Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Latest from TechCrunch

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The Latest from TechCrunch

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With A New API, Aviary Wants To Become The Twilio Of Photo Effects (Video)

Posted: 04 May 2011 08:57 AM PDT

Mobile apps like Instagram and PicPlz made photo filters popular, and now every photo app needs to have filters and effects. But not every developer wants to spend the time and resources to come up with his own effects. Online image-editing service Aviary hopes to fill that need with a new photo effects API it is launching today. Alex Taub, head of business development for Aviary, took me through a demo of the new APIs and what they can do in the video above.

Developers can choose from a variety of effects and filters—everything from red-eye reduction to “Bad Ass” (which makes photos look like Andy Warhol prints). There are also effects like Toy Camera, black and white, or adding a logo. watermark. Aviary hopes to become the Twilio of photo effects for developers (much like Twilio gave rise to apps like GroupMe through its SMS and telephony APIs). Aviary will be at the Disrupt NYC Hackathon this year showcasing this new API.

The API is free now during a beta period. Aviary will eventually implement a tiered pricing plan. Aviary also revamped its homepage to better highlight its different products.



Datran Media Acquires Citizen Journalism Platform Allvoices

Posted: 04 May 2011 08:47 AM PDT

Exclusive: Digital Marketing company Datran Media has acquired Allvoices, a fast-growing citizen journalism platform. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed by the companies but we hear the acquisition was a mixture of cash and stock.

Allvoices, which has raised $9 million in funding and launched in 2008, is the brainchild of former VC Amra Tareen. The site allows anyone to contribute blog posts, images, videos and other observations, on local and global news.

Allvoices’ proprietary technology will tag, rank and sort news based on a global, regional, country and city pages and will determine what is breaking news and popular (in terms of phases of a news cycle). The system will also filter for spam, police the site, fact check each user report for credibility and assign a credibility rating to each news report. And the platform lets users file reports from their cell phone via MMS and SMS, which is helpful to users in countries where computer usage is low but mobile device usage is high.

The platform, which has hundreds of thousands of citizen journalists contributing content, has a significant presence internationally, most recently launching global news desks in 30 different cities around the world, where both professional and citizen journalists will provide regular in-country reports from the ground.

Datran Media plans to extend the Allvoices crowd-sourcing platform into other categories beyond news, and will be integrating its social distribution technology into the site’s content. Datran will also license the platform’s crowdsourced content technology to publishers and brands. Tareen will become the SVP of strategy for Datran Media and the remainder of Allvoices’ staff will be joining the parent company.

Other exits in the citizen journalism space include NowPublic, which was acquired by the Examiner in 2009 for $25 million. Hyperlocal news site EveryBlock was acquired by MSNBC, and AOL picked up Patch in 2009.



comScore: Facebook Now Serves One Third Of Online Ads In U.S.

Posted: 04 May 2011 08:37 AM PDT

Facebook is so large that it now accounts for about one out of every three ad impressions in the U.S., according to the latest statistics from comScore Ad Metrix. In the first quarter of 2011, comScore estimates that 1.1 trillion ads were served to U.S. Internet users, and 346 billion of those (or 31 percent) were on Facebook. This percentage is up from 23 percent in the third quarter of last year.

No other Web property even comes close to Facebook in terms of number of display ads served. Yahoo is No. 2 (with 10 percent share), followed by Microsoft (5 percent), AOL (3 percent), and Google (2.5 percent). These figures are just for their own sites, and do not include their ad networks.

Facebook has the volume, but it is also beginning to experiment with new forms of ads which are themselves more social. These ads look more like News items shared by friends than typical display ads. Until those start kicking in, however, Facebook can just keep putting display ads on its ever-growing share of pages people look at on the Internet.



Tim Armstrong Gives Some Project Devil Details

Posted: 04 May 2011 08:13 AM PDT

AOL CEO Tim Armstrong is betting on the devil. Project Devil, that is. Those are the ad units on AOL properties (including TechCrunch), and now on Hearst sites as well, that take up all the ad spots with one campaign. Instead of 14 different ads on a page, the same space if all given to one advertiser. They are designed to be more engaging as well via the addition of maps, videos, and other interactive elements. In today’s first quarter earnings call, Armstrong told analysts: “On every single benchmark, Devil Ads perform better.”

He then broke down some stats: compared to “industry benchmarks” (i.e. run-of-the-mill display ads), AOL is seeing 6.4X the engagement rate with Project Devil ads than standard ones (10 percent versus 1.5 percent engagement), 1.9X the click-through rate, and 3.4X the time spent with the ads for those people who do engage (47 seconds versus 14 seconds). Project Devil video ads are played twice as much as other video ads.

If ads are AOL’s monetization engine, then Project Devil is the turbocharger. “Devil is currently a very small part of our inventory,” Armstrong says, “but a growing part of the revenue picture. We can use less inventory and get a bigger bang for the buck.”

AOL needs as much bang as it can get. In the first quarter, AOL was still fighting a 17 percent decline in total revenues, with the subscription business down 24 percent, and search and contextual ads down another 21 percent. But there was one bright spot. Display advertising looks like it may have turned the corner for AOL, with 4 percent revenue growth overall and 11 percent growth domestically. Project Devil is a part of that.

AOL eliminated 55 percent of its ad impressions by cleaning up its pages, and revenues still grew. The flip side of that is attracting a bigger audience on the content side. AOL si now the No. 2 online video publisher in terms of unique viewers. The Huffington Post alone grew 27 percent in unique visitors during the quarter from December, and Patch grew more than 100 percent off a small base (total unique visitors for Patch is now 6.5 million). The locally-targeted ads on Patch also do better than normal display, but that is another story and Patch still has a long way to go.

AOL’s new initiatives with Project Devil, Patch, and video are promising starts. Now Armstrong needs to scale them up.



PowerReviews Raises $10 Million To Power Customer Reviews For Retailers And Brands

Posted: 04 May 2011 08:00 AM PDT

PowerReviews, a company that provides customer review technology for retailers and e-commerce sites, has raised $10 million in new funding led by Four Rivers Group, with Woodside Fund, Menlo Ventures and Tenaya Capital participating in the round. This investment brings PowerReview’s total venture funding to $37 million.

PowerReviews, which launched in 2007, provides retailers and brands with the ability to collect, organize and analyze comments and other user-generated content. The company also recently launched an integration with Facebook to bring the consumer's social graph into the product review process. Customers include Staples, REI, ESPN, Callaway and Jockey.

And in April, PowerReviews was awarded its second patent relating to its SaaS commenting product for brands, which makes it possible to display content on brands' product pages that can be crawled by search engines.

PowerReviews also powers a consumer-facing site, Buzzillions.com, that aggregates reviews from its partner retailers. The site includes over 15 million product reviews. PowerReviews says that it is growing by around 1 million reviews per month.

The new funding will be used to extend product development efforts and expand sales operations.



Chatroulette Parts With Private Parts, Looking For A New Look

Posted: 04 May 2011 07:59 AM PDT

Chatroulette is plotting another comeback!

The Russian website that allows complete strangers to jump from one awkward random video chat to the next was all the rage among the Web's tastemakers in the first half of last year, but it seems like everyone’s now pretty much moved on. The fact that the site was – and is still – frequently used by creeps who couldn’t seem to keep their pants on didn’t help much in that regard.

Anyway, Chatroulette is still around, and despite the existence of sites like YouTube, VEVO and direct competitors such as Tinychat, they claim to be the ‘largest video social network’ in the world, attracting more than 20 million visitors per month.

Chatroulette plans to announce later today that, in the past six months, it has been doing everything it can to remove all ‘inappropriate content’ from the website. The company says it has developed “both electronic and human methods” to clear the site of sneaky masturbators and whatnot, using optical recognition techniques and 32 full-time reviewing agents, which I like to refer to as cock capturing systems and full-time genital gawkers instead.

All this should make Chatroulette a clean, safe but still anonymous video chat experience. I’ve heard repeatedly from companies like venture-backed companies like Tinychat and live video streaming providers like Ustream and Justin.tv that achieving this is both expensive and difficult, which makes me curious about Chatroulette’s ability to avoid penis sightings.

Fact is they’ve boasted about banning genitals from the site before, only to be caught with their pants down time and time again.

Sites like Pick or Skip and Supyo are trying to get this right, too, by the way.

In other news, Chatroulette, which had been given a – peculiar – new look at the beginning of this year, has teamed up with 99Designs to launch a contest to design both a fresh logo for the service and a revamped website.  

Winners will be awarded a $1,000 each, for both the winning logo and web design.  

Finally, Chatroulette tells me they’re pursuing aggressive growth and have a pipeline filled with new projects, which will be announced in the coming months.

Time will tell whether Chatroulette was really just a fad, or if they’re in it for the long run.

On a far too insidery sidenote: we had a lot of fun coming up with a good headline about this. We hope you like our choice, but feel free to come up with better alternatives in the comments below.



Chinese Social Network Renren Prices $743M IPO At $14 Per Share, At High End Of Range

Posted: 04 May 2011 06:35 AM PDT

Chinese social network Renren has priced its its initial public offering of shares at $14 per share, with a total offering size of $743.4 million. The price per share falls into the high range that the Street expected, which was $12 to $14 per share. The shares will begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange today under the symbol “RENN.”

Of the 53,100,000 ADSs being offered, 42,898,711 ADSs are offered by Renren and 10,201,289 ADSs are offered by the selling shareholders. The Company has granted the underwriters a 30-day option to purchase up to an additional 7,965,000 ADSs at the initial public offering price to cover over-allotment.

As we wrote a few days ago, there has been strong interest in Renren’s IPO because it is one of the first social networks to go public in the current climate. The site is the closest thing China has to Facebook, and this could be a precursor to see how Facebook could do on the public market.

The Financial Times reported earlier this week that success of the pitch to market Renren as a “Facebook” like site for the Chinese market resulted in an increase in the share price range from the initial $9-$11 to $12-$14. That increase resulted in a boost in the deal size to $743.4 million from the original price of $584 million.

But Renren doesn’t have the scale that Facebook does. The social networking site only has around 20 to 30 million active monthly users and around 100 million registered users in total.

TechCrunch contributor Jeremy Goldkorn outlines many of Renren’s strengths and weaknesses here, which is worth a read.

Now that the network is on the public market, we’ll see how the Street responds. So far, shares are up over 47 percent to $20.65.



Warner Bros. Acquires Social Movie Site Flixster (And Rotten Tomatoes)

Posted: 04 May 2011 06:14 AM PDT

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group has acquired social movie discovery site Flixster. The acquisition also includes Rotten Tomatoes, a movie review site Flixster acquired from News Corp. last year. Under the terms of the deal, Flixster will continue to operate independently and will expand its services beyond movie discovery. Financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

Warner’s interest was originally reported by AllThingsD in March, and the price of the site was valued at between $60 million and $90 million. Flister has raised a total of $7 million in funding.

From the release: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group will utilize the powerful Flixster brand and technical expertise to launch a number of initiatives designed to grow digital content ownership, including the recently announced consumer application "Digital Everywhere." This studio-agnostic application will be the ultimate destination for consumers to organize and access their entire digital library from anywhere on the device of their choice, as well as to share recommendations and discover new content. The Flixster acquisition and "Digital Everywhere," combined with the Studio's support of the UltraViolet format are all part of an overall strategy to give consumers even more freedom, utility and value for their digital purchases.

Warner Bros. has been aggressively pushing its own digital strategy, most recently bringing movie rentals to Facebook.

And Flixster’s social movie platform could be complimentary to this strategy. Flixster’s popular cross-platform movie discovery application on mobile platforms has seen 35 million downloads to date and Rotten Tomatoes is seeing 12 million unique visitors per month. The Flixster and Rotten Tomatoes will remain fully independent, says Warner and the Flixster team will stay in San Francisco and the Rotten Tomatoes team will continue to work autonomously in Los Angeles.

Of course, there’s the obvious conflict of interest between review site Rotten Tomatoes and studio Warner Bros.; so it should be interesting to see how that shakes out.



Scrible Launches Rich Web Annotation App To The Public

Posted: 04 May 2011 06:00 AM PDT


Startup Scrible is launching its rich web annotation tool to the public today. Scrible is also announcing that it has received a $500,000 grant from the National
Science Foundation (NSF).

The service’s bookmarklet allows users to save and organize web pages and richly annotate articles with highlighters and sticky notes. You can also share annotated web pages with others. All of your saved web annocations are stored within your Scrible account and the startup will index this so your can search and filter through your saved content.

One of the virtues of using Scrible is that it saves the whole contents of the page for later, so the page and content is still saved in case the information changes or goes offline. The startup says that its tool is ideal for any sort of web research, especially in the educational fields.

Scrible faces competition from Instapaper.



Would You Like A Slashtag With That? Blekko Begins Powering Topix Search

Posted: 04 May 2011 05:55 AM PDT

Topix, the largely under-the-radar platform for local news, information, and influence, has been aggregating local news and community discussions for nearly 7 years. Over this time, the platform has quietly grown to over 13 million monthly visitors, according to Quantcast. It’s now aggregating local content from more than 50K sources and offers more than 360K edited news pages.

Topix has become a respectable web property, which is why today’s announcement that it will be partnering with young search engine, Blekko, seems like an interesting move. Blekko only launched publicly back in November of last year, so the human-curated, slash-tagging search engine is still very much an unestablished entity.

I think many would agree that search is need of some de-spamming and a fresh take, and Blekko is certainly that, but the road before them is uphill to say the least. Blekko has made a laudable effort to crackdown on spam, eliminating 1 million spammy links from its search results in March.

What’s more, Blekko does not accept paid traffic, it uses humans on top of algorithmic search functions, and it’s getting more social — all great things. I applaud how ferociously Blekko is attacking the current problems in search, hey, it attracted 575K unique IPs in March, so people are checking it out.

I just worry that the search engine’s crusade against spam may result in the elimination of legitimate sites as well, and it can be slow to crawl smaller sites, and update name changes, and so on. Right now it indexes 3.5 billion URLs, which is just no match for Bing and Google, which are both way over 15 billion.

That being said, I am very intrigued to see how Blekko integrates with Topix, which averages over 1 million searches a month. With a more focused set of data to index, I think Blekko could start turning out some great search results. From testing it out a little bit today, it’s worked great, but I’ll have to dive deeper to know for sure.

But obviously what really keeps this from being a shocking development, or a surprising risk for a sizable platform, will not come as a huge shock to those familiar with the two companies’ histories. Blekko CEO Rich Skrenta and Blekko Marketing VP Mike Markson are both co-founders of Topix.

So, while Topix was presumably predestined to add Blekko search at some point, no surprise there, it is interesting to see that the Blekko team now finally feels that its search engine has been tuned (and tested) enough to make this implementation launchable.

"It is rather unprecedented for a search start up to be able to power search on a site of scope and scale as Topix," Skrenta said. "We have a long history of collaboration and camaraderie with the Topix team so it's a thrill to be working together again in bringing a new search experience to Topix users."

Is it working? Chime in with your own experiences.



TaskRabbit Gets $5M From Shasta Ventures, First Round And Others To Help People Get Stuff Done

Posted: 04 May 2011 05:29 AM PDT

Task management service TaskRabbit is announcing a raise of $5 million in Series B this morning, in addition to its already existing $1.8 million in Series A. The financing was lead by Shasta Ventures and followed on by First Round Capital, Baseline Ventures, FLOODGATE, Collaborative Fund, 500 Startups and The Mesh author Lisa Gansky. In addition to the financing, Shasta Ventures’ Sean Flynn will be joining TaskRabbit’s Board of Directors.

Founded in 2008 and formerly RunMyErrand.com, TaskRabbit is a two way marketplace that helps its community of over 1500 task runners connect with the the thousands of tasks posted on the site monthly. Task senders can sign up to the site for free and post a task which will be bid on by runners, who are vetted through a three step background check. Senders can accept task bids and re-route payment through the site, scoring a runner on their performance once a task is complete. Founder Leah Busque tells me that the average task response time is 10 minutes, down from 30 minutes a year ago.

As a service networking platform hooking up people who need stuff done to people who want to do stuff, the service is in the same space as Craigslist but with a “layer of safety” attached, because of its stringent approval process. The variety of tasks posted range anywhere from “Do laundry” (the most popular task), to “Pick up groceries,” to “Write a Mother’s Day Poem,” to “Wrap my officemate’s desk in cellophane as a joke.” Busque says she is currently seeing an increase in skills based tasks like “Help me redesign my WordPress blog.”

The TaskRabbit platform facilitates the entire transaction between sender and runner, with a posting and bidding system and payment platform focused on providing an optimal user experience to both sides of the task equation. “There’s a lot that goes into building a platform like this,” Busque tells me. ”It’s a robust system including everything from messaging to alerting to payments to our reputations system. We’ve cracked the nut and learned how to provide a great user experience for both sides of the marketplace,” she says.

“The TaskRabbit marketplace is revolutionizing the way people get things done- stranded drivers can find a person with jumper cables in just minutes, florists can get the extra delivery help they need on Valentine's Day to keep their customers happy,” investor Flynn said on the market impetus behind his firm’s vote.

The service also keeps its ecosystem of runners engaged with the addition of gamification elements like points for completing each task. Runners also get points for engaging in community building actions like sending email invites encouraging friends to become runners and even just for bidding on tasks. A TaskRabbit leaderboard, monthly TaskRabbit meetups and text message task notifications also ensure that runners keep their heads in the game.

TaskRabbit currently monetizes by taking a 15% cut of all tasks being performed. Busque plans on using the additional financing to expand beyond the current markets of San Francisco and Boston and to double her team of 13 people, hiring specifically into engineering and sales.



SoundCloud Does A Google, Launches SoundCloud Labs

Posted: 04 May 2011 04:18 AM PDT

SoundCloud, the audio platform, has unveiled SoundCloud Labs, a new site to house experimental projects and features developed in-house, including via its open API. The idea of creating a separate space for cutting-edge development branded as Labs isn't a new one, of course, mostly notably employed by Google. But in SoundCloud's case it perhaps makes even greater sense since the service was originally targeted at music makers but is now aiming to be a much wider consumer play. Strapping on additional features that move too far away from its core proposition could, arguably, dilute SoundCloud's brand. However, cordoning these off goes someway to mitigate this, while at the same time doesn't discourage innovation.


AOL’s Q1: Display Ad Revenues Finally Going Up, But Profits Are Down 86 Percent

Posted: 04 May 2011 04:16 AM PDT

Our parent company AOL has just released its quarterly earnings for Q1 2011, and it’s a mixed bag (again).

Revenue came in at $551.4 million, which is better than most analysts had anticipated – the company was expected to earn $0.17 per share on revenues of $536.35 million. Actual earnings came in at $0.04 per share, down 86 percent.

Notably, global display advertising revenue grew 4 percent, marking the first quarter of year-over-year growth since Q4 2007 (!). Domestic display grew 11 percent in the quarter, or 6 percent excluding acquisitions.

Overall advertising revenue declined $40.6 million compared to Q1 2010, mostly due to lower third-party network revenue associated with shutdowns and reduced operations in Europe, in addition to the absence of revenue from Bebo and ICQ (which AOL sold in 2010).

Leaving aside those AOL-implemented initiatives, advertising revenue was essentially flat for the quarter, reflecting declines in search and contextual revenue but growth in display revenue and increases in Third Party Network revenue.

Among the notable things that happened at AOL during the first quarter: the company closed the acquisitions of goviral and The Huffington Post and aligned all of its content under the newly formed AOL Huffington Post Media Group, with Arianna Huffington as editor-in-chief.


aol q1 2011


Brammo To Make Electric Motorcycles That Feel More Like Gas-Powered

Posted: 04 May 2011 04:05 AM PDT

Today, electric motorcycle makers Brammo revealed that the company will add new electronic transmission technology, and a redesigned motor, clutch and gear shift to its lineup, that will make its motorcycles perform more like their gas-powered predecessors.

The first incorporation of this technology into the company’s product lines will be into Brammo’s new, not-yet-in-production Engage and Encite dirt bikes and racing bikes.

The electric transmission was created by SMRE srl, an Italian engineering company, which agreed to give Brammo an exclusive, global license on this technology earlier in the week according to Brammo chief executive officer Craig Bramscher.

Brammo released a new video showing the prototypes in action.



Gigwalk Launches: Wanna Get Paid for Taking Pictures with Your iPhone?

Posted: 04 May 2011 03:59 AM PDT

In the 1990s, peer-to-peer networks were a revelation. They allowed people to pool together tiny parts of their computers, and those pooled together parts could do far more together than the average computer or connection could do on its own. It enabled everything from swapping pirated music to making cheap transcontinental calls via Skype.

But what if you could do the same thing with tiny parts of people’s day? Grab five to ten minutes here or there, at the right time and the right place, to complete a massive task no one person could do on his or her own. That’s exactly what a new startup called Gigwalk is trying to do, using the power of– you guessed it– the iPhone. You download the app, enter your PayPal information and get assigned entry level “gigs” or jobs that may take just a few minutes at a time, if you’re in the right location.

The first beta customer was the navigation company TomTom. No matter how much TomTom spends on a traditional salesforce, there will always be mistakes in its navigation– the one-way street, the surprise dead-end, the no left turn sign. These mistakes are an annoyance to users, but not fatal enough to the user experience for the company to invest millions in fact checking every street corner in the world. But if the company can pay someone already standing there $3 to snap a few pictures of the intersection in question and email them in, that changes everything.

You can imagine a lot of companies that could make use of a cheap, flexible mobile workforce paid just a few dollars at a time, no management costs or hassles involved. This mobile, non-committal workforce could do things like verifying that health-inspection scores are posted in restaurants, confirming product displays in stores are done right or even spot checking customer service. Co-founder and CEO Ariel Seidman suggested TechCrunch could use it as a mobile roster of embedded reporters; but as a publication that doesn’t pay for tips, even $3 is a dangerous precedent. I bet publications that do pay for tips would love it, though. No doubt, Gawker would pay for an army of $3-a-photo Gawker stalkers if they delivered the goods. (Lord help us all if they do.)

And you can see why data-obsessed Reid Hoffman jumped to invest in the company via Greylock’s Discovery Fund: All the information is geotagged, building a huge database of who does what tasks, how many tasks they complete and when they complete them. That can be used to recommend gigs, recommend workers to employers based on their productivity, or a host of other features to make the service work better for both parties. (Other investors include Jeff Clavier, Michael Dearing and the Founder Collective.)

Of course there’s one catch to all this: Do the millions of people with iPhones actually want to be part of that mobile workforce? Without users, Skype’s peer-to-peer network wouldn’t be very powerful. And without a broadly distributed base of “Gigwalkers”– as they’re called– this company won’t be either.

Seidman says there are different motivations for different people. Some college kids join the workforce for extra weekend spending money, others like being part of the community, he says. I don’t doubt either. My doubt is how many of them exist. For one thing, we’re not talking about a lot of money. Gigs can pay up to $90 each, but you have to do the low-level $3 ones frequently enough to unlock the higher paying jobs. “If people are smart about it, they can make an extra $50-$100 a month,” he says.

That reminds me of the people who clip coupons all year long, saving $.35 cents here or there. Sure, those savings add up to hundreds by the end of the year, or maybe even thousands. But it’s a pain. A minority of people have the discipline to get the micro-savings all year long. Many more lose interest, or just don’t feel the savings are great enough to make it worth their time and the hassle. Sure, economic times are still hard for many, as Seidman points out. But $50 isn’t going to pay the mortgage. And, let’s remember: People walking around with iPhones aren’t exactly out-of-work, lower-middle class Americans. Gigwalk wouldn’t even offset your AT&T bill.

I am not one of those people who loves the obsession with turning everything into a game, but if Gigwalk is going to build a large enough base of users to prove truly useful to big companies who need big problems solved, it’s going to need to appeal to more than just people’s wallets, raise the amounts paid-out, or build an app that works on basic feature phones.

The promise of Gigwalk reminds me of the open source boom in the mid-2000, where companies thought people would spend their weekends impassioned to make, say, ERP or CRM software better for free. Dozens of these companies were started and exactly zero lived up to the hype. MySQL was the only member of the open source stack that got a $1 billion outcome, and that was at an insane revenue multiple.

What sets true broad-based community efforts– like Wikipedia and Linux and even Firefox– apart are that there is a small base of people who do the heavy lifting and an army that does micro-work and evangelism. And, while I’m not sure how much this matters, it’s worth noting all three of those are non-commercial ventures.

Of course the Web is full of ideas that didn’t work the first fifty times, only to work brilliantly in the right incarnation with the right execution. There are two things that could make Gigwalk different. The first is that phone in your pocket at all times. If the company could make it absolutely drop-dead easy to make $3, I’d consider doing it. But that doesn’t just include an easy sign-up process. I would want something like an alert when I’m passing, say, an intersection that TomTom needs to make sure is really there. I don’t want to have to “plan” or “be smart about it.” I’ve got enough stuff in my life I need to plan around and be smart about– things that either pay me more than $3 or are worth more than an extra $3 to me.

The other big exception is a work force in the emerging world. Plenty of consumer-facing multinationals would love an army of kids to do street level market research or tasks throughout BRIC mega-markets, and $3 is a far more meaningful amount of money to people in emerging worlds. Of course, this opens up more problems: The payment issue is thornier when you get international, there’s a significant marketing and language challenges and there’s the iPhone-only problem. But that opportunity is massive. It’s not too different from how Giant Interactive, an online gaming company in China, used an army of kids to go into second and third tier cities, hang out in Internet cafes and talk up its game ZT Online. That almost manufactured grassroots approach made Giant a big, publicly traded company.

Five hundred of you have the chance to try it out for free. Go here and enter the code TCRUNCH to post a basic photo-request gig for free. Let us know how it works out. (The gigs are subject to the company’s approval; bear in mind it’s only operating in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Miami right now.)



TransferWise Sees $1M In Transactions, Opens Up To Businesses

Posted: 04 May 2011 03:31 AM PDT

TransferWise, the peer-to-peer online currency exchange that aims to give banks a run for their money with its flat-fee exchange rate, has announced that it's seen $1m worth of transactions in three months since launch. These have come from consumers-only since until now TransferWise wasn't available to business customers. Today that changes after the company responds to the fact that business-to-business currency transfers were by far the most requested feature to-date.


Viber To Release Free Calling, Messaging App For Android This Week

Posted: 04 May 2011 03:03 AM PDT

I’m a huge fan of Viber‘s iPhone app, which lets me call, and since recently, send messages to many of my contacts, free of charge. Needless to say, it’s imperative for Viber to go cross-platform as quickly as possible, because evidently not everyone has an iPhone.

We knew the startup was cooking up an Android application, but not when it would hit. Now we do: expect the Android app to become available – albeit in beta form – in the next few weeks.

I was able to test an early version of the Android app on my wife’s HTC Desire today, and it works flawlessly, although the Android app had some problems recognizing my Viber account. As soon as it did, though, it functioned as advertised, enabling me to make free calls over 3G and WiFi to my wife, and vice versa.

Viber will be gradually rolling out the app, unfortunately for those anxious to give it a whirl themselves, initially offering the release in the course of this week to 500 testers who register here, with additional invitations being sent in the next few weeks.

The startup expects the app to work on most Android handsets – it’s been tested on 20 popular devices from HTC, LG, Samsung and other manufacturers – but says it will have to rely on its users to identify eventual support problems (ah, the agony of fragmentation).

That said, Viber’s Android app actually comes with more features than its iPhone counterpart, namely the ability for users to have a full call screen appear when a Viber call is received, receive pop-up text message notifications that enable them to reply to messages without opening the app, and tighter integration with the phone, allowing users to see their regular call logs and messages inside Viber.

Next up: support for BlackBerry smartphones.



Will A Thunderbolt Hit The iPhone/iPad Before A Full Ascension Into The Cloud?

Posted: 04 May 2011 02:50 AM PDT

This morning’s upgrades to Apple’s iMac line of computers brought a range of nice features. But most were just spec bumps. The big new addition is Thunderbolt. Following the initial roll-out to the MacBook Pros, the new super high-speed ports are clearly destined to be a key component across Apple’s product lines. But what about Apple’s two key newer products: the iPhone and iPad? Apple hasn’t said a word yet about what Thunderbolt means for them.

During a call with Apple this morning, I specifically asked about when we might see Thunderbolt-enabled adapters for iPhone/iPad. Apple would only say that they had nothing to share at this time. That’s usually code for “it’s coming, but just not yet.” And that makes sense. Why pour all this money into a new technology if you’re not going to use it in places where it makes the most sense? But it’s also not that simple.

When I asked what devices were coming that would take advantage of Thunderbolt, I was pointed to this site which features some pre-announced third-party devices at the bottom of the page. These include external hard drives, video capture devices, and adapters (to convert Thunderbolt pipes to carry FireWire data, etc). Apple said they expect to see the first such devices at some point this spring. In other words, soon.

But again, none of those listed are Apple devices. Why haven’t we heard anything about those yet? Could it be because Apple is planning to replace all computer-based syncing with syncing in the cloud when Castle/iCloud is unveiled later this year?

I wouldn’t hold my breath.

My hunch is that we will hear something from Apple later this year about Thunderbolt use with iPads/iPhones. Perhaps during the iPhone 5 unveiling in the fall. Now that the technology is out there on two of their most popular devices (MacBook Pros and iMacs) and probably pretty soon on another one (MacBook Airs), Apple will have to address this. And the reality is that Thunderbolt (and even still USB) seems to be a more viable and smart near-term solution for device sync rather than a full-on cloud sync.

A few weeks ago, Daring Fireball’s John Gruber made the case for why Apple is taking their time with regard to cloud-based syncing in the “post-PC” world. While Apple does already sync small amounts of data like calendars and email (via MobileMe) and e-books (via iBooks) in the cloud, the big chunks of data (music, movies, etc) still require a computer for syncing. The main issue is simply speed. Wireless networks are not nearly fast enough to transfer gigabytes of data up and downstream in a reasonable amount of time. And this will not change anytime soon. Not even with 4G/LTE network speeds.

Media streaming (either over the cloud or via WiFi) is one potential solution. But it’s not a full solution. Apple is also going to want to have a solution for people who want to have this media actually present on their devices (for trips and such). That means sync. And the cloud is just not ready for that yet.

Enter Thunderbolt.

One big problem that users have with the iTunes-based syncing mechanism for iPhones/iPads today is that it’s slow. Apple has done a lot of work to speed this up over the years (remember when backups would take something like 30 minutes to an hour!?), but it’s still not ideal. Thunderbolt could help alleviate this pain point.

Right now, iPhone/iPad syncing is done via USB 2.0. These ports theoretically transfer data at 480 Mbps (but it’s usually less in practice). Thunderbolt will up that speed to 10 Gbps spread over two channels. In other words, a 10-minute sync could be cut to a matter of seconds (well, on paper — mobile memory read/write speeds are much slower, though also rumored to be improving quickly).

I suspect we may hear Apple talking about syncing in seconds versus syncing in hours at future product unveilings to explain why they’re going with a wired approach instead of the cloud.

But not so fast. The reason we’re not seeing this Thunderbolt utilization already is because the existing hardware isn’t ready for it yet. Apple is getting the computers (the syncing hubs) up to speed as we speak. But the iPhones/iPads are still stuck in the slow lane. Unless Apple has a conversion trick up their sleeve, we might have to wait for the iPhone 5/iPad 3 until we can truly see the upside of Thunderbolt. Apple has already been awarded the patent they need to turn the 30-pin connectors found on iOS devices into Thunderbolt-ready ports, but unless they slipped it past the goalie with the iPad 2, they’re not out there yet.

This also means there’s going to be a transition. Early adopters of the iPhone 5 and iPad 3 (assuming they have Thunderbolt-compatible ports) will be ready, but older devices won’t be. But hey, that will be another reason for Apple to get you to upgrade. New feature: insanely great syncing speed.

Long story short, I’d bet on a big Thunderbolt strike before a full-on ascension by Apple into the cloud for syncing. Google, I suspect, may continue to go the other way. And the two sides will have a new talking point for their war: sync speed versus sync anywhere.



MOL Red Paperclips Its Way To A Facebook Fortune

Posted: 04 May 2011 01:25 AM PDT

In 2005 Kyle MacDonald made a series of fourteen trades, beginning with a red paperclip and ending with a house. It took him less than a year. You all know the story. The Office did even an episode this year about the idea as well.

Well, Malaysia’s MOL Global now has somewhere around over $100 million in Facebook stock at the current secondary market valuation of around $31 per share. Until now, no one except insiders even knew they had any Facebook stock at all.

But they do, and here’s how they got it, and it reminds me a lot of the Red Paperclip.

MOL Global bought Friendster, you may recall, in late 2009. They paid $39.5 million for the company, but with adjustments for things like Friendster’s cash in the bank it was actually somewhat less.

Then, in July 2010 Friendster entered into a big partnership with Facebook. Later it became clear that MOL had sold Friendster’s portfolio of 20+ social networking patents and patent applications to Facebook. The reports at the time said MOL got around $40 million for those patents. That $40 million was in cash, advertising credits and the payments deal reported in July according to articles written in August of last year.

That was actually incorrect, we’ve heard from multiple sources.

In addition to other deal consideration, MOL also received 700,000 shares of Facebook stock in the middle of 2010 as part of that deal. And now, nearly a year of crazy growth and a 5-for-1 stock split later, those 700,000 shares have turned into 3.5 million shares. And those 3.5 million shares are worth around $109 million at the current secondary market Facebook stock price that values the company at $70 billion.

Meanwhile Friendster is still around, although parts of it are being shut down and MOL is focusing on relaunching it in Asia.

Not a bad outcome for Friendster in the end. It’s just too bad that none of the original investors or employees got a piece of the Facebook shares. Fortes fortuna adiuvat and all that. MOL crushed it, and the Friendster investors broke ranks too soon. If only they could have held out a few months more, Facebook would have come calling.



Obama ‘Situation Room’ Photo Is Already Half Way To Becoming Flickr’s Most Viewed Pic

Posted: 03 May 2011 11:51 PM PDT

If you ever wanted a glimpse of what the Spiderman “With great power comes great responsibility” quote looks like actualized, take a second to digest the above photo of President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and various other PCs in the White House Situation room, captured as they “receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden.” Because I look exactly like Clinton when I receive “updates.”

Not surprisingly the unnervingly human photo has captured popular imagination over the past day and a half, becoming the point of origin of a multitude of Photoshop memes which range from Jersey Shore’s The Situation being placed in the Situation Room, to the Royal Wedding’s Grumpy Flower girl joining in on the fun, to everybody wearing Princess Beatrice’s absurd Royal Wedding hat, which was particularly inspired. Sure this is great guys, but I’m still waiting for the Tiger Wood’s cigar dude, Dramatic Squirrel and Disaster Girl insertions, granted I’m a dork.

The photo was posted post-Bin Laden death announcement on May 2nd at 10am PDT via the White House’s Flickr account. Flickr for some reason was tracking the pic, and graciously has given us the following viewer stats; 390,000 views at 3:30pm (5.5 hours later at 71,000 views per hour),
 600,000 at 5pm (7 hours later at 140,000 views/hour) and 
1,400,000 at 11am today (25 hours later at 44,000 views/hour). The White House Flickr account averages 100K views per day, and yesterday it received 2.5 million views, and as of 7pm today it already had 3.6 million views an order of magnitude greater than normal.

People familiar with the matter are saying that this is the probably the fastest viewed ever photo on on Flickr. Flickr itself will only officially say that it’s the fastest one they’ve tracked and that a certain photo from the Royal Wedding has amassed over 1.3 million views since Saturday.

At 1,597,561 views currently, the Situation Room image is already more than half way towards beating the current most viewed Flickr photo, the relatively banal snapshot of Nohkalikai Falls, Cherraphunjee which was taken in 2006 and has garned 2,978,625 views after five years. The Situation Room photo amassed its 1,597,561 views after a little under 38 hours.

Damn.

Image via The White House



iPod, Meet Spotify; iTunes, Say Hello To Your Future Rival

Posted: 03 May 2011 11:31 PM PDT

Spotify, the music service Americans don’t get to enjoy, announced several very cool new features today. The European music service is rolling out new versions of its desktop and mobile apps today, which will allow all users (even those pesky ad-supported freeloaders) to sync Spotify desktop tracks with mobile devices, be they iPods, iPhones or Androids.

And just in case it wasn’t clear whether or not Spotify intends to compete directly with iTunes, Spotify is also introducing its own music store, or “download service”, in which users can buy a range of MP3 “bundles” at 10 songs for roughly 8 pounds. Or 100 songs for 50 pounds. (Roughly the equivalent of $13 and $82, respectively.)

So, not only will Spotify be offering its more than 10 million registered users a music store, it wants its music player to become the default mobile app on its listeners’ devices. To encourage this adoption, Spotify has enabled desktop-to-mobile sync-ing over WiFi. (Something iTunes, cough, doesn’t offer.)

Spotify users have been clamoring for these features now for quite some time, and it’s taken almost a year for Spotify to get all of its proverbial ducks in a row. Following the limitations the company was forced to put on its free service, Spotify is now clearly making a more concerted effort to add significant benefits for its non-premium customers.

Allowing free users to fully take advantage of integration and syncing with mobile devices is important, and the Swedish music company clearly figures that mobile will be the future onramp for new Spotify customers. Again, up until now, mobile access has only been available to premium customers.

"Accessing music on your mobile phone is the future, but today that makes up a pretty small percentage of music fans. We want to open up the Spotify experience to as many people as possible, and in a way where they can get exactly the music they want", said Spotify Chief Product Officer Gustav Söderström.

Another cool feature announced today is the ability to manage your iPod from within the Spotify desktop app. All you need to do is connect your iPod to your computer via an USB cable, and your Pod will now appear in the “Devices” section of Spotify’s sidebar.

It will be interesting to see if Apple has anything to say about this. Obviously, iTunes will remain the only way to get music onto an non-jailbroken iPhone, and Spotify will not be reverse-engineering or anything like that, just using USB storage, for example. But I could see this potentially raising some eyebrows in Cupertino.

That being said, these new features could be absolutely huge for Spotify; it will make the service’s free users become more regular, repeat users, and will no doubt begin to open the door to new customers. Sure, Spotify is still years from becoming a real iTunes competitor, but it’s moves like this that continue to put that goal within the realm of real possibility.

Next, Spotify needs to work on filling out its sometimes thin catalog — and expand its Euro reach beyond Finland, France, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the U.K.

Then the overall service might be enough to make an American like me jealous. And speaking of that, there was still no mention of when Spotify might reach the U.S. “We’re still working hard on that. We’re getting closer”, a Spotify spokesman said.

They better be. I’m getting anxious over here.



AppDirect Raises $3.25 Million To Create A Marketplace For Business Apps

Posted: 03 May 2011 09:13 PM PDT

AppDirect, a platform that allows businesses to find, buy and manage web-based applications, has announced that it has closed a $3.25 million round of seed funding to hire engineering talent and expand its network overseas. The round was led by iNovia Capital with Stingray Digital contributing.

You probably haven’t heard of AppDirect yet, but it’s an interesting business. AppDirect is creating a marketplace for marketplaces, or a marketplace-as-a-service. (That’s “MaaS” in cloud-speak.) What does that mean? The startup is essentially building a network of branded application marketplaces it hopes will become a central hub for providers, developers, and business app users.

So, for example, AppDirect’s platform provides businesses with a single place to subscribe to applications, provision access to their colleagues, and pay just one monthly bill for all of their app subscriptions. Thus, AppDirect is positioning itself as a kind of all-in-one consolidating tool for enterprises who want to use cloud apps, but struggle to manage the many moving parts of their SaaS tools and find apps that are relevant to their business.

Using AppDirect’s API, developers can list their apps in any of the white-labeled, AppDirect-powered marketplaces that will be built around its platform. Bell Canada, a large Canadian telecom company, is AppDirect’s first notable partner. The Canadian telecom giant recently began using the startup’s platform for its Bell Business Apps Store, which aims to connect its SMB customers with the right cloud services.

The clincher in all this, of course, is the platform’s built-in recommendation engine, which serves businesses with the most relevant apps for their specific needs. The recommendation engine will be very handy to enterprises looking to discover new, applicable apps, as the engine will allow them to browse results in a detailed listing by function or industry. Users can also compare apps on a range of metrics, as well as access documents, videos, and demos to deep dive into each application.

It’s an intriguing idea, to be sure, but we’ll see whether or not there’s room for another -aaS in the cloud space. Marketplace-as-a-service does have a nice sound to it, though, doesn’t it?



955 Dreams Set To Rock The iPad Again With “On The Way To Woodstock”

Posted: 03 May 2011 08:34 PM PDT

A couple months ago, we noted that a company called 955 Dreams was playing the iPad like jazz with their hot app, The History of Jazz. Now they’re back again with another musically-themed iPad app. And it’s far out, man.

On The Way To Woodstock takes everything that 955 Dreams learned from the jazz app and expands upon it. I had a chance to sit down with the team a few days ago and play around with the app. It’s beautiful, fun, and engaging. And much like The History of Jazz, I suspect it’s exactly the type of app Apple likes seeing pop up from developers to showcase their device.

Users who got a chance to use The History of Jazz should immediately feel right at home with On The Way To Woodstock, as the look and feel remains largely the same. But 955 Dreams has blown the doors off this new app when it comes to content. Specifically, while Jazz had a robust 55 hours or so of consumable content, Woodstock has roughly 100 hours, co-founder Kiran Bellubbi says.

And the new app includes a lot of editorial work. It’s basically “a book designed and created for the iPad,” Bellubbi notes. It tells the story of Woodstock ranging from the 1950s (to set the political and social stage leading up to Woodstock) to the aftermath. The meat, of course, are the days of the festival itself which can be traversed in a truly immersive experience complete with videos and music.

But the real key may be the photography included in the app. 955 Dreams worked with one photographer to get all of his best shots into the app, head of design TJ Zark notes. This includes a lot of photos that most people have never seen from Woodstock. And there are some amazing shots as the photographer was on the team that helped shoot the official documentary about the show — meaning he had access to a helicopter.

The app, which has just gone live in the App Store will be available for a limited time at $6.99. After that, it will raise to the standard $9.99 price point that 955 Dreams likes to sell their apps at. And the pricing has worked well for them. They’ve been pulling in significant revenues since day one, they tell us.

Of course, this revenue stream has been helped by the fact that Apple has featured Jazz a few times. And in fact, Apple selected the app to be included in the App Store “Hall of Fame” — they’re one of just 45 or so app to get this distinction out of the hundreds of thousands apps in the App Store.

But that’s what happens when you make an app that seems perfect for the platform. And it also shows some big potential for the future of other content on these devices, like music. Bellubbi notes that more people are consuming music today than ever before, but they’re just not buying as much of it. Apps like Jazz and Woodstock hope to serve as a platform to get people back to investing in music.

While they wouldn’t give actual numbers for how much music they sold through Jazz (each song has an iTunes preview button and link to buy the song), they note that sales have been very good. And they suspect they’ll be even better through the Woodstock app.

And that speaks to where 955 Dreams is looking next. Music discovery is what interests them the most right now. And these first two apps just scratch the surface in a very packaged way, they note. In other words, expect even more coming out of these guys in the coming months.

For now, enjoy On The Way To Woodstock here and The History of Jazz here.



Boingo Wireless Prices IPO At $13.50 Per Share

Posted: 03 May 2011 07:53 PM PDT

Boingo Wireless, a nationwide WiFi provider, has just issued a release stating that it is pricing its IPO tomorrow morning at $13.50 per share, which falls into the expected range. The shares will begin trading on the NASDAQ under the symbol “WIFI.”

Boingo is looking to raise $75 million in its public offering. Boingo claims that it is one of the largest commercial Wi-Fi networks in the world, with 211,000 Wi-Fi locations in over 100 countries. The company installs, manages and operates wireless networks in locations like airports and restaurant chains, which Boing says had more than 800 million visitors in 2009.

Boingo is offering 3,846,800 shares and selling stockholders are offering 1,923,200 shares. In addition, Boingo has granted the underwriters a 30-day option to purchase up to an additional 865,500 shares, on the same terms and conditions. Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank Securities, Pacific Crest Securities and William Blair & Company are underwriting the offering.

According to the initial S-1 filing, Boingo had 1.3 million consumers who have purchased its mobile Internet services in the past year. The company’s primary source of revenue is from consumers who purchase month-to-month subscription plans or hotspot specific, single-use access to its network. Boingo also receives money from business partners that pay to allow their consumers to access the network. Other revenue channels include telecom operators and advertisers.



Qwiki iPad App Hits 250K Downloads In 11 Days

Posted: 03 May 2011 07:21 PM PDT


TechCrunch Disrupt winner Qwiki launched its iPad app in the App Store a less than a week ago and after 11 days has hit the quarter of a million downloads milestone. This is notable for an iPad app, especially when compared to other highly publicized iOS app milestones; It took iPhone app Instagram six days to hit 100K, SoundTracking two weeks to hit 250K and FourSquare a whopping seven months to get to 60K users.

Qwiki PR rep CeCe Cheng tells me that Qwiki.com has “millions of users” but that the Qwiki app, which lets users see notable Qwikis around them in map format, has already eclipsed pageview traffic on the Qwiki site by 5x. She estimates that by the end of the day tomorrow the app will hit 300K users after only two weeks. Individual user sessions on the app are averaging 24 minutes.

Says founder Doug Imbruce, “The Qwiki experience was made for the iPad – an intimate, entertaining, (sexy!) new media format. It’s amazing to see the popularity of the app reinforce our original vision of Qwiki as a multi-platform experience.” The app has 2,170 total ratings, with an average of 4.5 stars per rating. The current build has an average 5 star rating at 688 ratings.

Qwiki sees the future of its visual Wikipedia search product as resting on the mobile platform, and is currently focusing on releasing Qwiki for the Android and the iPhone. It also plans on eventually letting users create their own Qwikis about themselves and their businesses.



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