Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Latest from TechCrunch

The Latest from TechCrunch

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Hands-On With The New Nook: Watch Out, Amazon

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 09:00 AM PDT

I have egg on my face, hands, and in my hair. Last year I called a premature end to the ereader race, stating that the Kindle was first to market and therefore in first place. I’m pleased to report that I was wrong.

The new Nook is without question the best standalone Wi-Fi ereader on the market. Note that I added a few weasel words there, and if you’re looking for 3G then the Kindle 3G is still a winner, but as a reading device the Nook is nonpareil.

Read more…



In Cash/Stock Deal, Angry Birds Developer Rovio Acquires Animation Studio Kombo

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 08:59 AM PDT

Rovio, the Finland-based developer behind the extremely popular Angry Birds franchise, this morning announced on its blog that it has acquired a longtime partner, Finnish animation studio Kombo. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but we understand there was a mix of cash and Rovio stock involved.


Reed Hastings: We Have A ‘Five Year Plan’ For Social Features And Facebook Integration

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 08:48 AM PDT

Netflix CEO and founder Reed Hastings took the stage at All Things Digital's ninth conference, speaking with Kara Swisher about the company’s future strategy, competition, content deals and more. When asked about whether the company is looking to add more new released, Hastings said that Netflix is actually a complement to platforms that offer new releases.

One of the pain points of using Netflix is that the TV and movie platform doesn’t offer a lot of new releases, the way that iTunes or Hulu does. But Hastings doesn’t seem to be too concerned about this, openly stating that he feels that Netflix can be paired with sites and platforms that offer newer content. He added that he’d like to include prior-season shows from channels like HBO and Showtime. He says his ‘check isn’t big enough for now’ but there are ongoing talks about buying this type of content. Specifically, he says he’d love to add HBO’s ‘The Wire.’

In terms of licensing content from studios and content owners, Hastings said that the “relationship thing is over stated,” and if you have a big checkbook you can make the deals.

With regard to the competition, Hastings believes that Comcast’s on-demand platforms like TV Everywhere will become a major competitor as cable and telecommunications companies improve their on subscription and content offerings. In order to compete with both these companies and platforms like iTunes, Amazon and Hulu; Hastings says Netflix will have to improve personalization, the user interface, and work on how to integrate social features.

Social is a ‘five year investment path’ says Hastings in terms of product development. He says Netflix will have a deep integration with Facebook, but the company has to figure out what makes sense in terms of privacy.

International expansion is also a significant focus for the company in the coming year. Netflix launched in Canada and will expand to a second, unnamed country later this year. Hastings says Asia is a particularly important region for Netlfix’s expansion, with potential markets in Korea, Indonesia, Japan, and India.

What’s keeps him up at night? Hastings says that he worries about continuing to innovate, as a large company. One of the keys to this is building up quality talent.

Additionally, he says that Netflix has no plans to include ads in its free version.



Apple Wants iPods.com

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 07:59 AM PDT

On 28 April 2002, a few months after Apple launched the very first iPod (yes, it’s been that long already), someone registered the domain name iPods.com.

It apparently took the Cupertino company a little over 9 full years to decide that, instead, it should be the rightful owner of the domain name, which until earlier this morning took people to some shady mp3 download site (though it no longer resolves, it seems).

Yesterday, Apple lodged a complaint, positing that the domain name should be transfered over to them. Apple of course owns the ‘iPod’ trademark, so my guess it the dispute will be resolved rather rapidly. The company currently owns iPod.com, iPhone.com, iTunes.com, iMac.com, iWork.com and many other related domain names.

Strangely – and I’ve mentioned this repeatedly in the past – Apple has never formally objected the registration of iPad.com, even though it owns the ‘iPad’ trademark, which it actually acquired from Fujitsu in March 2010.

Will they really wait 9 years again before trying to obtain it?

For your further reading pleasure:

Apple Now Owns FaceTime.com (But Still Doesn't Own iPad.com)

Did Apple Buy iCloud.com For $4.5 Million?



SolarCity Can Now Finance $1 Billion In Solar Projects

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 07:40 AM PDT

On Wednesday, SolarCity added $158 million to the pool of funds that it uses to finance, design, develop and install commercial or residential solar power projects in the U.S. The latest fund came through a partnership with U.S. Bancorp (a subsidiary of U.S. Bank) and gives SolarCity more than $1 billion in financing capacity.

According to a SolarCity press statement, the San Mateo cleantech company now boasts: 14 solar project financing funds via six financial partners; 14,000 solar customers; and 24 centers of operation in 11 states and more than 1,000 employees.

In February, SolarCity acquired two solar installers with an established market on the East Coast — a division of groSolar and the solar division of Clean Currents — to expand its business well beyond the sun belt. The company plans to use its newly established fund to finance its SolarLease and power purchase agreement offerings.

SolarCity’s nearest competitor, SunRun, also offers financing help to prospective customers, enabled via partnerships with banks and energy companies. About a month ago, SunRun closed a $200 million fund for solar project financing via U.S. Bancorp. Overall, SunRun boasts $600 million in financing capacity, compared to SolarCity’s $1 billion.



Eric Schmidt Is a Surprisingly Worried Man

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 07:35 AM PDT

It was a surprising way to kick off a technology conference at a moment in time where any piece of news– big or small– cues up the BUBBLE-OR-NOT Greek chorus of wailing and chest beating. Tech valuations, while almost universally sky-high, are nowhere near as high as the paranoia that we’re in a bubble. Or worse: The fear that you aren’t on the record having called this one out. A lot of tech commentary today has all the sophistication of a schoolyard game of “NOT IT!”

But the man on stage opening All Things Digital’s ninth conference wasn’t a player in the Valley’s central Web 2.0 psychological drama like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook or Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn. CEO Dick Costolo of Twitter would wait until day two. Hearing from Marc Andreessen, the puppet master behind many of those soaring valuations, would have to wait too.

The man in All Things D’s ergonomic red hot seat was Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google– the last company everyone said would incite a public market tech bubble. (It didn’t.) The last company Wall Street watchers claimed was insanely overvalued. (It wasn’t.) The company that has been on top for much of the last decade, as the older generation of Web 1.0 giants have failed to innovate and up and comers have declined to go public.

Schmidt was the man who helped take Google from an amazing product founders were eager to sell to Excite or Yahoo to the most valuable company on the Web with one of the most killer business models in modern economic history. The man somewhat dismissively labeled with the informal title of “adult supervision” over Google’s founders– a role that more modern product wunderkinds like Zuckerberg have actively eschewed as unnecessary.

You could argue Schmidt left on a strategically brilliant high note last year. Google has been eclipsed in the Valley hype machine by Facebook, and no doubt, in the public markets too whenever Facebook decides to file. LinkedIn has already beat it as the largest recent Web IPO. By handing the reins to Larry Page before that happened, you could argue Schmidt handed over Google’s one-trick-pony problem to the engineers, leaving himself free to play the role of elder Internet statesman for the company, the President Barack Obama reelection campaign, or any sphere he prefers.

So why didn’t he seem more happy?

The talk didn’t seem to focus on all that Schmidt had accomplished, or Google’s still-powerful role as the second most highly valued member of the big four consumer technology companies as he called them, Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook. Instead, it heavily dwelt on his failures. He repeatedly fell on his sword about missing the social/ identity revolution. He said four years ago he wrote memos about it, but did nothing about the memos he wrote. “I clearly knew I had to do something and I failed to do it,” he said. When asked why he responeded he was “busy, but the CEO should take responsibility and I screwed up.”

That wasn’t all. He talked about his failure to negotiate a music subscription service to run on Android, his failure to make faster product decisions which hopefully Page will change, his failure to make strategic deals with Facebook because he wouldn’t match Microsoft’s terms, and his failure to get Nokia as an Android licensee for its still gargantuan mobile phone base, particularly in emerging markets. He gave a nod to Apple’s “beautiful” but closed hardware products as the opposite of what Google offered, noted Google was no. 2 in display ads but that was still a multi-billion dollar business, and even said Bing did some parts of search better than Google. The talk wrapped up with a demo of Google Wallet– which already demoed last week– and came across less than revolutionary, more as an attempt to chase more nimble innovators like Square and Groupon.

When offered the opportunity to say what he’d done well at Google, he demurred, saying “You guys can write that story.”

Part of it was the questions lobbed at him. He was certainly not offered up softballs. But the last time I attended the All Things Digital conference, Ballmer and Gates were the opening chat. Microsoft is way more behind the eight ball than Google– particularly when it comes to the Web and the consumer– and they scatted and bebopped all over the stage about Microsoft’s all-mighty market position, and how those worried just didn’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong– it was refreshing to hear a tech leader who wasn’t so overtly in spin mode. It was a fascinating and frank window into his mixed feelings about his tenure at what’s still the world’s most powerful Internet company. But there’s a fine line between modesty and melancholy. Maybe it betrays something about my mood too, but for me, Schmidt seemed to tip over that line.

It wasn’t just his tenure at Google that weighs on him– it seemed to be the place the technology industry is in. Google was the crowning moment of Schmidt’s tech career, not the beginning of it. He cut his teeth in the enterprise world and when asked about the consumerization of enterprise, he didn’t immediately spin it as a win for an ad-supported, consumer facing company like Google. Instead, he said dramatically said, “We are seeing the death of IT as we know it.”

On a global policy level he described his biggest fear as the “balkanization of the Internet,” or a trend towards individual nations policing the Web in such a way that it’s no longer one, single open thing, rather a set of different Webs around the world. This is the pessimistic counter to the promise of Android, a platform that is activated on 400,000 phones per day and promises to take Google’s mission to organize and provide access to the world’s information global in a far deeper way than the PC revolution ever could. Similarly, he emphasized that all the great stuff being built on the Web to empower the rise of democracies could also be used to empower the world’s tyrants, terrorists and dictators. This lead to an admission that Google’s face recognition software was the only innovation the company had held back on releasing for ethical concerns that it be used for surveillance or constructing a harmful biometric database.

He insisted repeatedly he liked working at Google, wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and joked he’d work there after death if he could figure out a way. That may all be true, but it was clear from Schmidt’s demeanor that Google is no longer the swaggering do-no-wrong company of a few years ago. If there’s a frothy bubble in tech, it’s certainly not located “in the ‘Plex.”



Blip.tv Signs Distribution Deal With Fred, iJustine, And Other Collective Video Producers

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 07:30 AM PDT

Online video is growing up, and so are the young video stars who first found an audience on YouTube like Fred (Lucas Cruikshank) and iJustine. Both are part of the Collective Digital Studio, a talent management company of sorts for Web video stars. Today, the Collective is announcing an exclusive distribution deal with Blip.tv on behalf of its video artists, who can opt into the deal. Other Collective video producers signing up with Blip.tv include The Annoying Orange and Freddie W.

The addition of the Collective’s videos to Blip.tv’s arsenal is significant. Blip.tv is currently serving about 300 million video views a month. The Web shows that the Collective is bringing to the table attract about 200 million views a month. There is some slight overlap, but Blip.tv CEO Michael Hudack expects the deal will help Blip cross the 500 million views per month line by the end of the year.

Blip.tv will manage the distribution of their videos online to their respective YouTube channels, to Blip.TV, and to Websites which it will create for each video artist if they don’t have one already. Blip.tv will also sell video advertising, which it will split with the producers and the Collective. (The typical split for Blip.tv is 50/50). The better video shows Blip.tv can secure, the higher it can charge advertisers across its network.

The deal is in keeping with Blip.TV’s recent redesign, which positions it as a video destination site where people can find the best original Web series. The video shows will exist on YouTube, Blip.TV, and custom sites for the shows. The more places they can be found, the better. Although most of the views will probably continue to be on YouTube, which is increasing its focus on supporting networks such as Blip.tv.

These videos are still pretty cheap to make. “It depends on how much you pay yourself,” says Freddie Wong. Cruikshank says his budget per show is about $5. “If I need a prop, I go to the dollar store,” he says. But now there will be an animated version of his show, which will cost quite a bit more to produce.



Former Technorati CEO Richard Jalichandra Heads To MapMyFitness

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 07:30 AM PDT

One thing former Technorati CEO Richard Jalichandra has besides one of the funnest last names ever to say out loud: a new job. He’s moving to from Silicon Valley to Austin and taking the CEO role at MapMyFitness, a four year old startup. MapMyFitness Founding CEO Robin Thurston will remain on the company’s board of directors and will lead the company's product and development teams.

Jalichandra joined Technorati in late 2007 after a stint as a Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Battery Ventures. He previously held a variety of executive positions, including at Fox Interactive Media.

We first covered MapMyFitness in August 2010 when it closed a $5 million venture round from Austin Ventures. The company relocated from Colorado to Austin at that time as well.

MapMyFitness has created a variety of applications and websites to let users track their running, cycling, walking and hiking activities. Four million people a month use the apps, says Jalichandra, which are downloaded 10,000 times per day.



Alliance Health Raises $11 Million For Condition-Specific Social Networks

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 07:10 AM PDT

Alliance Health Networks, a company that operates health condition-specific social networks, has raised $11 million in new funding led by New World Ventures with participation from Physic Ventures, Highway 12 Ventures and Epic Ventures. This brings Alliance’s total funding to $18 million.

Launched in 2006, Alliance Health builds and operates health-related social networks, each focused on specific conditions. The company owns and operates 37 social networks and has more than 750,000 registered members. For example, Diabetic Connect is one of the largest social networks for people affected with the disease.

Alliance Health's networks allows patients and caregivers to build relationships around health conditions, share treatments, comment on services, give advice and more.

The company plans to use the funding towards building additional social networks and towards further development of a mobile platform.



Tippr Acquires WhitePages’ Group Buying Site DealPop

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 07:08 AM PDT

Launched less than a year ago, daily deals site and WhitePages subsidiary DealPop has been acquired by another company riding the group buying wave, Tippr.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but this appears to be mostly a talent acquisition.

In the press release, Tippr mentions that it is buying DealPop primarily to gain an “experienced sales force with national reach and a technical team with deep expertise in group buying infrastructure technology”.

The purchase of DealPop marks the fifth acquisition for Tippr, which enables any online publisher to operate a group buying service with its PoweredByTippr white-label platform.

Last year, the company acquired competitor FanForce.

Under the terms of the agreement, DealPop subscribers will continue to be able to use the site, but will also start seeing deals promoted by publishers on the PoweredByTippr network.



Polycom Acquires HP’s Videoconferencing Unit For $89 Million In Cash

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 06:43 AM PDT

Video conferencing company Polycom is acquiring the assets of HP's Visual Collaboration business, including the Halo Products and Managed Services business according to a release issued by both companies this morning. The acquisition, which is valued at $89 million, is expected to close in Q3 2011.

Part of the deal, HP and Polycom have established a strategic relationship in which Polycom will be an exclusive provider to HP for telepresence, including both resale and internal HP deployments. The two companies have also agreed to make Polycom's video applications available for HP's WebOS platform and TouchPad line.

Polycom also announced an Open Visual Communications Consortium, which is an open video exchange cloud with carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, BT, and Telefonica, to help expand teleconferencing beyond corporate firewalls and proprietary video platforms.



RockYou Buys Studio 3 Blokes To Build Social Combat Games On Facebook

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 06:16 AM PDT

RockYou is continuing its acquisition strategy today with the purchase of Australian social game developer 3 Blokes. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Founded in 2006, 3 Blokes has developed four social games for Facebook, including their most recent title, Galactic Trader, a space trading and combat game with 200,000 monthly active users. The acquisition also bring RockYou a number of talented and seasoned casual game developers. The studio is led by George Fidler, a former COO of EA's Asia Pacific Studio. John Passfield, formerly CEO of 3 Blokes and now VP of Creative for the studio, was previously Creative Director at Pandemic's Australia studio and co-founded Krome Studios.

Based in Brisbane, 3 Blokes will operate independently as a RockYou studio and develop strategy and combat-driven Facebook games. It’s interesting see RockYou pursuing a strategy of creating more combat social games on Facebook considering Zynga’s recent launch of its newest combat game, Empires & Allies.

And its appears that RockYou, which just brought on a new CEO, has also adopted Zynga’s strategy of acquiring small game studios to build talent and games. Earlier this year, the company bought social game studio Playdemic.

I think we can expect more acquisitions coming from the gaming company in the future. RockYou said in the release that it “is expanding its studio system to support top independent developers around the world as it continues to grow their social game portfolio.”



Quipster Throws Its Hat Into The Mobile Check-In Ring

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 06:02 AM PDT

Do we really need another mobile check-in app? Newly launched startup Quipster seems to think so. The startup is launching a location based social network for the iPhone that allows users to share their experiences and comments by checking into both locations and icons on the go.

Users can post their quips on Facebook, Twitter, and check in on Foursquare. The focus of the app is to share check-ins but also see recommendations of what to do in a city or town, and access contextual information about locations. Via the app, you can see live ‘quips’ from people around you, access other locations that people have quipped about, and more. You can also select an icon when you check-into a location that represents where you are checking into, i.e. ‘House Party,’ ‘Five Star Restaurant.’ ‘Cheap Eat.’

The more your Quip, and the more people like and follow your Quips, the higher your title and rank will be on the network.

While the idea of giving users additional context behind a location (such as Yelp reviews, recommendations, deals and more) is appealing, I’m not sure how Quipster is any different from some of the other check-in apps that are out there. Loopt, Foursquare, Gowalla and many others offer much of this functionality and have already been on the market for years. Quipster may have to find a more original angle in order to differentiate itself in the sea of check-in apps.



The HP Touchpad Gets A Video Demo Thanks To SanDisk

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 05:53 AM PDT

HP! SanDisk just crashed your party! Deep in the seedy show that is Computex Taipei, SanDisk is showing off one of its latest partner devices. Yep, they have a fully functional HP Touchpad

The SanDisk booth rep seems rather excited to show it off in front of the camera and runs through nearly all its functions in the 4:49 video. Overall the device seems to have changed very little since we played with it at its launch back in February. The biggest improvement seems to be the response time. It wasn’t exactly slow before, but it seems downright snappy now.

Read More



Act-On Raises $10 Million For Online Marketing Automation Platform

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 04:18 AM PDT

Act-On Software, which offers a cloud-based online marketing platform, this morning announced it has closed $10 million in Series C funding from Trinity Ventures, roughly half a year after securing $4 million.

The company says will use the funding to ramp up product development , sales and marketing efforts and to expand internationally, having recently opened a UK sales office in tandem with Pipedream Marketing to service the European market.

Act-On offers a platform that allows marketers to manage a variety of online marketing initiatives from a single, cloud-based system. The company’s marketing automation platform integrates with a number of applications, including Salesforce.com and Webex.

Act-On says it currently boasts over 250 active customers managing over 25 million contacts.

Trinity Ventures joins VC firms U.S. Venture Partners and Voyager Capital, as well as Cisco (also a client), as investors in the Beaverton, Oregon-based company.



Mixcloud Brings Its ‘YouTube-For-Radio’ To iPhone

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 03:58 AM PDT

Mixcloud, the 'YouTube of radio' (see our recent TechCrunch TV interview), has finally brought its offering to the iPhone in the form of a native app. The Mixcloud iPhone app gives on-the-go access to the London startup's library of on-demand radio - DJ mixes, radio shows and podcasts, along with 100s of thousands of other "Cloudcasts" that have been uploaded to the service. The app is in Beta and thus is currently being offered for free.


Fixmo Scores $6.5M For Infrastucture Management Solutions For Mobile Devices

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 03:52 AM PDT

Fixmo, which offers solutions to protect and manage enterprise mobile devices, has raised $6.5 million in financing, the company announced this morning. The Series B funding round was led by new investor Panorama Capital, with existing investors Rho Ventures Canada, iNovia Capital, Extreme Venture Partners and management participating.


Austin-based Portalarium Secures Funds From London-based m8 Capital For Mobile Social Games

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 03:16 AM PDT

London-based VC focused on mobile, m8 Capital, is to invest in Austin, US mobile and social games publisher, Portalarium. m8 led the funding round with San Francisco-based Founders Fund. Today's investment is undisclosed but we understand that it takes the total funding raised to date by Portalarium to $3.6 million. This is m8 Capital's first investment in a US-based business after a year of European investments.



We Happy? Miramax Deal Brings Hundreds Of Movies To Hulu Plus (And To Hulu)

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 03:11 AM PDT

Two weeks after Miramax announced a major content deal with Netflix, the studio this morning announced that it has also struck a multi-year agreement with Hulu to bring hundreds of films, including Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting, Scream and The English Patient to Hulu Plus subscribers. Hulu will offer select films via the advertising-supported Hulu.com service to boot.

Launching today, Hulu Plus subscribers will be able to watch Miramax movies in HD (when available), with no advertising interruption.

Additionally, Hulu says it will “soon” rotate a selection of approximately 15 Miramax films each month through Hulu.com with ad breaks, marking the first time Miramax titles have become available through an advertising-supported streaming service.

Miramax currently boasts a library of more than 700 motion pictures.

We happy? Yeah, we happy.

At the end of last year, Miramax announced that Michael (Mike) Lang had joined the studio has chief executive officer. I mention this because Lang was previously EVP, Business Development and Strategy at Fox, where he played an instrumental role in Hulu’s creation.



Fight My Monster Wants To Be ‘Moshi Monsters For Boys’, Dylan Collins Joins As Angel

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 03:08 AM PDT

Seen as a "last throw of the dice" in 2008 by Michael Acton Smith's Mind Candy, Moshi Monsters has grown into a phenomenal success. The educational social game for kids is said to be signing up a new player every second and when your online brand is shifting merchandise in the physical world too, you must be doing something right. It's no wonder then that a new UK startup would want to pitch itself on the back of Moshi Monsters' success and Fight My Monster is doing just that, aiming to be a "Moshi Monsters for boys".


iGlue Challenges Users To Wikify-The-Web With $40K In Cash Prizes

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 02:55 AM PDT

Designed to mark the company's full launch after four years of development, iGlue, in partnership with one of its backers, Power of the Dream Ventures (PDV), is launching "The iGlue Summer Annotation Challenge" with cash prizes totaling $40k. Putting to one side the question as to whether this is money well spent compared to other forms of marketing, the competition, which kicks off today and will last through to August 31st, asks users to download iGlue's browser add-on or install the bookmarklet and help Wikify the Web.


Airbnb Buys German Clone Accoleo, Opens First European Office In Hamburg

Posted: 01 Jun 2011 02:53 AM PDT

Airbnb just raised $100 million at a $1 billion valuation, and it's using some of that cash (and/or stock) to acquire a German 'equivalent' dubbed Accoleo. This move signals Airbnb's willingness to expand worldwide - the startup will establish its first European office in Hamburg, Germany. Coincidentally, one of its main rivals in Europe, venture-backed 9flats - started by Qype founder Stephan Uhrenbacher - is also based in Germany (Berlin, to be more precise).


Airbnb’s Soaring Valuation Should Be A Wake-Up Call To Independent Hotels

Posted: 31 May 2011 11:03 PM PDT

Some months ago, before the company was worth a billion dollars, I shared some thoughts on Airbnb.

Specifically, in what some mischaracterized as an attack on the company, I criticized those whose worship at the altar of Disruption is so unconditional that they don’t think Disruptive companies should be hidebound by the law. If Disruptive entrepreneurs are so clever, I argued, they’ll find a way to either work within the law, or to lobby to have it changed, rather than simply flouting it.

In the case of Airbnb, the law being challenged was New York’s S68730-B/ A1008-B (aka the “illegal hotel bill"); a proposed piece of legislation designed to prevent slum landlords from scamming tourists into staying in hastily converted deathtrap SROs. Or, as the Disruption cultists saw it,a desperate attempt by the hotel lobby to drive the mighty Airbnb out of business.

Two recent developments have finally given lie to that delusion. The first is Airbnb’s recent boast that on any given night it books more rooms than the largest hotel in NYC. That impressive sounding claim actually puts into perspective the threat that Airbnb currently presents to traditional hotels. The largest hotel in New York City is the Hilton, with 1,980 rooms – meaning by their own reckoning Airbnb is Disrupting just 0.03% of total New York hotel rooms. This in the city with the highest average room rates in America.

Secondly, as CEO Brian Chesky admitted on stage at TC Disrupt, conversations with New York lawmakers soon revealed that the city had no idea Airbnb even existed, let alone that the proposed law – which was genuinely designed to clamp down on criminals – would negatively impact them.

Realising that the City of New York wasn’t trying to put him out of business, Chesky did some lobbying of his own. The result: legislators have proposed an alternative bill that suits everyone, Airbnb continues to go from strength to billion dollar valuation and Chesky isn’t going to jail any time soon. (By comparison, sharing the stage at Disrupt was Uber‘s Travis Kalanick who boasted that he’s currently facing 20,000 years in jail for his bold defiance of the law. Total number of Uber cabs available to NY Disrupt attendees: 0)

As a permanent hotel dweller, and the son of two hoteliers, I’m conflicted by Airbnb’s modest but undeniably growing impact on the hotel industry. On the one hand, anything that makes it easier for people to pack their entire lives into carry-on luggage and city hop their way around the world – which Airbnb demonstrably does – is a good thing. On the other hand, I love hotels and I want the industry to survive and thrive.

What doesn’t help resolve my conflict is how stubbornly my beloved hotel industry refuses to embrace the same Disruptive ethos that has driven Airbnb to its soaring valuation.

For example, it’s ridiculous that there’s no Airbnb for independent hotel rooms, especially given that smaller hotels have the most to lose from customers shifting to private room rentals. Such a site could foster the same feeling of community as is found on Airbnb while also facilitating better price elasticity: publishing a top line rate, but allowing for private negotiation when it comes to long stays, block bookings or repeat stays. It would also provide an alternative for travellers who want a more homey alternative to soulless corporate hotels but still prefer the peace of mind that comes from a professionally run establishment. (For all of Airbnb’s boasts that no-one has been murdered in one of their rooms, there are still a hell of a lot of freaks out there)

Broadening the disruptive scope still further, I also like the idea of a Zipcar-for-hotels where, for a fixed monthly fee, frequent hotel stayers have access to a set number of hotel nights in whatever city they happen to be visiting. Say, $200 a month for three nights in any city, rising to two or three thousand dollars a month which would allow you to live permanently in any – or all – of the site’s network of independent hotels. To be admitted in to the network, independent hotels would have to agree to honor a fixed rate across the month and to set aside a fixed number of rooms for members (to ensure there was always sufficient inventory). Equally importantly, they would have to offer certain features as standard: free wifi, no resort fees, late check out and flexible cancellation policies, for starters.

Obviously, in such simplistic form, each of those ideas probably deserves to live and die on the back of a paper napkin; there’s a reason why I’m not an entrepreneur any more. But my broader point stands: it’s inevitable that an equilibrium will eventually be found between sites like Airbnb and traditional hotels — that point will be reached far more quickly, though, once hoteliers start to take lessons from their Disruptive rivals.



On iCloud, Baby

Posted: 31 May 2011 09:03 PM PDT

Apple did something really odd today. Something they almost never do. They pre-announced the agenda for the keynote of one of their events, WWDC, taking place next week. Yes, they probably did this in an attempt to set expectations — read: no new iPhone coming — but in doing so, they also managed to do something even stranger: they outed a completely unreleased product. iCloud.

So what is iCloud? Apple only states that it’s their “upcoming cloud services offering.” Of course, a number of other details have been rumored for months now. I figured it was a good time to break down what we know — or what we think we know about what’s coming. Erick did a bit earlier. I’ll do a bit more.

Ultra Mega Datacenter

The talk about Apple’s cloud strategy really began when it was revealed that they were building a massive datacenter in North Carolina about a year ago. That datacenter only recently was completed and brought online. And it’s thought that Apple poured over $1 billion into it.

At 500,000+ square feet, it’s something like five times larger than Apple’s other datacenters. And yes, it is believed to be the main hub for iCloud (though they are thought to be building another large datacenter in California as well).

iTunes in iCloud

The most talked-about aspect of iCloud is definitely the music portion of it. Because Apple has been negotiating with the music industry for months — and because rivals Google and Amazon have as well, a number of things have leaked about this service.

Right now, it’s believed that Apple either has three or all four of the major music labels signed up for a service that would allow Apple to stream music from their servers to users’ computers, iPhones, iPads, etc. Unlike Google and Amazon (which don’t have the label deals yet), Apple’s service will apparently allow a program (likely iTunes) to analyze a user’s computer and see what songs they have on their hard drive. Those songs would then be mirrored in iCloud — meaning no uploading would be required, a hugely important detail.

Another potentially huge detail is the talk that Apple’s deal with the labels may even include non-iTunes-purchased songs in users’ iCloud. This means that music obtained through other means (read: piracy) may still work with the system. That would be a big win for Apple, and one you can bet they’re paying for.

But not so fast. While the label deals are signed (or will be this week), Apple still apparently does not have the publisher deals signed. While generally less talked-about than the label deals, the publisher deals are still vital for a full-fledged service. Apple may be able to get these done this week as well, or it may take a little while longer. After years of being pushed over, it seems the publishers are negotiating harder than usual this time.

We had originally heard that Apple’s plan was to launch their cloud music service at their annual music event in the fall. But now that we know for sure that iCloud is being formally unveiled at WWDC, it seems likely that they will at least mention it there, and probably preview it. But that doesn’t mean it will be ready to go. In fact, it may require iOS 5 (I have no actual details here, just thinking out loud), which also isn’t due until late summer or early fall (though it too will be shown off at WWDC).

iTunes.com?

One other potential wildcard: what if Apple unveils a version of iTunes that works fully in the cloud — as in, in the web browser?

Rumors of iTunes.com has persisted for years. And while iTunes the desktop app will undoubtedly still be required for a long time to come for iDevices, iTunes in the cloud could offer some basic functionality, such a music-streaming over the browser.

iMovies in iCloud

Earlier today, CNet’s Greg Sandoval had a story about Apple’s hopes that the movie and television studios will also get on board with their iCloud offering. Unlike the music side of things, there hasn’t been much stated about this side of the coin. But it’s arguably even more important.

For years now, I’ve been complaining about the untenable model Apple has in place with regard to iTunes and films/television shows. The issue is that they take up way too much space on hard drives. If these services were as popular as Apple hoped, everyone would run out of hard drive space very quickly. There needs to be a cloud solution here.

Sandoval notes that while the sides are talking, and some are thought to be close, there are some big holdups. One is the idiotic HBO rule (where movies can’t be on sale online when they’re being aired on HBO). This rule is a hold-over from a different era and should be eliminated. But that’s Hollywood.

Another issue is, of course, piracy. Sandoval quotes Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes as talking favorably about a cloud solution for movie storage, but only with the Ultraviolet system in place. For those unaware, Ultraviolet is a new form of DRM that is backed by all the major studios and several device manufacturers and content sellers.

Unfortunately, Sandoval leaves out one key detail: the one company not on board with Ultraviolet is Apple. They have their own DRM system that they’d prefer to use. This is going to be a hold up — especially with studios like Time Warner. They have to know that if they back Apple and UV, it will undercut the latter. So do they try to force Apple on board with UV? That probably won’t work too well.

iDrive in iCloud

Presumably, iCloud will replace MobileMe (which itself replaced .Mac and iTools). At its most basic, MobileMe is storage space in the cloud (on Apple’s servers) and a syncing service. A main front-facing version of this is iDisk.

This system currently works fairly well, though for whatever reason, it’s not nearly as seamless as other third-party options like Dropbox. One can only assume that Apple will try to remedy that with iCloud. While there haven’t been many hints of it yet in OS X Lion, don’t be surprised if iCloud is tightly intertwined into the new OS. As well as iOS 5.

And expect the other MobileMe services (email, calendar, address book, Find my iPhone) to make the leap over the iCloud as well. And don’t be surprised if the most basic ones become free — more on that below.

And what about this: what if Apple offers developers some storage space on iCloud for their own apps? This could allow them to use Apple’s services rather than another third-party like Amazon S3. It’s pure speculation, but it doesn’t sound so crazy, does it?

Gallery in iCloud

One element that could get a larger revamp is the Gallery functionality currently baked into MobileMe. Some of it is good right now, but most of it is too clunky. While we know that Apple is going with deeper Twitter integration in iOS 5 to easily tweet out pictures (among other things), they likely want a better solution of their own as well. A revamped Gallery offering could do this.

One thing we’ve been hearing whispers about is that Apple is thinking about how best to share moments (pictures and images) with those people close to you. Think: Path instead of Flickr. Apple could do this via a new photo-sharing app, but it would probably be easier to bake it into the Photos app. There would then be a web-component to this, obviously.

Location in iCloud

Along those lines, another element that there have been whispers of for a while is a location service that Apple could offer. Think of it as “Find my iPhone” but for people. In other words, it could be something like “Find my child”, or “Find my friends“. There hasn’t been a lot of talk about this in recent weeks, but Apple was definitely working on something in this space. It could be a part of iCloud or it may not.

iWork in iCloud

Another aspect of Apple’s current cloud services that is often overlook is iWork.com. While it’s been out there for a while, Apple has never felt comfortable enough to truly tout it (it’s actually still in beta — very Google-like). Maybe now’s the time.

We just saw the iWork suite of apps come to the iPhone today, so perhaps Apple is gearing up for more of a push in this direction. If they want to keep up with Google Docs as well as continue to compete with Microsoft Office, Apple will have to do this sooner or later.

Voice in iCloud

Another aspect of iOS 5 that we’ve heard some talk about is the Siri integration. Apple acquired Siri last year, and is believed to have put that team to work on some new, cool services for iOS 5. Some of those may be based in iCloud, some may not. But one piece of underlying technology, created by Nuance, is definitely believed to be a part of iCloud.

Ever since the Siri acquisition, Apple is believed to have been in negotiations with Nuance on everything from an acquisition to a big-time partnership agreement. It’s now believed that the latter is in place and could be announced at WWDC.

From what we’ve heard, Nuance software is already running on Apple’s servers in their North Carolina datacenter. It’s believed that Apple could offer third-party developers access to this technology (which may or may not happen at WWDC). This could well be a vital part of the backend of Apple’s iCloud strategy.

Notifications in iCloud

We’ve also heard that the notification system in iOS is getting completely revamped in version 5. Apple famously took their time building their current Push Notification system — it took them about a year to complete it for iOS 3, months longer than anticipated.

The current system leaves a lot to be deserved and a revamping will be much welcomed. Presumably, this will now run over Apple’s new cloud infrastructure as well. A lot of developers would love more control over these notifications as well.

Game Center in iCloud

One element of iOS that has been very underwhelming has been Game Center, Apple’s iOS gaming network. Right now, it’s little more than a leaderboard with a clunky system to play games with other users. Might Apple use iCloud to turn the service into a more worthy Xbox Live and PSN competitor?

Activation/Syncing in iCloud

A wildcard for iCloud is if Apple will finally offer the ability to activate devices without tethering them to a computer? If that’s the case with iOS 5, it may also rely on Apple’s new server system. Also interesting could be app syncing, which you can do now, but it’s more of a manual process through the App Store. This would bring iOS closer in functionality to Android in this regard.

Pricing of iCloud

The big question about iCloud from a consumer perspective will be around pricing. Right now, MobileMe is $99 (or $149 for a family pack) for a year. For individuals, this includes 20 GB of space spread over all the various services. That won’t be nearly enough space if iCloud is to include music storage — let alone movie/TV storage.

But remember too that with mirroring, Apple isn’t actually storing many copies of individual songs for users. Instead they’ll have one (or a few) central repositories that users will access depending on their ownership rights. This will keep the costs lower for Apple and, in turn, for users.

Apple likes to keep things simple. Because of that, it seems unlikely that they’d offer a many-tiered plan for iCloud pricing. Instead, I suspect they may have two (or three) options. At the base may be a free option with Calendar, Address Book, Bookmarks, iBooks-sync, Find my iPhone, maybe even email. Above that may be a paid option at the $99 price point, or slightly higher (perhaps monthly?). This would presumably include iCloud music and perhaps more iDisk storage. Maybe they’d have another tier if they can get the movie/TV studios on board.

If Apple were to offer developers space in iCloud to use for their apps, this would likely have a different pricing structure, that could be tier-based.

Hey! You! Get off of iCloud

The fact that Apple is unveiling iCloud alongside major revamps to their two flagship OSes (iOS and OS X) suggests deep ties to those two OSes. And the fact that this is taking place at WWDC suggests that Apple will have plenty of new things for developers to work with in the cloud.

It still seems pretty likely at this point that all of this will just be a taste of what’s to come. This will be Apple previewing services for developers to begin to help guide them how to utilize these new tools. Don’t be surprised if new builds of both iOS and OS X Lion are released to developers with iCloud integration as well. Final releases for consumers would come later (in the summer for OS X and in the fall for iOS).

The fact that Steve Jobs will be on stage for the unveiling seems to speak well for the state of iCloud. There’s no way he lets Apple repeat the disaster that was the MobileMe roll-out. He must think iCloud is a winner right off the bat.

We’ll be there next week covering all of this live.



Signs Of Twimg, Twitter’s Photo Hosting, In The Wild

Posted: 31 May 2011 08:19 PM PDT

More details have emerged since we originally reported on Twitter’s photo-sharing service, namely that Apple's new iOS 5 will probably come with a baked in Twitter image sharing feature.

A tipster informs us that one trigger happy Apple iOS designer has already released a test link into the wild (which we’ve seen but are not replicating here). The tipster clued us into a http://a0.twimg.com/status_photos/ URL that appeared in his timeline, and then quickly disappeared.

While Twitter has hosted individual profile images on http://a1.twimg.com/profile_images/ for quite some time, the /status_photos/ appendage is new, or relatively so.

A little Googling finds three more signs of this: A test account posting photos on March 30th, a Google cache of the protected Twitter office account posting the above photo on March 31st, this bizarre account posting photos yesterday and a Tweetmeme cache of Twitter designer Coleen Baik posting this photo from her account, with the original tweet nowhere to be found.

If what we’re hearing is correct and the service is just a simple uploader to S3, then the above /status_photos/ links seem to make sense. However we’re expecting that these will eventually get reformatted to something cleaner, like Twimg.com/3dkd for example.

Image: TheTwoffice

  


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