Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Latest from TechCrunch

The Latest from TechCrunch

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(Founder Stories) Seth Sternberg On The Early Days Of Meebo: “We Did Not Get It.”

Posted: 07 May 2011 08:10 AM PDT

Meebo, which connects users with their friends across social platforms, emerged from the ashes of an idea Seth Sternberg and his team had for "file sharing between friends that had IM in it." Those early days of development saw more misses than hits—"kind of depressing" says Sternberg in this episode of Founder Stories.

After more than a year of tinkering, Meebo finally found its magic formula and launched in 2005. Right from the get-go they heard from their users, but admittedly didn't totally grasp the scope of what they created. As Sternberg admits, "a lot of commerce sites were calling, bloggers were calling and we did not get it."

In the above clip, Sternberg explains why.

In part II of the interview below, Sternberg and host Chris Dixon discuss the importance of understanding the respective roles of the team—and keyed in on the evolving role of the businessperson.

“I was the one who couldn’t code, therefore I was the CEO,” says Sternberg. "As the businessperson pre-launch I was buying the sandwiches… frankly the businessperson for a start up doesn't do a lot pre-launch," he says. Dixon comments on this thought by saying, "I have seen teams breakup before they got to that point because of that feeling of imbalance."

However, such perceived imbalance can quickly turn into an invaluable asset. As Dixon and Sternberg note, it is the businessperson who can help strike deals and raise money for the team once the engineers actually have something worth selling.

Part II of the interview is below.

Past episodes of Founder Stories can be found here.



A New Era Of Search Is About The Answers, Not Just The Links

Posted: 07 May 2011 07:00 AM PDT

Editor’s note: The following guest post is written by Shashi Seth, the senior vice president of Search products at Yahoo! Previously, Shashi worked at Google where he developed the monetization strategy for YouTube and was also the product lead for search.

Search is about to change quite radically. For more than a decade, search has been stagnant: the core product has not changed much. Users have changed radically in that time frame. Even though the kind of content users consume is different, search engines are still focused mostly on web pages. Users have become less patient and have less time on hand, while search engines still require users to dig through and extract information from the web pages to find what they're looking for. In addition, users are spending more and more time on their mobile phones and other connected devices, which require a completely different kind of user experience for search.

When we talk about Search, keep in mind that Search, Discovery, Recommendations, and Serendipity are all essentially the same thing. Why? Well, to start with, one would need a comprehensive index of content for each of these things to work. This gives you a world view, so to speak. How that index is created has changed over time, and what goes into that index has changed. About ten years ago, the index only consisted of HTML pages, but that information has been changing. How the index was created was heavily focused on signals provided by HTML pages, links, consumption, etc.

Today, many social signals are consumed, including how often and how quickly an entity or URL is being embedded elsewhere, whether it is with positive or negative intent and sentiment, and is it trending up or down since last week/month. Search engines have mostly focused on the backend and infrastructure, and rightly so, because search requires a delicate balance between some of the most complex technologies, and a vast amount of infrastructure. Solving today's user needs requires a different focus: a special blend of science, a finely tuned user experience, cutting-edge design skills, and a slightly different mix of engineering and infrastructure.

The question now is—how do search engines respond to this new world?

The answer, to put it simply, is to re-imagine search. The new landscape for search will likely focus on getting the answers the user needs without requiring the user to interact with a page of traditional blue links. In fact, there may be cases where there are no blue links on a search results page at all.

Search engines will keep assimilating content from many different sources and aim to provide immediate and rich answers. You ask a question and you get answers, nothing else. The user may not even type the full question. Search engines will have to become more and more personal, understand the individual user’s preferences, location, type of content preferred, context from previous search and browse behavior, signals from social graphs, and much more.

Search has been a pull mechanism for information and content, while social sites such as Facebook and Twitter are push. For search to succeed in today’s world, it has to become more push, which is why we at Yahoo! have been so focused on what we call contextual searches. A contextual search is when a user happens to be away from a search box, maybe reading an article on Yahoo! News, and comes across a name, or place that he/she wants more information on, yet they don't want to spoil the reading experience and leave the page, open a new tab, and do a search.

With Infinite Browse, Yahoo! currently enables users to highlight the term and get a small pop-up search result out of that action, without leaving the page. Yahoo! also identifies and underlines interesting terms/entities on the page, so when the user hovers over the word or words, additional information is provided.

Imagine a future where this information is entirely pushed to you without prompting the search, so engagement with the content you want is immediately at your fingertips. This will prompt more and more searches to happen away from traditional search results pages, and will happen more in context of wherever the user may be—reading a news article and wanting to know more about a topic or entity, accessing information on a commuter train, getting recommendations pushed while writing an email or social conversation on that topic, and much more.

In the near term, innovation in search will provide more in-depth answers. For example, if someone types the name of a Major League Baseball team, they get a search results page with the team's homepage and likely a couple pieces of recent news. In the next phase of search, you will type the name of that baseball team and without hitting the search button or leaving the search box, you will be presented with an interactive display that includes a link to their homepage, recent news, the results and box score of their last game, their overall record and standing in their division, a schedule of upcoming games, photos, videos, and social media streams.

How about searching for a restaurant? In search today, you find links to the restaurant’s homepage, address, phone number, and rating. In new iterations of search, you will type the name of that restaurant and be provided with its address and map, a view of its menu, the option to reserve then and there via OpenTable, see its ranking on Yelp, CitySearch, Zagat—along with photos, tweets, what your friends have said about it in your private social networks, and a quick and simple way to compare it with other similar restaurants.

The next chapter of search is going to be about providing answers and not just answers from Q&A sites (although Yahoo! Answers hit a billion Q&A last year). We obviously believe in these types of "answers" and leverage it heavily, yet there are plenty of other types of real-time answers.

Most search indexes are in the 10s of billions of URLs, trending towards 100s of billions of URLs. Information is dynamic and changes frequently. For example, the movies running in a theater next to you are changing every week, and the timings may change even more frequently. The San Francisco Giants score changes frequently too, as do the players stats. So, while Q&A sites are really interesting in solving a certain set of needs for users, they are only a piece of the puzzle.

But the rise of Q&A sites across the Web speaks to the underlying need for better answers. A new era in search is just around the corner that will make it easier to access the information, services and answers people are looking for. A list of links just doesn’t cut it anymore.



Hybrid Motoryacht Design Powered By Diesel And Electric Jet Skis

Posted: 07 May 2011 06:15 AM PDT

Hybrid cars have been around for a while, but one German grad student is taking the concept to the water. A new hybrid propulsion motorboat designed by Stefanie Behringer, would reduce drag thanks to its three-hull, or trimaran, form.

A jet ski attaches to either side of the main hull, helping stabilize the boat. While the jet skis are electric-powered, the 49-foot long watercraft is also powered by two diesel engines that use Audi’s turbo-charged injection technology. Audi’s Concept Design team in Munich worked with Behringer on the project.

The motoryacht is designed to reach speeds of close to 30 knots. The boat can be operated using only the 100-horsepower jet skis for a mellow, emission-free cruise around the bay. At faster speeds, the diesel engines recharge the jet skis’ batteries.

Twelve people can fit on the deck, with room for a few more below. The main deck is designed to feel like a lounge, and a glass roof shields passengers from wind and sun exposure.

This is a neat concept, but it might be a while before this boat is spotted in the harbor. Audi has not announced plans to move the motoryacht yacht beyond the concept phase.

Photos by AUDI
Hat tip: AutoBlog



You Think Pitching Your Startup Idea Is Hard? Watch These Kids Do It

Posted: 06 May 2011 11:26 PM PDT

Around eighty entrepreneur hopefuls gathered at NASA AMES last week to pitch their ideas for breakthrough technological products, with the hopes of gaining the funding to make their dreams a reality. But this wasn’t part of the application process for a new fangled startup accelerator program, and the teams weren’t comprised of Valley visionairies in their 20s and 30s but rather high school kids between the ages of 14-18.

To compete in the Conrad Foundation’s Spirit of Innovation Awards, each team of high schoolers had to create a business plan, technical report, graphical representation and elevator pitch for their product, presenting their invention to a panel of judges for 10 minutes. All in all 27 finalists competed in the Aerospace, Clean Energy and Cyber security categories to win $5,000 and the community support and mentorship to develop their product commercially.

While their peers were pitching on stage, I interviewed ten of the most promising teams about their product vision, what it was like to be so ambitious at young age and their thoughts about young entrepreneurship. Three of our interviewed teams went on to win the competition (Unisecurity, Ouroboros and West Philly EVX Team) but every participant won in the long run as they got to spend four days at NASA surrounded by other nerdy kids excited about changing the world.

From Ouroboros (a team focused on a “perpetual nutrition system” or a mechanism that would turn organic human waste into compost that can be used to grow crops) to S.A.R.A. (a mobile app designed to stop sexual assault by notifying the police as well as gathering evidence when a victim activated it by using a safeword) the level of professionalism and passion exhibited by these students was impressive.

And more importantly, none of their ideas was on this list of startup ideas destined to fail. Hooray for the future.

(Green B.A.C.O.N, in the video above, wants to use natural sunlight to reduce lighting costs.)

Ouroboros is a composting system for human waste.

UniSecurity wants to create a smartphone app that acts as a heart rate monitor for the elderly or others with cardiac issues, reacting to heart rate irregularities by alerting emergency contacts if there’s an issue.

Air-Ease built a solar powered fan, because many on their Montezuma Creek Indian reservation

West Philly EVX Team actually built a light weight, market ready electric car.

S.T.A.R. wants to make glasses for augmented reality.

SARA is an iPhone app designed to respond in the case of sexual assault.

R Squared is building a mobile app that lets users easily notify their friends when they need a safe ride.

Lennox Aerospace wants to build a space scaffolding structure designed to provide astronauts with privacy.

Kinergy is a mobile phone charger that runs off of the kinetic energy created from human movement.



Apple May Not Have Bought Nuance But…

Posted: 06 May 2011 08:20 PM PDT

This past November, the blogosphere was briefly set on fire when a comment Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak made in passing stated that Apple had acquired the voice recognition company Nuance. Wozniak quickly came out and corrected that comment, and most believed that he had simply confused Nuance with the company he mentioned right afterwards, Siri — a company that Apple actually did acquire in April 2010. But as it turns out, Wozniak’s comment, whether he knew it or not at the time, may not have been as off as it seemed.

Apple has been negotiating a deal with Nuance in recent months, we’ve heard from multiple sources. What does that mean? Well, it could mean an acquisition, but that is looking fairly unlikely at this point, we hear. More likely, it means a partnership that will be vital to both companies and could shape the future of iOS.

For those in the know, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Buried under all the original bluster about Apple/Nuance was a very important fact: Siri relies on Nuance technology for its services. While they initial used Vlingo after launch, Siri quickly switched to Nuance for a number of reasons — one being that both came out of Stanford Research Institute, the other being that Nuance is just considered to be better. They used Nuance up until the Apple acquisition, and in fact, they’re still using Nuance right now.

This matters because as we first reported in March, Siri technology is expected to be a big part of iOS 5. By extension, that means that Nuance technology will be a big part of iOS 5. Well, unless Apple ditches them and goes with another option — but again, Nuance is considered the best. The other big player here getting praise is Google. But well… Yeah.

The other option is for Apple to build the technology themselves. And some recent job postings suggest they may be thinking about that. But to get to where Nuance is today it would take a long, long time. Perhaps more importantly, it’s well known in the industry that Nuance holds key patents for their technology and is very aggressive in protecting them. Even Apple would have a hard time dancing around this if they did go it alone.

(As an interesting sidenote, you may wonder how Google has been able to develop their technology while dancing around Nuance’s patents?Well, it certainly helps that Mike Cohen, an original co-founder of Nuance who worked there for 10 years, went on to create the voice-recognition technology for Google. If anyone knows how to navigate those waters, he’s the guy. And it has worked.)

So why doesn’t Apple just bite the bullet and buy Nuance? Well, for one thing, the company is very expensive. Nuance is a public company whose stock just so happens to be near its all-time highs. At the time of the original Apple/Nuance talk, their market cap was around $5 billion. Now it’s $6 billion. And it would take considerably more than that for Apple to buy them.

Of course, as we’re all well aware, Apple has the cash to do that. With $60 billion or so lying around, a Nuance deal would make a dent, but Apple would still have more cash than just about every other company after such a deal. The bigger issue, it seems, is that Nuance are very hard bargainers.

After Apple acquired Siri, they had to renegotiate deals with all of Siri’s partners to ensure the service remained alive and vital. That was easy to do with most of them (companies like OpenTable, for example). But one held out. And from what we hear, they’re still holding out. Guess who?

Nuance CEO Paul Ricci can be as hard of a negotiator as Apple’s own Steve Jobs, we hear. And so there has been a standoff, and negotiations have been ongoing for months.

Again, from what we’re hearing, all types of possibilities are still on the table, including an acquisition. But again, that’s not as likely as an expansive licensing agreement at this point. In buying Nuance, Apple would immediately screw over several other competitors that use the technology and it would bolster their position. And given what Google has been building, it seems unlikely that the government would have a big problem with the buy.

It would also give Apple something they always desire when possible: complete control over the technology on their devices.

But those who know Apple, and Jobs in particular, will know that they’ll be damned if they’re going to overpay for something. And they’d have to for Nuance. Much of Nuance’s value is derived from the licensing deals they have in place, and if Apple bought them, those deals would dry up. Apple would have to think of it as a strategic investment rather than a value play.

So maybe instead they do an expansive licensing deal now and perhaps quietly work on their own stuff in the background — sort of like what they did with Skyhook/Google for location services. (And what they’re now believed to be on the verge of doing to Google for maps.) But that’s pure speculation on my part.

Regardless, the fact remains that Apple needs Nuance for what they’re believed to be working on for iOS 5. And while the OS isn’t likely to appear until the fall, as we first reported last month, it is likely to be unveiled or talked about with developers at WWDC next month. You’d think Apple would want to have any deal with Nuance to be done by then.

And the truth is that Nuance needs Apple too. Not only are they also threatened by Google, but Nuance technology is simply not very meaningful without apps that utilize it like Siri. And many of those apps are appearing guess where: iOS.

While Siri has been categorized by many as a voice recognition service, that’s not actually the case. Technically, that element is on Nuance’s end. Siri are the ones that do the cool stuff with the transcriptions Nuance creates. Nuance, of course, knows this and has been trying to expand their offerings into the “brain” end of things. And it should surprise absolutely no one that they had tried multiple times to acquire Siri before Apple eventually did.

That’s not to downplay Nuance though. As one source puts it, “voice recognition done well is actually non-trivial, and although it is just ‘input’, you win or lose on it.”

In other words, both sides need each other. Nuance needs Apple. And Apple needs Nuance.

“I think voice recognition is going to become more and more a big part of these machines. Apple’s probably thinking the same way,” Wozniak said immediately before he dropped the Nuance bomb last November. From what we’ve heard, Apple is indeed thinking that way. And so are many others, including main rival Google. Nailing this on the technology side of things is going to be very, very important.

So while Wozniak may have misspoke, he may have done so with slightly more knowledge than he let on. Expect to hear a lot more about Apple and Nuance soon.



Esteemed Mobile Developer Joe Hewitt Leaves Facebook

Posted: 06 May 2011 05:50 PM PDT

Notable mobile developer Joe Hewitt has left Facebook to pursue independent projects related to HTML 5 development.

From his blog:

“Today was my last day at Facebook. Normally when I leave a job I go out cursing the management and wishing I had left much sooner. In the case of Facebook, I sent heartfelt emails to all of my managers thanking them for the privilege of letting me work there, and I genuinely meant it. Facebook was the longest I ever worked at one company, and the best employer I’ve ever had.”

We had heard that he was working on deeply integrating Facebook into Android after he quit the iPhone team over disagreement with Apple’s policies. Hewitt was responsible for creating Facebook’s iPhone app, which is currently the most downloaded iPhone app of all time, and before the existence of the App Store he created an iPhone website that was also widely admired among the developer community.

Hewitt has been with Facebook for four years, so why leave now? Maybe he thinks it’s the right time to help the web move towards HTML 5? Or maybe the terms of his Parakey deal (Facebook’s first acquisition) have fully vested?

Here’s Mike’s interview with Hewitt from when he first joined Facebook in 2007.

Update: When I asked him both these questions on the phone after this post went up, Hewitt said, “Yes, to the former.” He also tells me that his Parakey co-founder Blake Ross is still at the company, and on a leave of absence, despite reports to the contrary.



Google Appears To Be Testing A Sparse, Ugly New Results Page

Posted: 06 May 2011 05:17 PM PDT

Whoa there tipsters, slow down. We’ve just been bombarded with tips coming our way that Google has rolled out a new-look search results page. Scanning Twitter, it looks like there are in fact a lot of people seeing this. And boy is it ugly.

I mean, it’s great that Google appears to be trying to clean up the look of the results page, which has gotten pretty cluttered over the years as they add more and more types of information and snippets. But the new design is too sparse. And the colors are too soft. It looks like Bing on a bad day.

The weirdest thing about the test is that it actually gives you much less information on the screen. This will require users to do more scrolling and paging through results to find what they’re looking for.

You’ll also notice that main result links are no longer underlined. And each result is separated by dotted lines (though there appears to be a version without the lines too).

Undoubtedly, this is just a bucket test (which Google likes to do quite often), as not all users are seeing this. But this is clearly a big test judging from the number of tips we’re getting and the tweets.

We knew Google was really interested in white space — just not this much.



Organizing Offline: Zenergo Launches Social Network For Real World Activities

Posted: 06 May 2011 02:00 PM PDT

Who needs another social network? Maybe you, friend. Admittedly, the social networking space is packed with so many players, it makes the mind reel. Across the Web, it seems like a new social network is born (and dies) every day. There are niche social networking sites for everything you can imagine. The knitting and crochet community has one, as do gamers, pet-lovers, and bowlers.

Some of these specialized networks have significant traffic, and while Facebook Groups continues to evolve, it seems that there may still be room for social networks that revolve around shared interests, and specific groups and activities. It’s also true that more and more companies are becoming interested in leveraging online activity and interaction to create meaningful connections, relationships, and services offline. The examples are endless.

It’s for these reasons that Zenergo, an activity-based social network that launches today, still believes there’s room to succeed. Founder and CEO Patrick Ferrell co-founded SocialNet.com (a dating website) with Reid Hoffman, who, as you may know, went on to join PayPal’s founding board of directors and co-found LinkedIn. After SocialNet, Ferrell went on to found GamePro Magazine, which became GamePro Media and was later sold to IDG — as well as several others.

Based on his experience as an entrepreneur, Ferrell told TechCrunch that he continues to come back to the idea that people naturally gravitate toward — and get more value out of — social circles that involve those who share similar activities and interests, and that, at the same time, people are spending more time in their virtual worlds but wish they could take that value into the real world. And that the perfect solution hasn’t yet been found.

So, for the last 2 years, Ferrell and his team have been building an activities-focused social platform that enables people to engage more deeply with their real world hobbies and friends. Their target is wide, as Zenergo hopes to cater not only to those already involved in a sport, hobby, or interest who want to connect with new or existing like-minded people based on location and by experience-level, but busy parents looking for an online organization system — and single people looking for new friends, groups and events that specifically match their lifestyle and social interests.

Zenergo may be over-extending itself by casting its net wide, but the startup hopes to combat this by giving its users access to all the social tools that other networks provide, like photos, invitations, calendars, groups, contact managers and friend finders. All on one website. Yeeha!

One thing that came as music to my ears: Let’s say you’re an avid golfer, and you create a golf group where you’re connecting with new friends over your favorite course, planning tee times and so on, while right next store the bass fishing and Sudoku groups are doing the same thing. You might assume that with all these disparate interest groups in one place, you’d find chaos. And if you’re like me, you want to keep the various circles you create around your hobbies separate and distinct. Zenergo enables this kind of focused interaction — or, if you want to integrate your various interests, you can overlap them as well. And what’s more, Ferrell assures me, Zenergo intends to be a resource for people who want to go out and actually play golf, rather than sit around and yap about Tiger Woods.

So, you can use Zenergo local runner's group, for example, to post an invitation to a Saturday trail run, or find a tennis partner. Wine aficionados can publicize, organize and expand events. You get the idea.

As for how the site will make money, Ferrell tells me its approach is similar to that of LinkedIn. Initially, it will be ad-supported, but will likely soon begin offering premium benefits and features.

Zenergo also announced a partnership with the Silicon Valley & Monterey Bay Area Chapter of Team In Training, which is using Zenergo to recruit and organize team members. Having raised $1 billon to support blood cancer research and patient services, Team In Training is The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's endurance sports charity training program for marathons, half marathons, triathlons, and hiking adventures.

The social network hopes to leverage partnerships with charities and non-profits to attract activists and do-gooders as well, giving them a place to organize events and fundraisers. Obviously, there is plenty of competition in the activist networking space, as there is for each niche category, but by bringing them all together in one place, Zenergo may be onto something big. Or not. You be the judge.

Check ‘em out.



Strolling through “Nigeria’s Best Buy” (A Photo Essay)

Posted: 06 May 2011 12:44 PM PDT

LAGOS, NIGERIA– I’m in Lagos to speak at an event and decided to come a week early to check out the country’s tech and entrepreneurship scene.

Apparently Arrington thought I was kidding when I told him this. But he should know by now, I don’t need a lot of arm twisting to visit a country of 150 million people chaotically surging into modernity. Where there’s that much opportunity, there’s always entrepreneurship.

Nigeria has fascinated me for the last few years: It has the largest population of any country in Africa. It has abundant natural resources, most notably oil. And it has a ton of potential outside of oil. According to the World Bank the non-oil economy has grown at 8% per year for most of the last decade.

The problem is employment hasn’t budged and the country has fifty million unemployed young people. Those are the official figures, but people in the country tell me it’s actually much higher than that. That helps explain why Nigeria is more known in the West for 419 email scams than its vast economic potential.

Simply put: Nigeria is a nation desperate for more entrepreneurship, but there are some significant challenges for local entrepreneurs and foreign investors. More on the good and the bad in a future post. A lot more. One story includes guys with machetes. But let’s talk about Nigeria’s tech appetite first. Like anyone else they lust for that new, new thing, and many of them go to a place called “Computer Village” to find it.

It’s the Nigerian answer to Shenzhen’s SEG Electronics Market, a crammed, multistory building that holds booths and booths of nearly any component and hardware knock-off you can imagine. SEG is simultaneously thrilling and horrifying for techies, summing up why China is so central to the Valley’s modern gadget boom and why its low-cost, copy-cat goods are such a threat at the same time. You know you are getting close to SEG, because the street hawkers stop pitching you massages and start offering up illicit copies of Windows.

In Lagos, we could tell we were getting close to Computer Village because of the rows of parked trucks of busted out boom-boxes, televisions and other has-been electronics being fixed and rehabed for parts. Hawkers try to get your attention with a sound that’s a combination of a kissing-noise and a hissing noise. It surrounds you as you walk through Computer Village, making you feel like you’re either walking past a rowdy construction site or a den of snake charmers. That’s a good way to describe the sales tactics too.

Nigerian tech entrepreneurs I’ve spoken with this week have complained that many of the developers who apply for jobs are too book-trained; that they lack that raw creative problem solving or “jugaad” as the Indians call it. Jugaad is core to what makes startups able to thrive within constraints and outperform giants. And as you’ll see from the photos below, it’s on full-display in Computer Village.

They’ve got hardware:

Software:

Nigerian Geek Squad:

Printer cartridge refills:

And the app store:



Investors Cough Up $1.6 Million To Dine With Grubwithus, The Brilliant Social Dining Service

Posted: 06 May 2011 12:24 PM PDT

The idea behind Grubwithus is an awesome yet simple one. You browse for a restaurant you’d like to go to in a certain city and buy a ticket for your meal at a set price. But the key is that others do this as well, all with the intention of meeting new people over dinner. And when you’re buying your ticket, you can see who your dinner buddies will be. Yes, it’s sort of like Groupon meets Meetup. And yes, it’s brilliant.

So it should be no surprise that a long list of prominent early-stage investors have decided they’d love to back Grubwithus. The service, which launched out of Y Combinator last year, has just raised a $1.6 million round. Who’s at the funding table? Andreessen Horowitz, First Round Capital, NEA, SV Angel, Ashton Kutcher, Guy Oseary, Vivi Nevo, Yuri Milner, Maynard Webb, Matt Cutts, Elad Gil, Paul Buchheit, Alexis Ohanian, Start Fund, and Y Combinator.

Alongside the funding, the company is also highlighting two different types of dinners: charity dinners and raffle dinners. And the first two they’re doing are with investors Andreessen Horowitz and NEA.

For the Andreessen Horowitz meal, which takes place a Tamarine in Palo Alto on May 18, you’ll have to bid to win a dinner with John O’Farrell and Scott Weiss (two of the general partners). The proceeds from the bidding will go towards Second Harvest Food Bank. The 10 highest bids will win seats at the table (and the bidding will close 24 hours before the event).

The NEA meal is a raffle one. Essentially, anytime you book a meal on Grubwithus you’ll get a ticket. These tickets can then be used to enter to win access to the NEA meal — the more tickets you have, the better chance you have of winning the random draw. If you do win, you’ll be asked to pay the $35 set fee for the meal at Reposado in Palo Alto.

Currently, Grubwithus operates in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, DC, and Los Angeles. Boston and Seattle will be opening very soon, co-founder Eddy Lu tells us. The biggest city remains Chicago, as that’s where the service first started, he says.

The team is currently 8 people, but with the new funding they’ll be looking to hire quickly. And they’ll need to, as Lu realizes the competitors and clones will come quickly. One such competitor is LetsLunch, which launched in January.

Lu also envisions expanding the idea of Grubwithus into other verticals and use cases.

That makes sense given the obvious business model. Grubwithus has actually been making revenues since day one, Lu notes. They take a percentage from the restaurants they work with.

“Restaurants love us because we want to create sustainable relationships with them and tell them to make sure they still make money using us,” he says. “Users also use Grubwithus for social utility, not financial utility, so it’s a bunch of high-quality users coming into these restaurants, not deal-hunting cheapskates,” he continues.

You can probably guess which services he’s alluding to with those statements.



Disrupting Display Advertising With Social, Mobile, And Beyond At Disrupt NYC

Posted: 06 May 2011 12:13 PM PDT

Brands may be pouring money back into online display advertising, but that doesn’t mean that display advertising works or won’t be replaced by something else in the next few years. Will it be social, mobile, or something else? At TechCrunch Disrupt NYC, we’ll get into this debate with three of the best operators in online advertising: Facebook’s new VP of Global Advertising Carolyn Everson, Medialets CEO Eric Litman, and Right Media founder Mike Walrath.

Media companies and brands still don’t understand the power of social advertising, and Everson is going to explain it to them. She left Microsoft in February to join Facebook, and before that was head of sales at MTV Networks. Social ads are more about getting consumers to share a brand’s message on their own—turning consumers into brand ambassadors—than pushing the message in front of as many eyeballs as possible. Call it social targeting.

As computing goes mobile, that changes the prospects for brand advertising as well. On the one hand, tablets offer a more magazine-like experience for both content and ads. But beyond that, they bring location into the mix, which may turn out to be the most important targeting factor of all. Medialets powers the ads on many tablet publications, including The Daily, and is built into Adobe’s creative suite. Litman is taking on Apple’s own iAds on the iPad, and winning. He will explain how he does that.

Walrath was instrumental in making ad buying more efficient by creating an exchange for display ads with Right Media, which he sold to Yahoo for $850 million. But now he thinks that measuring clicks and impressions is the wrong focus for brands. His new startup, Moat, is trying to address that deficiency. Until it does, online display is going to have a tough time taking away advertising budgets from TV, which he think is still a pipe dream.

You can read the full list of announced speakers here. We have many more special guests to announce as May 23rd comes closer. If you haven’t purchased your tickets yet, make sure you do so here. If you are coming with us, we have a couple of great partnerships in place to help you find the perfect New York accommodations. We've partnered with Oyster.com who is providing a Disrupt hotel reservation list, plus your very own Disrupt Concierge Service for all Disrupt conference attendees. Oyster.com is also giving an additional 20% off room rates. You can read all about it here.

If you'd like to become a part of the Disrupt experience and learn about sponsorship opportunities, please contact Jeanne Logozzo or Heather Harde for more information.

Carolyn Everson
VP of Global Advertising Sales, Facebook

Carolyn Everson is the Vice President of Global Advertising Sales at Facebook, where she leads the global advertising team focused on top strategic accounts and global agencies. In addition, she oversees media strategy, advertising sales, and account management. Prior to Facebook, Carolyn was the Corporate Vice President of Microsoft's Global Advertising Sales and Trade Marketing Teams. Carolyn led the company's advertising business across Bing, MSN, Windows Live, Mobile, Gaming, Atlas and the Microsoft Media Network. Carolyn spent seven years at MTV Networks. Her last role was as Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of U.S. Ad Sales for MTV Networks where she oversaw strategic planning, operations and finance for MTVN's U.S. Ad Sales department. She also was responsible for MTVN's Direct Response business and the cross platform, cross brand strategic sales and marketing group called Generator. Carolyn has also worked at Primedia Inc., where she was Vice President and General Manager of several digital businesses, and held business development positions at brands including Zagat Survey and Walt Disney Imagineering. She is a board member of the Effies and dmg. Carolyn holds a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and communications from Villanova University where she graduated Summa Cum Laude. She also obtained a master's degree in business administration from Harvard where she was a Baker Scholar.

Eric Litman
Charmain and CEO, Medialets

Eric Litman is Chairman and CEO of Medialets, the most widely deployed rich media ad platform for mobile. He is a pioneer of the Internet's commercialization, and as a co-founder of Proxicom, helped to build one of the first, largest, and most successful publicly traded interactive agencies. Eric most recently served as Managing Director of WashingtonVC, an early-stage fund and incubator. Previously, Eric held senior executive roles in high-growth Internet businesses, as founder and CEO of Viaduct Technologies, a global Internet and mobile interactive agency. He was also instrumental in building digitalNATION, a web hosting and services provider, from its launch through its $100m acquisition by Verio Internet/NTT (NYSE: NTT). Eric began his career with technical and software engineering positions at GEnie, a pre-Internet online service provider, and NeXT Computer.

Michael Walrath

Investor, Advisor and Founder of start up and expansion stage companies. Formerly Founder, President and CEO of Right Media Inc. Walrath founded Right Media, Inc., (formerly Right Media, LLC) in 2003. He served as CEO until the company's July 2007 sale to Yahoo. He had a successful career at DoubleClick (and later MaxWorldwide) where he served as Director of direct marketing and Senior Vice President of strategy and development. In 2001, he was responsible for the creation of DoubleClick Direct, its direct marketing offering. He has been a Director of Meteor Games, LLC since December 15, 2010. He served as a Director of Interactive Advertising Bureau Inc. He was awarded the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2007. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of Richmond.



Keen On… Ze Frank: Why We All Need to Go Back to Kindergarten (TCTV)

Posted: 06 May 2011 11:18 AM PDT

Ze Frank wants to send us all back to kindergarten. Star.me, Ze's soon-to-be fully public startup, which raised $500,000 from star-struck investors including Gary Vaynerchuk and Ron Conway, is an attempt to reinvent the kindergarten's star system of rewards.

As Ze told me when he came into the TechCrunchTV studio earlier this week, "stars are good." They make us human, they allow us to display our emotions and become children again. But the funny thing about Ze is that, in building his new online kindergarten, he's had to become an adult – fancying an idea, raising capital, developing a business model, leading a team. And, as he confessed to me, becoming the CEO of a funded startup hasn't always been as easy as he first imagined when he founded Star.me.

This is the first part of my conversation with Ze. On Monday, he tells me why the future of play is a "hot thing.”

Ze rates startup entrepreneur Ze Frank

Ze on why we need (yet) another social startup

Ze on why we all need to go back to kindergarten



comScore: Android Continues To Top RIM And Apple’s iOS For U.S. Smartphone Share

Posted: 06 May 2011 11:04 AM PDT

comScore’s mobile subscriber stats are in for the month and Android continues to top U.S. smartphone share over Apple and RIM. Additionally, during the three month average period ending March 2011, Samsung was top handset manufacturer overall with 24.5 percent market share. Google Android led among smartphone platforms with 34.7 percent market share.

The report shows that during the period, 234 million Americans ages 13 and older used mobile devices (this number remained steady from the previous month). But, in terms of smartphones, 72.5 million people in the U.S. owned smartphones during the three months ending in March 2011, up 15 percent from the preceding three-month period.

Device manufacturer Samsung ranked as the top OEM with 24.5 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers. LG ranked second with 20.9 percent share, followed by Motorola (15.8 percent) and RIM (8.4 percent). Apple continued to gain share following the launch of the Verizon iPhone earlier this year, up 1.1 percentage points to reach 7.9 percent of subscribers.

With respect to smartphone share Google Android grew 6 percentage points to a 34.7 percent market share, while RIM ranked second with 27.1 percent share. Apple grew 0.5 points to 25.5 percent share, followed by Microsoft (7.5 percent) and Palm (2.8 percent). Google’s share continues to grow after passing both iOS and RIM for smartphone share in February.

comScore also examines how mobile subscriber are using their phones and reported that in March 68.6 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers texted using their phone. Browsers were used by 38.6 percent of subscribers (up 2.2 percentage points), while downloaded applications were used by 37.3 percent (up 2.9 percentage points). Accessing of social networking sites or blogs increased 2.6 percentage points, representing 27.3 percent of mobile subscribers. And Playing games comprised 25.7 percent of the mobile audience, while listening to music represented 17.9 percent.



Disqus Brings @Mentions To Comment Threads

Posted: 06 May 2011 10:47 AM PDT


Popular commenting platform Disqus, which recently raised $10 million from North Bridge Venture Partners and Union Square Ventures, is adding support for a feature that’s both nifty and familiar: mentions within comments. It may not sound particularly sexy, but it could actually help foster better discussions in comment threads (more on that in a bit).

If you’ve ever mentioned someone on Twitter you’ll be right at home with Disqus’s implementation. Start typing a comment, then type the ‘@’ symbol whenever you’d like to tag someone — this could be a user who has left another message in the comment thread, or a user who hasn’t participated. The convention is very similar to the ‘@reply’ system popularized by Twitter, and a small overlay will pop up with autocompleted names drawn from both Twitter and Disqus. Tagged names appear with a gray box around them in the published comment, which looks nice.

But this isn’t just for show. Disqus will send the tagged user an email notification (if they have a Disqus account) or a Twitter @reply (if they don’t), informing them that they’ve just been mentioned in the comment thread. And that’s important — it gives you an easy way to invite someone to comment on a thread that you think they’ll be interested in or knowledgable about. Depending on how mentions are used, there may even be an expectation that the person tagged in a comment comes and leaves a reply of their own (in other words, you can call people out).

Facebook, which now competes directly with Disqus via its Comments social widget, will probably add its own version of tagging in the future (Facebook’s main site has offered name tagging since late 2009). Update: Livefyre, another competing comments system, has also offered mentions using your social graph for around six months now.



Who’s In? U.S. Solar Industry Bands Together To Cut Costs, Make Panels Better

Posted: 06 May 2011 10:42 AM PDT

The U.S. solar industry is banding together to fend off an onslaught of global competition, and to lower the cost of manufacturing solar technology domestically. To make it happen, the newly formed U.S. Photovoltaic Manufacturing Consortium (PVMC) secured a $57.5 million federal grant from the Department of Energy Sunshot Initiative, along with financial commitments totaling $400 million from various state and corporate entities.

Today, the PVMC revealed (in an exclusive to TechCrunch) who its earliest members are, including cleantech businesses more often seen as competitors, not collaborators. The list, which follows at the end of this post, encompasses raw material suppliers, the makers of metrology, modules and other solar equipment, major universities, and high-tech research and development laboratories. They are focused on thin film, or copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) technology in particular.

Some thin film solar basics…

CIGS solar photovoltaics work by absorbing solar photons and converting part of that energy into electricity, or storing part of it in a chemical reaction. CIGS solar panels, unlike others, can be manufactured so that they’re flexible and comparatively lightweight, which means they can be incorporated into a variety of architectural designs and space-limited applications.

In the first quarter of 2011, according to research by the Cleantech Group, venture capitalists invested $641 million in 26 deals in U.S. solar companies. MiaSolé, a thin-film panel maker, closed the largest round in that period, $106 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Firelake Capital and VantagePoint Venture Partners.

PVMC members will share high-tech facilities and equipment, and academic resources at the U-Albany (in New York, image above) and the University of Central Florida.

It’s high-tech collaborative consumption.

Michael Fancher, an associate professor of nano-economics at U-Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering, who helped set up the PVMC explained:

“As academic hosts, we help each company pursue and protect their own product development, and work in a collaborative way that lets them recoup part of their overhead.

You could easily have competitors with similar process steps who are making CIGS solar photovoltaics. They'd typically operate within a facility they own. They might have one proprietary tool for one part of their manufacturing process that they’re changing up, and testing out.

With this facility and consortium, if you have to demo how your company’s new process step performs in an integrated process flow, you can put your tool in a [manufacturing] line, then another tool. You run the line on each, then compare the results. One might deposit materials using thermal deposition. Another might use sputtering deposition. You can reconfigure the line to demo these, and see where thing improve. But you don’t have to go out, and build your company its own entire line.”

This concept is nothing new. Years ago, the Austin-founded, now Albany-based SEMATECH did for the chip industry what PVMC aims to do for solar. (Sematech helped fund and form the solar consortium.)

Is this enough to mainstream clean energy?

Cleantech investor Michael DeRosa, managing director at Element Partners, believes:

“Early stage tech development gets more attention from cleantech investors in the U.S. We don’t have enough big money invested in the types of things that really need massive deployment, and are ready for that today. The private sector is not investing nearly enough in clean energy— not even close given the magnitude of the opportunity, and the problem, especially in the last couple of years.

Part of this is because government regulation [favoring renewable energy] isn’t happening, and it isn’t likely to happen this year. We could see a bunch hedge funds that used to pull in millions continue to drop out. What's going to fill that gap?

Certainly government grants and collaboration can help. In the whole history of cleantech investing, though — and you’ve heard this before— we've invested less than a handful of days of Exxon's revenue. I’d like to see the next half billion spent on deployable technology that can put a dent in our foreign oil dependence, now.”

Element Partners’ investments range within the cleantech sector from a natural gas vehicle technology company, Agility Fuel Systems, to an electric vehicle manufacturer, Think Global AS, from solar and wind businesses (Petra Solar and Wasatch Wind) to companies that help coal and oil businesses generate more energy from existing resources, with lower impact to the environment.

And now, the list…

The following organizations have joined the PVMC so far:

    Research & Development
    · College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE)
    · SEMATECH
    · IBM
    · National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
    · Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)
    · University of Central Florida (UCF)
    · Benet Labs

    Material Suppliers
    · Indium
    · Saint Gobain
    · Momentive
    · Mallinckrodt Baker
    · Matheson TriGas

    CIGS Solar Equipment
    · Veeco Instruments
    · Technic
    · Precision Flow Technologies
    · Spire
    · Infinity Precision
    · Schiller
    · Ulvac
    · Mustang Solar
    · Newport

    Metrology
    · Solar Metrology
    · FEI
    · JA Woolam
    · PDF

    Module Producers & Integrators
    · Magnolia Solar
    · Global Solar
    · Alteris
    · EYP/energy
    · CG Power
    · Amelio Solar
    · CH2M Hill
    · solo Power

    End-users
    · National Grid
    · New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)



Royal Wedding Viewed More Than 100M Times On YouTube

Posted: 06 May 2011 10:22 AM PDT

The story of tech is largely about adoption, and adoption often comes into focus in the wake of cultural events. Last Friday’s wedding of Prince William to Katharine Middleton was the epitome of an event, bringing together YouTube watchers, Facebookers, Flickrers, Twitterers and even Colorers in a mass collective online experience of the festivities.

Taking place at 11 am in London (4 am in SF) the wedding itself was live streamed 72 million times, to people watching in 188 countries. With the addition of rebroadcasts that day, the streams reached 101 million by the end of April 29th.

(In case you missed it you can still view the entire 3 hour and 37 minute long affair on YouTube or above.)

During the 10 second Royal kiss, the Royal YouTube Channel received 100K additional requests, at 10K requests a second. Unsurprisingly the top five countries watching the spectacle were the UK, the US, Italy, Germany and France.

The official Royal Wedding website was bombarded with traffic, and has seen around 37.7 million page views and 13.7 million unique visitors since its launch on March 2. The event has also spawned the already beloved memes Frowning Flower Girl, Cartwheeling Priest and Princess Beatrice’s Hat.

Princess Beatrice’s ridiculous hat has over 100K fans on Facebook, beating Aretha Franklin’s inauguration hat at 94K. But seriously, what were they both thinking?



Walking With Robots 2: A Trip To The Valley’s Busiest Hospital To See eLEGS In Action (TCTV)

Posted: 06 May 2011 10:15 AM PDT

Following our visit to Berkeley Bionics to talk with the team about their inspiring artificially intelligent, bionic devices, we were lucky enough to visit The Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC) to speak with those involved in the clinical testing of this new technology as part of patient treatment.

Berkeley Bionics has been working in conjunction with VMC Chief of Spinal Cord & Orthopedic Rehabilitation Dr. Akshat Shah to bring eLEGS — the wearable, artificially intelligent exoskeleton that enables those suffering from paralysis to stand up and walk again — into patient care, treatment, and rehabilitation.

Along with the VMC Foundation, which is raising money to support the project, the team is fine-tuning the device and studying how patients interact with eLEGS to optimize patient treatment and human-tech cooperation. The project’s eventual goal is to integrate the device into program-wide patient rehab both at VMC and in medical programs across the country in an effort to eliminate the need for wheelchairs and give the millions of people suffering from spinal cord injuries, stroke, MS, and more, the chance to stand up and walk again.

Below you will find interviews with Dr. Shah, VMC Foundation Executive Director Christopher Wilder, as well as a demonstration of eLEGS in motion with Karen Trolan, who was left paralyzed after a plane crash, but is well into her treatment and learning to walk again thanks to eLEGS. It’s truly wonderful stuff.

Special thanks to Karen and all those who participated, as well as Ashley Pagan for the expert camera work and editing, and TCTV Producer Jon Orlin for being The Facilitator.

And don’t forget to check out the first part of the story — including demos and interviews from our trip to Berkeley Bionics — here.



TechCrunch Giveaway: Free Ticket To Disrupt In NYC #TechCrunch

Posted: 06 May 2011 09:54 AM PDT

Here is another chance for you to win a free ticket to this year’s Disrupt in NYC. Early bird tickets are no longer available, so this ticket is valued at around $3,000. This is one giveaway you don’t want to miss!

We have been announcing new guest speakers week after week. Arianna Huffington, Marissa Mayer, Ron Conway, Dennis Crowley, Charlie Rose and many, many more will be joining us. You can read the full list of speakers as of now here. We still have surprises to announce, so be sure to be on the lookout for those.

Disrupt NYC is from May 23rd to May 25th and this ticket is good for the entire conference, as well as the after parties. Want it? Just follow the steps below to enter.

1) Like our TechCrunch Facebook Page:

2) Then do one of the following:

- Retweet this post (including the #TechCrunch hashtag)
- Or leave us a comment below

The contest starts now and ends tomorrow, May 7th at 7:30pm PST.

Please only tweet the message once or you will be disqualified. We will make sure you follow the steps above, choose at random, and contact the winner this weekend with more details. Anyone in the world is eligible.

Please note this giveaway is for 1 ticket only and does not include airfare or hotel. However, we do have a couple of partnerships in place to help you find a hotel. We've partnered with Oyster.com who is providing a Disrupt hotel reservation list, plus your very own Disrupt Concierge Service for all attendees. You can read all about it here.

Good luck and hope to see you there!



Reed Hastings: Netflix DVD Shipments “May Go Down The First Time Ever” This Quarter

Posted: 06 May 2011 09:47 AM PDT

Netflix is leading the charge when it comes to streaming movies and TV shows over the Internet. It’s no longer focussed on DVDs, even though it is about to ship its 3 billionth disc. As bandwidth to the home increases, streaming will just continue to become more popular. At the Wired business conference earlier this week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings predicted that gigabit-per-second speeds to the home will become common over the next decade.

I caught up with Hastings just before he went onstage and shot the video interview above (in which he does a mean impression of a 56K dial-up modem to illustrate how far we’ve come). “Streaming is the core of our business and it is growing rapidly.” he told me. “Streaming is much bigger than DVD for us in terms of hours of viewing, growth, and focus. We are seeing massive consumer adoption of streaming.” Not only that, but DVD growth might have peaked. Off camera, Hastings told me that DVD shipments for Netflix “this quarter may go the down first time ever.”

In this video, he also downplays the importance of Netflix licensing original programming (“it is no big strategy shift”) and explains why all you-can-eat subscriptions work so well for Netflix regardless of how people choose to watch their movies (DVDs, laptops, tablets, phones). He was a little too polite on-camera. But when I asked him what he thought about the New York Times’ multi-tiered paywall strategy in contrast to an all-you-can-eat subscription pricing, he responded: “If you are on the iPad and it has Safari and you go to the NyTimes.com and it works fine. Then you are asked to pay for the iPad app—that does not sound consumer friendly.” Exactly.



Comparison Engine FindTheBest Nabs Former Google Exec Rabin Yaghoubi As President

Posted: 06 May 2011 09:27 AM PDT

Comparison engine FindTheBest has announced a key hire today. Former Google and DoubleClick exec Rabin Yaghoubi will be joining the company as President. At FindTheBest, Rabin will lead Business Development, Marketing, Sales and Operations from the company’s newly opened New York office.

At Google, Yaghoubi helped launch and lead Google's content, commerce and local partnerships. At DoubleClick Rabin was Vice President of Global Media, responsible for expanding and ultimately selling the company's media business.

FindTheBest was founded by DoubleClick cofounder Kevin O'Connor so Yaghoubi and O’Conner go back to their DoubleClick days. The startup launched late last year, took funding by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in December, and has been growing fast. The site now has 1.5 million monthly users, after only six months open to the public.

What makes FindTheBest unique is its ability to compare in-depth searches that crawl large amounts of data. For example, the engine is perfect for comparing colleges, allowing you to compare universities by acceptance rates, SAT scores, tuition, and more. As we wrote in our previous review, the quality of the data they’ve gathered from government and other trusted sources, the transparency into how the data is sourced, and the tools available to slice, dice and manipulate it make FindTheBest a compelling destination.



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