to Apple buying 7-inch screens), but now Apple’s biggest fan John Gruber is saying the company is testing smaller 7.85-inch iPads in its labs.

Speaking on The Talk Show podcast, the Daring Fireball writer said that the smaller iPad being tested runs the same 1024-by-768 resolution of the iPad 1 and iPad 2, which means apps should run just fine without any tweaking.  "I've heard from multiple people that this is something that they're kind of noodling with," Gruber said.

He went on to clarify it’s unclear if this small iPad will ever hit the market. It’s well-known that Apple likes to test all sorts of far-fetched products in its labs, most of which never get released. But as far as crazy Apple rumors go, I wouldn’t count out a smaller iPad. Such a device would be cheaper than the current iPad (likely even cheaper than the $400 iPad 2) and far more portable.

Most importantly, a smaller iPad could make sure Apple doesn’t lose too much ground to the cheaper $200 Kindle Fire, which has a 7-inch screen and remains the only Android tablet to take off with consumers.

Via The Next Web

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Final Fantasy characters showcase Prada’s 2012 collection

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 10:31 AM PDT

Final Fantasy XIII-2 Prada fashion showcase Arena Homme+

Game publisher Square Enix and fashion magazine Arena Homme+ have joined forces to showcase the latest line of men’s clothing from Prada. Using characters from Final Fantasy XIII-2 as part of the franchise’s 25th anniversary celebration, the 12-page feature will appear in the April 12th issue of Arena Homme+.

"Our Spring issue focuses on a world of direction and escapism, and having a visually stunning video game franchise such as Final Fantasy work alongside us and a leading fashion brand like Prada to create something so unique is incredible," said Max Pearmain, editor of Arena Homme+. "I’ve always been interested by the power of video games and their place in society, and the amount of work that’s gone into this project blows my mind. We’re incredibly pleased with the result."

"The Final Fantasy series is known for its creativity and innovation; so working with Prada, a renowned fashion house with such beautiful clothing was a very exciting opportunity. The images we have been able to create together are vibrant and unique," said Yoshinori Kitase, producer of Final Fantasy XIII-2.

The CG imagery was created by Square Enix's Visual Works studio in Japan; the same outfit responsible for the feature-length computer-animated film Final Fantasy VII: Adventure Children.

The fact that female protagonist Lightning is seen modeling men’s clothing really doesn’t do the whole “androgynous JRPG hero stereotype” any favors, but the collaboration itself is just one more step towards integrating video games with mainstream culture. GamesBeat approves (naturally).

Filed under: games

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