13 May, 2012



Overexposed? Thanks to SceneTap, San Francisco bars are now profiling you

Posted: 13 May 2012 08:54 AM PDT

Imagine this. You and your girlfriend walk into a neighborhood bar, order a cocktail, and, unbeknownst to you both, a camera above is scanning your faces to determine your age and gender. Your deets are combined with data on other bar patrons and then spit out to looky-loo mobile application users trolling for a good-time venue with the right genetic make-up.

This isn’t make believe, folks. Rather, it’s a very real scenario that you may have already experienced thanks to a Chicago-based startup called SceneTap, which went live in San Francisco at 25 bars on Friday.

SceneTap is a maker of cameras that pick up on facial characteristics to determine a person’s approximate age and gender. The company works with venues to install these cameras and track customers. It also makes web and mobile applications that allow random observers to find out, in real-time, the male-to-female ratio, crowd size, and average age of a bar’s patrons. And no one goes unnoticed. “We represent EVERYONE in the venue,” SceneTap proudly proclaims on its website.

Launched in Chicago last July, SceneTap is now live in seven markets, including San Francisco and Austin, and has tracked more than 8.5 million people at 400 partner venues. Bamboo Hut, Bar None, milk bar, The Abassador, Fluid Ultra Lounge and 20 other San Francisco locations now have the i-spy cameras in place.

The technology walks the thin line between creepy and fascinating. SceneTap promises that all data is collected anonymously and that nothing is recorded or stored. For nightlife-lovers, it’s a fail-proof way to get a preview of a bar or club. Venues can offer specials, and are given tools to gauge the effectiveness of their campaigns. Did that happy hour margie discount, for instance, bring in more ladies?

Okay so, some may think, no big deal. What’s the harm in a little anonymous profiling? In fact, the company said it’s already fast-approaching 100,000 users (we’d like to know the demographic breakdown of those people).

But others may find it disconcerting, sketchy, and perfect for the opportunist. Do we really want the bad eggs of the world to know when a bar or restaurant is overpopulated with young women? My colleague Jolie O’Dell likened it to creepster application Girls Around Me, recently calling SceneTap, “an absolute sewer of an application.”

What’s most troubling about SceneTap, at least to this social media enthusiast who often overexposes herself by way of public Foursquare check-ins and tweets, is that the consumer has no say in the matter. Walk into one of these bars and you’re being digitally sized up — and there’s nothing you can do about it. And who’s to say SceneTap won’t start collecting other traits such as height, weight, ethnicity, or wealth?

We do know that SceneTap hopes to put its facial detection cameras to work in other markets. The startup already has its eyes on the retail sector. Let’s just hope the cameras don’t find their way into dressing rooms.

SceneTap is seed funded and has 17 employees. The startup said it’s in the process of raising a Series A round of financing.

Filed under: mobile, social

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Former Xbox 360 exec’s $1B pain and advice to entrepreneurs

Posted: 13 May 2012 08:00 AM PDT

Robbie Bach at Northwest Entrepreneurs

Humans make mistakes. Rarely, however, does a single error rack up $1 billion in damages as it did in the case of the Xbox 360′s red-ring-of-death issue. That, of course, is the dark period early in the console’s history when, according to some tests, over 15 percent of the hardware units were experiencing failure.

Former president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Device Division, Robbie Bach, called that point in time “the most painful thing in my life.” VentureBeat chronicled the story of the defects in the Xbox 360 in a six-part story in 2008, and Bach looked back on his decade with the Xbox team last fall.

Bach’s mea culpa came in a talk that Bach gave to the Northwest Entrepreneur Network (as covered by GeekWire) about “intrapreneurship” which is when a smaller team creates a startup project within a well-established company infrastructure. The former Microsoft man outlined four strategies he learned from his time leading the gaming division.

Create discontinuity

When Microsoft entered gaming with the original Xbox, it didn’t mimic the PlayStation 2. Instead, it created discontinuity with its product by including a hard drive and broadband-Internet support. “[The on-board storage] was an expensive way to get into the marketplace, but it made our product different,” Bach said. “It enabled downloads, it enabled a whole set of things to happen that couldn’t happen on the PS2.”

The executive also explained that Bill Gates thought that Bach and his team were crazy for wanting to remove the dial-up modem from the Xbox design. “Bill said to us, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” Bach recalled. “So we had a three-week email debate, and had to go back and have a meeting and convince Bill that taking the modem out was the right thing. Today, some people in [this audience] probably don’t even know what a modem is.”

Employ unique marketing and branding

According to Bach, the official marketing campaign successfully branded the Xbox as more powerful than the competitors while emphasizing the ability to play games online. The other systems were technically capable of the latter, but only Microsoft’s system and the Xbox Live platform become synonymous with internet play.

Partner with companies who benefit from your success

“When you’re doing a startup, you need friends. It’s just the way life works. It turned out we were able to convince retailers and publishers like Activision, Electronic Arts, and others, that it was a good thing for Microsoft to be successful, because if we were not successful, the only game in town was Sony,” Bach said. As with any business, a lack of options can be dangerous. Microsoft presented the Xbox as an alternative if relationships with Sony began to sour. (Of course, it took years to convince EA that Xbox Live was in EA’s interests).

Capitalize on your competitor’s errors

"Some of the success of Xbox was due to the fact that Sony did some really not so smart things. They mismanaged their 70-percent market share. It's a long conversation. The transition to PlayStation 3 was really, really bad. And really hard. They mismanaged their partners, they mismanaged their cost structure. They made their next platform so complicated that developers couldn't develop for it,” Bach pointed out.

While the Xbox line had the benefit of Microsoft’s huge bankroll, the former president was quick to point out that such resources never guarantees success. Look at the Zune.

"Even if you do these things, some startups fail, and that's just the way the world works. It's a painful process. That's true in a big company, and it's true in a small company.”

Bach left Microsoft in 2010. He currently holds position on the boards for the Boys & Girls Club of America and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

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

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Zuck’s dawdle in the NY Sheraton bathroom, a sign of things to come

Posted: 12 May 2012 05:37 PM PDT

Zuckerberg in hoodieThat little anecdote about Facebook’s roadshow meeting in New York was  widely reported this past week, but it’s being picked up as symbolic of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s indifference to Wall Street.

For those of you who missed the report, Zuckerbeg was still in the men’s room as the audience of Wall Street heavy-hitters waited for him outside in the ballroom of the Sheraton hotel on Monday. His deputy, Sheryl Sandberg was apparently forced to get started with questions and answers while they waited for him. When he did come out, he wore a gray hoodie, which was considered a snub by some of the buttoned up suits of Wall Street. Here was Zuckerberg, supposedly trying to sell the street on the merits of Facebook’s IPO, and he just wasn’t taking them seriously.

The anecdote anchors the NYT story this morning about Zuckerberg.

Arguably, it’s exactly Zuckerberg’s defiance, and his focus on doing what is important to grow his company, and impatience with formalities that interfere with that focus, that make him such a strong product leader. Investors in Facebook better get used to it, because this isn’t going to change.

Michael Pachter, an analyst for Wedbush Securities, also in widely reported remarks, said Zuckerberg’s actions were signs of immaturity. Pachter likened him to Steve Jobs, in that he’s an eccentric leader who doesn’t want to answer anyone. Pachter says Jobs’ attitude was a big reason he was forced out of Apple early in his career. Jobs was able to return only after learning some lessons. And only then did he lead his company to its greatest heights.

It’s that worry, about whether Zuck is mature enough to lead the company, that accounts for the different accounts going on right now about how Wall Street is embracing Facebook’s IPO plans. Some are saying there is robust investor demand for the IPO shares, while other reports suggest that there is weakness. In fact, those two reports can be compatible, because the latter one referred mainly to Wall Street institutional investor appetite, and was simply citing a few representatives of that group of investors. If Facebook decides to rely on individual investors — the non-suits — there’s plenty of interest in the IPO.

Despite his critical comments, analyst Pachter is recommending investors buy the company’s stock — and that’s even though he doubts whether Zuckerberg is the right person to lead the company.

For now, Zuckerberg will be firmly in control, and he’s done very well so far along the road. At just eight years old, Facebook is about to be valued somewhere close to $100 billion as a public company, one of the biggest, if not the biggest accomplishments of an entrepreneur yet. It’s just way too early to start asking whether this guy is fit to run the company. He’s already come a long way as a leader, as I documented three years ago.

As long as Facebook continues to grow revenue and profits decently over the next few years, my guess is there won’t be any serious question about his leadership. But if he fails to execute, you can be sure eyes will soon turn toward the more polished Sandberg for direction — and no, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the board has to orchestrate a coup to put her in that leadership position (like what happened to Jobs).

[Photo credit: Reuters].

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Apple backs down from iPad 4G controversy, calls it only “WiFi + Cellular”

Posted: 12 May 2012 03:23 PM PDT

WiFi plus CellularApple has changed the name of the latest generation of its cellular-connecting iPad in some countries, calling it simply “iPad WiFi + Cellular,” after a wave of complaints from people claiming that Apple’s previous branding was wrong and misleading.

The change was first reported by 9to5Mac. See image below.

Until the change, Apple was using the name “iPad WiFi + 4G,” implying that its newest iPads used fast 4G, or LTE-grade networks. However, in many countries where the newest iPad was being sold, including in Australia and the UK, there were no carriers that actually offered such quality networks. Some consumers felt misled. Australia actually sued Apple. While Apple had previously discontinued its marketing campaigns around 4G in those countries, this is the first time it is actually changing the name of the iPad itself. Apple made the change because of continued confusion in places like the UK.

Notably, Apple even changed the name in the U.S. and Canada, the two countries where 4G LTE is offered by at least five carriers. It also changed the name on its Web sites in UAE, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, Ireland, Hong Kong and Malaysia. However, apparently it hasn’t changed the name in all countries yet — though that’s probably because the change was decided on just a couple of days ago and it probably takes a while for sites to make the change.

iPad WiFi plus cellular

Top image is from Apple’s site today; bottom image from May 9th

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Scott Thompson: Should he stay or should he go now?

Posted: 12 May 2012 02:58 PM PDT

What a week it’s been! Here are the stories we discuss in this week’s edition of VBWeekly:

  • Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Scott Thompson, a poor CEO who… well, who lied on his resume then got hired by Yahoo.
  • Facebook is getting its own app store.
  • Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Eduardo, a poor Facebook co-founder who worked really hard-o. Or not. Either way, he’s renouncing his U.S. citizenship, and everybody’s got an opinion about that.

Stay tuned for next week’s very special episode, when we cover the big Facebook IPO as it unfolds in all its gore and glory.

Filed under: video

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Kutcher looks more and more like Jobs — as biopic release date nears

Posted: 12 May 2012 02:17 PM PDT

Ashton Kutcher acts Steve JobsTMZ has released photos showing actor Ashton Kutcher wearing a black turtleneck, jeans and New Balance sneakers, as he apparently made his way to the film set of the late Apple CEO’s biopic in L.A. yesterday.

Ashton Kutcher plays Steve JobsThe film is due out in the fourth quarter, and is being filmed now. Its producer Mark Hulme has said Ashton was picked because he carries physical similarities to Jobs. These include the youthfulness of Jobs at the time (the film focuses on the early era, before even the release of the iPod) but also “the psychological complexity.”

Judging from the traffic we’ve seen here at VentureBeat on our posts about Kutcher and the film, there’s going to be significant interest in this film even if Kutcher doesn’t completely nail the complexity part (you can see from the image above that he’s trying). It’s a tall order. As TMZ notes: “part hippie, part driven businessman, part brilliant, and part crazy.”

[Image credits: TMZ]

Filed under: VentureBeat

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If Google gobbles Meebo for $100M, this time I won’t eat my hat

Posted: 12 May 2012 01:02 PM PDT

Meebo Google eat hatGoogle is in talks to acquire Meebo for about $100 million, according to a report from AllThingsD. If the deal goes through, it would make a lot of sense, because Meebo still has a lot of talent, and its products are reasonably aligned with Google’s efforts to counter Facebook.

So I won’t eat my hat.

The last time I dismissed a rumor about Meebo — yes, that rumor back in 2008 that Meebo was being valued at $200M by investors during an investment round — I foolishly promised to eat my hat if the rumor was true. Well, that rumor was true, and I ate said hat. More on that in a second.

But first, why a Google acquisition of Meebo makes sense:

In the early days, Meebo grabbed a huge number of users with its early web-based IM client, because the service let users chat across different chat platforms like MSN, AOL and Yahoo. Meebo stocked up with talented developers, and raised a treasure trove of funding. But failing to find a way to make money from its large reach, Meebo started pivoting in 2009. It released a horizontal tool bar that web site publishers could place on their sites to promote social sharing, allow real-time notifications — and most importantly overlay advertising. That bar got decent distribution, but it wasn’t very customizable, and hasn’t stayed up with design best standards. In fact, it has become really annoying for some: Last month, Gizmodo called the bar and its distracting ads “awful,” and told readers how to disable it. After the negative publicity, big site Boston.com scrambled to take Meebo down from it ssite.

So while Meebo isn’t exactly spreading like wildfire anymore, there are reasons why Google might like to buy it.

In 2010, Meebo gained Google’s favor by helping push a web standard called XAuth , which let users come to sites and use whatever social network they liked, not just the all-pervasive Twitter and Facebook. At the time, this helped publishers promote second-tier players like Google, which was trying to promote Google Buzz. Google later scrapped Buzz, and last year launched Google Plus, a more ambitious social network that is now arguably Google’s most important initiative.

Meebo has also continued to explore ways to deliver to users content and advertising that are relevant to their interests — whether through the Meebo bar, or through other features like Meebo’s Mini Bar and Bookmarklet. The Bookmarket aims to let users share interesting content to friends, and to see similar content from their friends. Meebo boasts on its front page that it is helping users create “interest profiles.” Of course, targeting — and socially driven targeting at that — is exactly what Google needs to boost its Google Plus efforts. And it’s also something that Meebo doesn’t seem ready to pull off by itself, given Facebook’s dominance in this area. Add to that Meebo’s team of 173 people, many of them engineers, but many also many with solid media and marketing backgrounds attractive to Google’s advertising DNA. It looks like a very nice match.

Indeed, this deal makes a hell of a lot more sense than that other big rumor about Meembo– the so absurd that it prompted me to pledge to eat my hat. That was mid-2008, so long ago, it was a different age, one where hype still reigned, but one where we clearly entering a major downturn. But yet, in mid-2008, we began hearing that investors were planning to pump in $25 million into Meebo at a pre-money valuation of $200 million. How, I asked at the time, could that be possible given that Meebo had shown no way of making money, and we were entering a time of  investor sobriety. Well, it turned out that Meebo managed to grab the last $25 million exuberant money left. Just a few months later, the tech economy fell off the cliff, prompting Sequoia Capital’ famous RIP presentation, where Silicon Valley’s famous venture capital firm warned of the biggest recessions in history and told companies — one of them was Meebo — that they had better start cutting costs to get ready for it.

In that light, then, the $100 million being rumored for the acquisition would be a disappointment for Meebo and its investors. The investors who came in during that heady 2008 round buying Meebo shares at a $200M valuation — JAFCO Ventures, with Time Warner Investments, KTB Ventures — will probably lose money. Meebo did raise another $27.5 million in 2010, meaning it has raised at least $65 million, and that’s probably what has kept it going for so long.

Filed under: deals

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The newest social media fad? Buying a token share of Facebook stock

Posted: 12 May 2012 10:12 AM PDT

"When my kids were born, my dad bought them Disney shares, and we framed them and hung them up on the wall. They're excited to know that they are a part of Disney.”

Mike Jones, MySpace’s onetime CEO, told VentureBeat that story a few months ago when we asked him if he planned to buy Facebook stock.

"People will just want to own the stock," he said. “People will log into E-Trade and buy Facebook stock because they love it and use it everyday."

Buying a nominal number of Facebook shares as a novelty or to “be part of” the company’s history might be the latest social media trend. The company is going public at the end of next week, and the web is buzzing with opinions and early decisions about the IPO.

While financial heavy-hitters and tech experts are loudly sounding their Facebook-stock-buying plans and giving the proletariat voluminous opinions on how much to buy (and when to sell), normal Facebook users are eyeing the stock in the same way you’d eye a tchotchke in a gift store window at your favorite zoo or theme park. It’s a memento of the day, a reminder of a time and a place when so many memories were made on this one social network.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

In a market decline, new tech stocks fall first

Days away from its IPO, Facebook faces an FTC probe

Here’s how much WE would pay for Facebook stock

Facebook’s pitch: Watch the IPO commercial

Why Reddit founder won’t buy: Facebook supports cyber surveillance

Whether or not Facebook stock retains its value into the future — heck, whether or not Facebook itself still exists in the future — isn’t of too much concern to these buyers.

Tech PR pro Brian Kramer said the thought of buying a couple of Facebook shares “has actually crossed my mind, just to see what shakes out.” He continued that he’d be making the purchase as a “novelty for now, but you never know.”

“You never know” seems to be something of a theme among these casual traders. Twitter user @uberfuzzy told us he planned to buy a few shares “first as a novelty (and to get the financial docs), possibly more later for investment if they don’t MySpace themselves.”

Most normal Facebook users won’t be buying any shares, but the what-the-heck buyers are almost equal in number to those planning to buy for long-term investment or short-term gains, according to our own limited man-on-the-street polls.

Shares of Facebook stock are likely to enjoy a quick value growth spurt, especially in the first few days and months of trading. Analysts are comparing this IPO to Google’s in 2004. Google’s share price started at $85 and currently sits at around $600, with the company recently announcing a stock split.

If Facebook’s stock follows the same trend, these just-for-fun shares could increase their value many times over, potentially ending up worth hundreds of dollars within a few years. One or two shares alone won’t pay anyone’s tuition; still, it’s a fascinating timestamp of the moment when nearly a billion people gathered online at the most important social destination in the world: Facebook.

Facebook is scheduled to makes its debut on the Nasdaq Friday, May 18, 2012. Shares will start selling in a price range between $28 and $35, but prices are expected to rise dramatically and quickly.

Filed under: social, VentureBeat

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