Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Latest from TechCrunch

The Latest from TechCrunch

Link to TechCrunch

GPS Company Garmin Buys European Competitor Navigon

Posted: 14 Jun 2011 09:28 AM PDT

As rumored, GPS device company Garmin has bought its European competitor Navigon AG. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed but previous reports have indicated that the company was acquired for roughly $72 million. Navigon will operate as a subsidiary of Garmin.

Similar to Garmin, Navigon, which is based in Germany, develops navigation software and GPS devices. The company also offers navigation applications for the iPhone and Android. The company has an estimated seven percent share in portable navigation devices in Europe.

Garmin president and CEO Cliff Pemble said in a release that the addition of Navigon’s European automotive OEM business is complimentary to the company as it looks to expand its “footprint” in Europe.

Google Scaling Solar, Commits $280 Million To Finance SolarCity Installations

Posted: 14 Jun 2011 08:54 AM PDT

Google today announced a new partnership with SolarCity, committing $280 million from its coffers to finance SolarCity installations, namely solar rooftops for homes in North America.

The partnership brings Google employees a discount on residential solar installations and services from SolarCity. On a worldwide basis, according to the company’s last quarterly earnings report, Google employs about 26,300 full-time.

Earlier this month, SolarCity locked a commitment from U.S. Bancorp that put them past the $1 billion mark in terms of financing capacity. Google becomes the company’s seventh major financing partner.

Rick Needham, director of green business operations at Google wrote about the deal in a company blog post this morning:

“[At Google, we] believe the world needs a wide range of clean energy options in the future, each serving different needs. We've already invested in several large-scale renewable energy projects…We think ‘distributed’ renewable energy (generated and used right at home) is a smart way to use solar photovoltaic (PV) technology to improve our power system since it helps avoid or alleviate distribution constraints on the traditional electricity grid.”

Google also put $168 million in project financing into the BrightSource Ivanpah solar power tower project. Back in 2006, Google installed solar panels at its own Mountain View campus, too.

Google’s support of solar infrastructure dovetails nicely with Google Ventures’ investments in smart grid startups. Their portfolio includes Silver Spring Networks and Transphorm, for example. The more homes and businesses are rigged up with solar panels, and able to generate and distribute power back through the grid, the more data such companies will have to process on behalf of utilities.

Up Close With The Uber-Expensive Ulysse Nardin Chairman Phone

Posted: 14 Jun 2011 08:42 AM PDT

Last week I got the chance to play with the Ulysse Nardin Chairman, a goofy, expensive phone with a small, built-in mechanical rotor for manual winding. I interviewed the head of UN’s cell division, Paul Williams, about his experience building the phone as well as his background at Nokia’s Vertu line. The phone will run Android and will be available next year. If anything can be said of this phone it’s that it is real, it is a serious piece of electronics, and yes, someone will probably buy one or one thousand.

Read more…

Bre.ad Launches URL Shortener That Aspires To Be Your Own “Personal Billboard”

Posted: 14 Jun 2011 08:06 AM PDT

Part of the series of music and entertainment related startups backed by Lady Gaga’s manager Troy Carter, Bre.ad is a URL shortner that hopes to be your own personal billboard. The concept behind Bre.ad is that users can create “toasts,” or their own personalized advertisements for causes, brands or themselves and gain exposure for those toasts by shortening and sharing links using the service (for example). Users can also choose to share other people’s toasts through the site.

Users who sign up for an account on Bre.ad can upload their custom image and message and can shorten a link with Bre.ad by either typing Bre.ad/ in front of the link or using the interface on the site. When users share the link on Facebook and Twitter, their friends and followers will see their "toasts," or the Bre.ad billboards, for five seconds when they click on the link. Users can also follow people on Bre.ad to keep tabs on their link sharing activity onsite.

Founder Alan Chan tells me that despite a glutted URL shortener market, demand for a platform that allows you to market products through sharing links is high and 10 K people signed up in the first four days. Beta users shared a Bre.ad link every 10 to 15 minutes on Twitter and the initial beta testing crop included Lady Gaga, and 50 Cent.

While there are plenty of alternative URL shorteners such as Bit.ly and Goo.gl and even Twitter's own offering, Chan says that the competitive advantage of Bre.ad is the digital billboard/ad part, what he calls a "visual extension of your Twitter feed." He likens the startup to cross between About.me and Bit.ly

Chan hopes eventually to monetize the service by providing premium features like user acquisition analytics, optimization and other perks to people who want to promote content through the URL shortener, "If you're a clothing company you can put your messaging in front of a cool music video … If I'm following you then I care about the things you care about, it' s like a visual tweet at that point.”

The first 1000 TechCrunch reader who email techcrunch@bre.ad can reserve the vanity URL for themselves or their brand, for example http://bre.ad/apple.

Blake Griffin Demos The Upcoming Vizio Android Tablet Without Actually Jumping Over It

Posted: 14 Jun 2011 07:09 AM PDT

Blake Griffin, previously known for dunking over midsize Korean sedans and playing for LA’s other NBA team, just posted to his YouTube account a quick, clearly sponsored, video of the upcoming Vizio tablet announced back at CES 2011. The tablet is part of Vizio’s ecosystem dubbed VIA Plus that promises to bring the same sort user interaction across different platforms through similar apps and wireless connectivity similarly to AirPlay.

This promise at least seems to be fulfilled from the quick look although the tablet looks rather laggy even in the experienced hands of the Vizio rep. Scrolling is jittery, apps load slowly, and auto-rotation takes a good few seconds. It’s not all hateful criticism, though. Vizio is at least trying something different with VIA Plus and those that own nothing but the latest Vizio products should enjoy the additional functinality. But for the rest of us, it seems to be an unnecessary and probably pricey feature.

Read More

Facebook Is Taking A Special Interest In RockMelt’s Social Browser

Posted: 14 Jun 2011 06:50 AM PDT

Ever since RockMelt launched its social browser, it’s been known unofficially as the Facebook browser. Facebook chat, status updates and sharing are all built right into the browser. Now Facebook and RockMelt are officially working together in a product partnership, and the first fruits of that collaboration can be seen in the latest release available today, RockMelt 3.

RockMelt is still an independent browser with only a few hundred thousand active users. Facebook made no investment in RockMelt, nor is it going to help promote or distribute the browser, at least initially. Its product teams, however, are working closely with RockMelt to make sure that its Facebook features shine. “The partnership is based on a shared belief that social should join navigation and search as fundamental capabilities of the browser,” says RockMelt CEO Eric Vishria.

There are several new features in RockMelt 3. To start with, RockMelt 3 adds Moves your Facebook buddy list from the left edge to the right edge of the browser. The buddy list is now scrollable, and it can be expanded to view not just pictures of your friends’ faces, but their full names.

The second new feature is that Facebook notifications, messages, and friend requests—what Facebook engineers internally call “the jewels”—are now visible at the top of RockMelt right in the chrome itself. You can visually see when you have a new notification, friend request, or message, and pop down a window to read more.

RockMelt is now integrated with Facebook’s unified messaging system. So if a contact is online, a chat window pops open. If he or she is not, it reverts to Facebook messages.

RockMelt also knows when you are on Facebook.com, and strips away the redundant features from the site which are part of the browser. So the notification counters at the top pf Facebook disappear because they are now a feature of RockMelt. And when you are on Facebook.com, and a friend wants to chat, RockMelt’s version of Facebook chat opens up instead of two chat windows duplicating each other, which is what happened before.

So far, RockMelt has not taken off as much as its initial launch hype would have suggested. Since it opened up its beta to the public in March, it’s seen modest growth, but high user engagement. A Facebook endorsement could help its cause.

So did Marc Andreessen, who is both a Facebook and RockMelt board member, have anything to do with this partnership? Not initially. “Someone on Zuck's staff was an alpha user—one of our first 100 users—he showed it to Zuck and that is what got the partnership going,” Vishria tells me.

Certainly, it is not too difficult to imagine why Facebook would be interested in supporting the development of a social browser.

ClarianLabs: Rethinking The Battery As A Tiny Engine

Posted: 14 Jun 2011 06:12 AM PDT

An energy technology incubator, ClarianLabs in Seattle, has published a patent for a device called the Rotary Piston Generator (RPG) which the company hopes will challenge the idea of what batteries are, and how they’re used, especially in vehicles.

The RPG is a mechanical rather than chemical approach to portable energy storage. Its energy capacity is potentially ten times greater than a typical battery, company representatives wrote in an email exchange with TechCrunch. That depends on the kind of fuel it uses— the invention is essentially a very tiny, highly efficient engine.

ClarianLabs’ published patent shows the RPG contains: “induction armature that rotates around a fixed shaft inside a rotary piston.” As they rotate relative to one another, the parts generate electricity (kind of like a diesel engine).

The RPG doesn’t require a separate generator, starter or gearbox. It can ostensibly run on a variety of fuels, including: gasoline, kerosene, propane, natural gas, ethanol, methanol or hydrogen.

ClarianLabs is pre-revenue, with 5 employees. The company previously won GE’s Consumer Innovation Award in the 2010 Ecomagination Challenge, for its SmartBox Solar module design, which is a “plug-n-play” solar concept for the home. Basically, it’s a small solar panel you can plug your appliances into directly.

According to Chad Maglaque, president of ClarianLabs (and ClarianPower):

“We're a technology developer and licensor, akin to a Dolby or a Dyson for cleantech. This is a very early stage technology. We are now looking for a partner to develop [it] — like the Department of Defense or the Department of Energy, an automobile or aerospace manufacturer. We think a natural for this would be in electric vehicles as a lightweight, compact range extender, something akin to a bike rack that you clip on or put in your trunk for a weekend trip.”

There isn’t any data that demonstrates this thing works, yet.

[Ed's note: It's always exciting to see new ideas to deliver more efficient portable power. While we can't highlight every patent published, I selected this one because the company has a track record of winning awards and recognition on the cleantech competition circuit from judges in the field who know what's commercially viable, better than I do.]

Apple, Nokia Settle All Patent Disputes After Apple Agrees To Pay Up

Posted: 14 Jun 2011 05:39 AM PDT

Nokia this morning announced that it has settled a patent row with Apple. Under the settlement agreement, Apple will pay a one-time fee as well as on-going royalties to license patents from the Helsinki, Finland-based mobile phone maker.

The deal will result in settlement of all patent litigation between the companies, including the withdrawal by Nokia and Apple of their respective complaints to the ITC.

Nokia further states that the patent license agreement is bound to have a positive financial impact on its (recently revised) outlook for Q2 2011 (check back here for its financial report on Q1 2011).

The big question that remains unanswered: how much is Apple coughing up to settle the patent litigation with Nokia (which has been brewing for years now)?

Other noteworthy coverage of the news:

Apple and Nokia settle patent dispute — see I told you so: Apple pays (FOSS Patents)

Nokia's patent deal with Apple could benefit Windows Phone (WinRumors)

Why Nokia deal with Apple may spark mobile patent war (GigaOM)

Review: ThinkGeek iCADE iPad Arcade Cabinet

Posted: 14 Jun 2011 05:23 AM PDT

Few things will grab a middle-aged man’s attention like an iPad full of old Atari games and a ball-end joystick. There is something about that specific mix of electronic nostalgia, the promise of adventure, and the experience of sweet limbic release that allows him to relax into the experience at hand, his face slack, his hand jazzing the stick like a rat trained to respond to reward behavior.

That’s why the iCADE from ThinkPad is so great: it makes you think you’re a kid again, slamming quarters into Crystal Castles while waiting for you dad to pick you up from the roller rink. It’s a visceral feeling to see old games finely reproduced inside a little arcade cabinet whose brightly colored decoration reminds you of a simpler, happier time.

Read more…

ROBLOX Raises $4 Million For Its Online Building Game For Kids

Posted: 14 Jun 2011 05:22 AM PDT

ROBLOX this morning announced it has closed a $4 million Series B round of funding from existing backers, including ALTOS Ventures and First Round Capital. The company offers a game that allows kids aged seven to 16 to architect their own environments in a massively multi-player 3D world, subtly teaching them software coding practices along the way.

Started in September 2006, the company now claims over 5.7 million unique visitors and 650 million page views per month. ROBLOX says revenue is 75 percent year over year but failed to provide numbers to adequately back up that claim.

ROBLOX comes with its own virtual economy, millions of characters and a fairly large repository of game worlds and other customized virtual items. The company says kids spend 19 million hours per month on ROBLOX.

The startup generates revenue from subscriptions, sales of in-game virtual currency, advertising and pre-paid cards sold at various retail outlets.

The company will use the additional capital to expand and plans to double its workforce in 2011.

While Helping Others Erase $42 Million In Debt, ReadyForZero Raises $4.5 Million

Posted: 14 Jun 2011 02:04 AM PDT

Most charts I get sent are up and to the right. Not this one.

The chart ReadyForZero sent me (above) goes down and to the right. This is meant to showcase just how much debt the service is helping users eliminate. They’re the blue lines on the bottom. It’s like golf, the lower the better.

All told, ReadyForZero is already helping their users eliminate some $42 million in credit card debt since the beta launch just four months ago. We’ve covered the Y Combinator alum a few times over the past several months for a good reason: it’s a solid and much needed service. And today, investors are putting even more of their money where the credit card debt is disappearing, giving ReadyForZero a fresh $4.5 million Series A.

Polaris Venture Partners led the round with participation from Citi Ventures. It follows a $260,000 seed round last October that featured prominent angels like Steve Chen, Dave McClure, Benjamin Ling, Nils Johnson, and Maneesh Arora.

“This financing round will help us build more automation, engagement and optimization into the product — things like, managing your personal debt and credit reputation the same way you manage your investments and net worth,” co-founder Rod Ebrahimi says. “We hope this financing also furthers our image as a credible and legitimate option among within a notoriously ‘shady’ industry,” he continues, also noting that they’re hiring ” aggressively”.

“There is no doubt that there is a big opportunity here,” Ebrahimi says. How big? Well, some 77 percent of American families have debt. And the Federal Reserve pegs the total consumer debt amount at $2.4 trillion. Not exactly chump change — not at all.

And ReadyForZero obviously has some ideas on how to make money themselves while at the same time helping people. In fact, they’re already taking in some revenue. “We’ve actually booked some revenue and facilitated over $250k in loans
through our launch partner, Lending Club. To be quite honest, we have been floored by the effectiveness of our first simple version,” Ebrahimi says.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be floored though, as their regular users are paying down debts two times faster than if they tried to do it without managing it at all. “The company is already making a meaningful impact on people's lives,” Polaris’ Prinicipal Ryan Spoon says. Indeed.

Thinking Outside The Browser Box: Why Should Apple Play By Current Internet Rules?

Posted: 14 Jun 2011 12:46 AM PDT

Earlier today, I was reading Joshua Topolsky’s editorial on This is my next about Apple’s “mistake” in turning their back on the Web and I kept stopping. I disagreed with basically everything.

First of all, his entire argument is based on what I believe to be a fallacy: that Apple is going to completely turn their back on Web support for iCloud. I have reasons to believe this is not the case, as I stated last week, and reiterated today. Others have since chimed in with similar notions and a bit of evidence to the contrary. While Apple may not have anything to say about web support for iCloud apps right now, let’s revisit the situation in a few months.

Beyond that, there is no denying that with iCloud, Apple is placing a very strong emphasis on native applications versus Web-based applications. You could argue this has been the case since the initial release of the App Store in 2008 (remember in 2007 when developers were told to make Web apps for the iPhone?). But I absolutely agree that the message seems more clear than ever: native is the way forward.

But as his argument progresses, Topolsky seems to do what many of us now do: interchange the meaning of the words “Web” and “Internet”. He bemoans Apple turning their back on the Web (that is, the World Wide Web — HTML documents linked together) and argues that Apple still doesn’t get and cannot compete on the Internet as a result.

I woud argue that Apple is attempting to redefine at least a part of what the Internet is with iCloud. In fact, I already have argued that.

Further, I applaud Apple for not taking an approach to the Internet that is more or less creating another Google Docs clone. Or Flickr killer. Gmail replacement. Facebook eater. Etc.

Topolsky seems to want Apple to attempt to do those things — even though, as he rightly points out, when they have tried to compete in similar ventures outside of their wheelhouse, like social, we get Ping — or syncing, we get the first iteration of MobileMe. So instead, Apple is doing what they do best: re-imagining the way things are done.

Apple is not afraid to venture forward on something while thumbing their collective nose at the conventional wisdom of the “right way” to do it. They take a concept and cut it down to its essentials and re-work an idea from there. That is why they are the most successful tech company on the planet right now. They set trends — or reset them, if they have to — they don’t follow them.

When most people (meaning the vast majority of the planet, not you and me) think about the Web, they still view it a bit of a wildcard in many ways. There’s a reason Microsoft Windows and Office are still making so much money. It’s certainly not because they’re the best products out there that are the most convenient to use at the best price. Many businesses don’t yet fully trust the Web, and neither do plenty of consumers. Apple has an opening to take what consumers trust, native apps, and infuse them with the Internet in a way that most people will not even realize.

iCloud will enable a new class of Internet apps, but many people (like Topolsky, for example) won’t even consider them Internet apps because they won’t be Web apps. Instead, the way they seamlessly keep everything up-to-date behind the scenes may as well be magic.

They will just work — better with an Internet connection but just fine without one (and better again when one is available). Unlike the Web, Apple’s Internet for these apps will be one you hardly ever think about — if at all. It will just exist in the background. To plenty of consumers content to play in Apple’s ecosystem (Mac, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch), that will sound fantastic.

But again, I don’t view Apple’s emphasis on native over the Web as anything against the Internet itself. Nor do I believe they do. For what they see works on the Internet already, Apple is doing something somewhat uncharacteristic (at least in recent times) for them: they’re partnering up. Hence, Twitter/iOS integration.

I would argue that the move is brilliant. Had Apple tried to create a “Twitter killer”, we all would have laughed. Instead they’re leveraging what Twitter has already proven to be good at (social, syndication, etc), and tying it into what they do well (mobile, devices, user experience).

Topolsky also glosses over the fact that every iOS device (and Mac) has a Web browser built-in. In fact, as Apple is always quick to point out, they’re largely responsible for the code behind both their own and Google’s popular browsers (WebKit). Despite some paranoid theories to the contrary, Safari is not going away. And Apple is not going to stop you from accessing whatever you want on the Web through it.

Apple is not anti-Internet, they just believe that they can serve it to users better as a backend to their native apps rather than through a frontend in the Web browser. I don’t think that sounds so crazy at all. What sounds crazy is the notion that Apple has to compete with Google and Microsoft on document editing tools on the Web just because that’s what everyone else does.

And how has battling Google on their own turf — the Web — worked out for Microsoft over the past several years? Not so good.

Apple is simply making the argument (and a bet) — and I believe rightfully so — that native still trumps the Web when it comes to applications. Yes, the gap is closing, but it will take a long time to fully close — particularly in mobile. Hell, even Google’s own actions acknowledges this — that’s the reason Android exists!

Further, while it might annoy many people, Apple is in the business of selling products. They do this both by making the products themselves attractive, and by making the services that run on them attractive. It’s symbiotic. Apple focusing on Web apps would not help sell more iPads. This should be far from shocking.

The reason why this approach works for Apple is because when they make these products and services, they generally make them better than everyone else. Topolsky seems to argue that they should separate some of these services from the products and focus on the Web for the betterment of everyone. I would argue that they cannot do this. It would undermine the cohesion that makes their products so great.

"You know, if the hardware is the brain and the sinew of our products, the software in them is their soul," Jobs said during his WWDC keynote address. Do those sound like the words of a company that is going to focus on software that can run anywhere?

The Web has given us the idea that software should be able to run anywhere, on any machine. And that’s great. But that’s not Apple. And love it or hate it, that’s not the bet they’re going to make.

But it’s a mistake to think that they don’t get the Internet as a result. With iCloud, they’re setting out to carve their own piece of it. “At long last, the brains in Cupertino seemed as if they were set to fully embrace the internet and its inherent, omnipresent power,” Topolsky writes before arguing that they haven’t actually done that. I would argue that this is exactly what they’re doing. It’s just that the front-end Web is not the entire Internet. Somewhere, we lost sight of that.

And that may not be a very popular thing to say, because the Web is open and open always equals good, right? Sure, but sometimes closed environments lead to products that are better than just “good”. And consumers tend to flock to such products — until something better comes along (as it always does). The fear that Apple’s relatively closed system will somehow lock us in forever is irrational.

Meanwhile, the notion that the Web should be the only way to use and approach the Internet is dangerous — and decidedly un-open. Such thinking would stifle innovation — innovation like iCloud.

If and when Apple does offer iCloud web apps, much of this may sound overblown and/or moot. But the underlying tension is real. Apple does believe that native apps backed by the Internet will best pure Web-based apps for the foreseeable future. It’s a big bet, but it’s not as crazy of a bet as some may have you believe.

In his headline, Topolsky asks, “can you win if you don’t play?” Yes, by changing the game.

Yawn: How Did Big Tech Companies Turn into Big Boring Banks?

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 11:20 PM PDT

If you are reading TechCrunch you probably already realize this fact: Flavor-of-the-month consumer Internet companies have a way of hogging the spotlight. If you didn’t, we conveniently published some evidence of it yesterday.

But that reality predates us by at least a decade. In 1999 when the world talked about Silicon Valley, they usually meant sexy dot coms. The fascinating new reality of being able to do anything from buying groceries to downloading music instantly online was phenomenal (if ephemeral), and everyday consumers tended to miss the far larger, equally disruptive and frequently more sustainable businesses being built in enterprise software and telecom.

But Wall Street didn’t: Larry Ellison of Oracle eclipsed Bill Gates for a short time as the richest man in the world, Sun Microsystems and Cisco Systems were two of techs biggest out-performers of the era and the billions invested in telecommunications made the dot com cash look like chump change. Venture capitalists didn’t miss it either: Substantially more money was put into telecom companies in the run up to the dot com bust, lulled by a sense of false assurance that at least these overvalued companies had “real assets” that could be liquidated if need be.

In 2005 when people were writing headlines about “the return of Silicon Valley,” a lot of people working in technology were justifiably irritated. After all, tech behemoths like eBay, Yahoo, Oracle, Intel, Hewlett-Packard never exactly left. Silicon Valley and the tech industry in aggregate was several orders of magnitude bigger than it was pre-Internet bust, even with all the lost jobs and delisted companies. Veterans griped about sites like TechCrunch and ValleyWag making sweeping statements about the Valley, but really only reporting on a comparatively small-money resurgence in the then tiny consumer Internet space.

That focus on the sexy, social, consumer Web over everything else has only gotten more pronounced as those many of those one-time flavors of the month like Facebook, Zynga, Twitter and Groupon have become bonafide giants. The difference is that now the divergence in attention actually makes sense.

But it’s not necessarily between consumer and enterprise; it’s between old and new tech. It just looks like it’s all about consumer, because we just haven’t seen that many big new enterprise companies yet. (Plenty are building steam, and just keeping it quiet. Others just take time to get traction because traction is represented by paying customers, not just eyeballs.)

I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last few months. Once was during a conversation with Jon Swartz, the veteran tech reporter at USA Today. We were swapping war stories about having to report on big personalities like Scott McNealy and Larry Ellison and Tom Siebel back in the day. And he asked, “What ever happened to those huge personalities?”

Sure Ellison is still around, but he rarely does press and, sadly, his antics are even rarer. And the prickly-but-genius Steve Jobs has morphed into a comparatively boring do-no-wrong deity in popular Valley consciousness. There are few others left to even inspire. The biggest tech companies in the world used to be lead by outrageous visionaries. Now they’re mostly lead by boring businessmen so media trained they couldn’t say anything interesting if their life (or stock prices) depended on it.

It hit me again a few months later when I was talking to Peter Thiel about the state of publicly traded tech companies. We talked about embattled companies like Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Yahoo and Cisco that can’t seem to do anything right except hang onto core cash cow businesses. These companies have all either had recent CEO changes or investors are calling for them. In the case of Yahoo, both are happening.

I asked Thiel if anyone could really change these companies’ fortunes or if they were just destined to be value stocks, their best days behind them. He said, “The problem is these big tech companies are just like banks now; all they do is print money. And that’s boring. What would you do as CEO? You could just massively fire people who pretend to be innovating and maximize that cash. Think about it– 90% of Google’s projects don’t make any sense. But [these companies] have [all] identified themselves as technology companies. It’s a big part of their self image.” He continued, “(Running these companies) is just not fun. People are too unfair on Carol Bartz. Yahoo is arguably in a tougher position than old media”

And it hit home again a few weeks ago during the All Things D conference during Marc Andreessen’s talk where he outlined many reasons why there isn’t a bubble in tech. More substantial than his rationale of the fact that everyone is freaking out about a bubble means we’re not en masse buying into one was his point about price-to-earnings ratios of the large tech companies. At the time, he noted that Google’s was 13.7, Apple’s was 12, Microsoft’s was 7 and Cisco’s was 7. Some of those are up since his talk, but they still hover between 9 and 15. “That’s what steel mills trade at when they are going out of business,” he said. “Essentially Android is being valued at zero. The public market hates tech.”

I agree that the P/Es of Apple and Google are somewhat puzzling. Let’s set them aside. For the rest of big tech, the market reaction isn’t necessarily without reason. Big tech–the publicly-traded companies that still control so much of our digital lives and the returns of venture capitalists via endless acquisitions–haven’t been giving the markets much to get excited about for years and it’s getting worse, not better. Worse: They’re not giving employees and customers anything to get excited about either.

This was also pronounced during the entire All Things D conference. I don’t in any way mean what I’m about to say as a knock on a competitor. All Things D is a phenomenal event and the only conference I cover these days other than our own. And while I think no one beats TechCrunch at giving startups a place to debut and assembling the biggest names in the venture-backed ecosystem, All Things D’s annual event rules when it comes to bringing together the big names in big tech. This is a conference, after all, that gets Jobs to appear on stage with Bill Gates. And, yet, most of the big tech names trotted out this year — while worthy of the slot by resume– were just utterly boring to listen to.

Nearly everyone I talked to in the hallways remarked on the vast difference in energy and content between the new guys on stage represented by Twitter’s Dick Costolo, Groupon’s Andrew Mason, Square’s Jack Dorsey and Andreessen and, well, nearly everyone else who spoke. Each of the old-tech guard sat on stage, made semi-amusing jokes, and justifications for why they are still relevant and why they’ll get better.

Eric Schmidt’s dour opening keynote that explored all the areas the still comparatively mighty Google has stumbled turned out to be the perfect table setter. Few of the others were as candid, but the same sorry-we-sucked-for-a-while-but-we-swear-we’re-getting-better justifications were there.  Steven Sinofsky of Microsoft talked about how the new version of Office is more Apple-y…if only all the silos in the company can agree to get behind it. Leo Apotheker of HP explained why HP would still win in tablets and why consumerization of the enterprise would benefit HP, not say, a company great at building consumer experiences. Shantanu Nayaren of Adobe said the whole war over Flash with Apple was overstated, but fortunately other vendors would eventually beat Apple anyway so it didn’t matter. Stephen Elop of Nokia talked about how Microsoft’s operating system would suddenly make Nokia a smart phone powerhouse. And finally, the conference fittingly closed with AT&T CEO Ralph De La Vega answering every angry volley from Walt and Kara about its loathsome network with justifications for why if we only give them the T-Mobile acquisition, all will be fixed. Is anyone buying any of this? 

It wasn’t the problem of the conference’s appeal. As a competitor, I’d love if that were the case. But realistically who in big tech would have been more riveting? You can’t have Steve Jobs every year. Meanwhile, there were plenty of people in the audience I would have rather heard from, including senior executives of surging companies like Facebook, One King’s Lane, and Yelp.

Is it any wonder there was such a frenzy around LinkedIn’s IPO? At least it’s a new script. It’s like when you used to be bored in class and a bird flew in the window and everyone went nuts. A bird probably wouldn’t be that exciting if you were outside playing frisbee.

It didn’t used to be that way. Big technology companies used to do interesting things and if not, many had cowboy personalities to make boring businesses interesting. But who wants to be head of a Nokia or a Microsoft or a Cisco or a Yahoo now? All of these companies have powerful entrenched user bases that aren’t going anywhere, and they’ll all make that justification anytime an analyst complains about their growth. Great. But their businesses are irrevocably declining if not in actual users, in terms of market influence and ability to recruit anyone talented. They can’t do wildly innovative things because stabs at innovation have failed so many times. They are in a total duck-and-cover mode. Who wants to be in duck-and-cover when a world of lucrative startups are exploding into the public markets?

In the last boom era, the publicly traded technology companies were also surging. Cisco’s John Chambers was nicknamed the Pied Piper of Wall Street. Today he is fighting for his job, along with Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer. In fact, their biggest selling point may be that so few great leaders want their jobs, and there’s no natural successors in the wings. Those people have all left for other opportunities. (There goes another one with always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride Ann Livermore’s departure from HP.) Then there’s Yahoo: The company so siloed and dysfunctional it’s made Terry Semel, Jerry Yang, and Carol Bartz– three respected leaders with totally different skill sets– each look incompetent. These companies have all essentially become Novell.

Out of the entire tech universe, three legacy companies have stayed as relevant as any startup: Apple, Amazon and Netflix. All three are testaments to visionary founders with a strong will who aren’t afraid to utterly disrupt their companies and cannibalize their own businesses.

The only other legacy tech public company I’d put near that camp is Oracle. And the reason that Larry Ellison outmaneuvered his entire industry? By predicting what is happening now: That the IT revolution was over. That tech was no longer a differentiator for his customers. It was merely table stakes to being in business, like having desks, power and phone lines. He argued the answer for growth was a sheer land-grab of already installed customers who would pay ongoing maintenance and upgrade fees until seemingly the end of time.

Back then everyone said Ellison was wrong. Top business schools wrote new case studies on why tech still mattered, software-as-a-service startups argued they could still unseat Oracle in big deals, and truckloads of experts said that hostile takeovers in the software world would never work because the integrations would be too messy and those companies’ real assets– programmers– would all leave. But Ellison was right. (Although I’d argue at some point a new generation of software will unseat Oracle and its acquired parts. It’ll just take a lot more than the first wave of software as a service companies had to offer.)

In previous decades of Silicon Valley companies were building a new industry, so almost all tech companies had growth potential. Now there’s a stark line between mature technology and technology that is still growing in aggregate. They are simply different industries. Arguing this is still one industry; that all of the companies who make technology are investing in change is like saying any company with a Web site is an Internet company.

As this discrepancy widens between 1990s era tech and today, I was reminded of an interview Thiel did several years ago with CNBC where he was asked what large cap tech names he was bullish on. He answered that other than Google there were no large cap tech names, because companies like Intel and Microsoft are inherently anti-technology companies. Their success, he said, is rooted in the status quo. The best of all possible worlds for them would be the global technology user base never adopting anything new. CNBC’s anchors looked confused at this concept. Microsoft isn’t a tech company? Not too long ago, Microsoft was *the* tech company. 

But Thiel was right. Too many of the companies that built out the IT revolution and Silicon Valley are “technology” companies in name only now. They aren’t disrupting anything, they are doing the opposite. They are desperately clinging to the status quo. They still have massive amounts of cash, massive installed user bases that won’t be switching loyalties anytime soon and those are really the only two reasons they still matter. To fuse Thiel and Ellison’s arguments: They are banks whose job is to print money paid by people who are slow to change their digital habits. Even our parent company AOL is funding its radical turn-around largely off of people who don’t know they no longer have to pay us every month for a subscription to the World Wide Web. (I’ll at least give Tim Armstrong credit for being interesting on stage.)

But it’s even more true now that huge, lucrative opportunities have sucked anyone remotely talented out of those companies. At least people were wary of working at a startup back then. Now it seems risky not to be at a startup. LinkedIn and Facebook alone have proved social media wasn’t a fad. These companies, along with Twitter, Zynga, Groupon and others, are legitimately the most interesting stories in the American business world today, as they play central roles in global political uprisings and represent some of the most anticipated stock market debuts of the last decade.

We can point out Groupon’s shortcomings and risks every day: The stock will still be in high-demand when it debuts. Because the reality is there are only a handful of companies actually inventing new technology and businesses among the biggest public traded tech names today.

The sooner we realize this is no longer one industry, the sooner we can stop the silly bubble comparisons to 1999 and get a handle on why these issues will keep popping. We all want something that’s actually growing and disrupting and inspiring. Silicon Valley and the start up world has gotten to enjoy a lot of it over the last ten years, and Wall Street is sick of just watching.

And Now For Some Unexpectedly Good News

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 10:18 PM PDT

Don’t look now, but sub-Saharan Africa is booming. Since 2003 its growth has been skyrocketing, and, to quote none other than McKinsey, “today the rate of return on foreign investment in Africa is higher than in any other developing region.” There are several reasons: commodity prices, Chinese investment, diaspora remittances… and, I would argue, the GSM revolution that has swept the entire continent, in some places famously taking communications straight from talking drums to cell phones, leapfrogging land lines entirely.

It’s a glorious wave of change, sweeping across a continent that had stagnated for decades. I’ve spent nearly a year of my life traveling south of the Sahara, starting thirteen years ago, and this is the first time I’ve been here without being depressed about the region’s prospects. It’s still mostly very poor, and it faces serious challenges – for instance, rising food and oil prices – but at the same time it feels a lot like China in 1990, or India in 2000 … and look at them now. For the first time in, well, ever, it is possible to seriously consider Africa as an emerging economic power.

Of course I’m hardly the first to notice this. A few months ago I suggested that startups start targeting the developing world as a market. I now want to amend that advice; it may already be too late. China got here first.

Chinese companies and entrepeneurs are investing massively in African mines, farms, infrastructure – and technology. The new wired and wireless networks here are largely built by Huawei. In the two weeks I’ve been wandering around Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti I’ve already bumped into heaps of traveling Chinese businesspeople. Local newspapers don’t complain about the special treatment that white people get any more; now they complain about special treatment for “whites and Chinese.” Which is progress, I suppose, of a sort.

Most of the Ethiopian Internet cafes I saw used client software from China Telecom. Chinese feature phones are increasingly popular, mostly because they’re cheaper than Nokias. You can buy a US$100 Android phone here in Kenya (see picture) but Android isn’t exactly optimized for the developing world, and it’s surely only a matter of time before phones running Tapas OS or another Chinese Android fork start competing in the smartphone market.

More power to these Chinese companies, of course: their tech investments here benefit both themselves and the African nations in question. (The mines, roads, and farms are more controversial – a recent Guardian piece on the subject has the Sinophobic title “China’s economic invasion of Africa.”) It does make me wonder, though, if it will be Chinese tech companies, rather than American or European ones, who will reap the lion’s share of profits from the surging economies of the developing world in the decades to come. They certainly seem to be better positioned right now.

Signs Of What Could Have Been: iOS Hooked Up With Facebook Before Marrying Twitter

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 07:47 PM PDT

It's easy to take Twitter's deep integration on iOS 5 and go nuts with speculation surrounding its symbolism; “Twitter is the new Facebook,” whatever that means! “Apple chose Twitter over Facebook!” Well as this video of a test build of iOS 4 from this April brings to light, perhaps the choice wasn't necessarily Apple's …

If you watch the above video closely, at minute 1:03 you can see clear signs of Facebook integration in the leaked iPhone’s native apps Setting screen, with Twitter nowhere to be found. What's interesting to note is that in this build of iOS 4 Facebook sits squarely where Twitter is now in the iOS 5 settings menu, without the added icon for iCloud (see left versus right, below).

Yes it’s absolutely not news that iOS had Facebook integration at some point. One developer build included code that would allow you to upload video to Facebook through Photos. Apple had at some point gone to the lengths of trying to patent a contact sync technology that allowed you to directly Friend people on Facebook through your iPhone contacts.

And Business Insider reported in May 2010 that Apple was considering integrating Facebook Connect directly into the SDK, so app developers could add Facebook features to their apps — which while vague, sounds similar to what the Twitter iOS 5 integration entails today. But many of us have forgotten these pieces of the puzzle as we move forward on this story.

It's widely known that Facebook integration was planned for Ping and less widely known that it was planned for OS X Lion, both integrations were pulled shortly after Ping's launch in the fall. Jobs said that it was Facebook's "onerous terms" that broke down the Facebook/Apple partnership, despite the fact that Jobs was seen hanging out with Zuckerberg shortly after Ping's (failed) launch.

Sure, Apple really doesn't get social networking and Facebook doesn't really get gadgets. But going beyond the myriads of strategic reasons you can pull out of the woodwork for why Apple "chose" Twitter over Facebook, it might be wise to mull over the possibility that Facebook could have been Apple’s first choice. Especially considering the evidence.

Image right: BI

Microsoft Fighting To Ensure Google Does Not Gain Patent Leverage, Deterrence

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 06:40 PM PDT

A week and a half ago, a report said that while the U.S. Department of Justice was looking into the bidding over the Nortel wirelesspatents, they were unlikely to object to Google winning the rights to them. But a new opponent to Google’s bid has arisen. And it’s a familiar foe: Microsoft.

Specifically, Microsoft is objecting to Google being able to purchase the over 6,000 patents without recognizing Microsoft’s existing licensing agreements on the patents, Reuters reports.  As we noted a week and a half ago, these licensing agreements were precisely why Microsoft was the one obvious bidder not competing for the patents — they didn’t think they had to. But the current terms for the winner of the auction doesn’t back up that argument. As of right now, the company that wins the bidding would be able to terminate existing agreements.

Microsoft says that’s unfair. And while they don’t specifically mention Google, it seems pretty clear who they’re thinking about when they write that a termination of existing licensing agreements “would result in considerable disruption in the development and enhancement of various existing technologies and give the prospective purchaser an unfair competitive advantage”.

In other words, “we don’t want the company that we have under our patent thumb to be able to turn the tables”.

And to be fair, Microsoft does have a bit of a point. While they have shown no restraint in using their 17,000+ patents to go after competition— often Google or their partners — Google buying patents that Microsoft has been fairly licensing and using for years could potentially be a huge problem for products both new and old.

But one reason the DoJ is not believed to have a problem with Google’s purchasing the patents is because Google has not shown a desire to aggressively go on the offensive with the patents they do have. (Of course, with under 1,000 patents, they’re hardly in the position to do so.) But with 6,000 more in their pocket, you can bet they would at least be used as a nuclear deterrent, of sorts.

As in, “if you come after us (or our partners) Microsoft, just remember that we can now retaliate”. And that security is exactly why Google is willing to spend billions bidding on the patents in the first place.

Microsoft would undoubtedly also not be pleased if Apple bid and won the patents. But that seems less likely to happen at this point because the DoJ is concerned that Apple may be too aggressive in protecting those patents if awarded them. (As in, they’d use them less for deterrence and more for first-strike capabilities.) Apple is said to be talking to the DoJ to assuage these fears. We’ll see.

HP and Nokia are also said to be opposed to the terms of the auction that would terminate current licensing agreements.

RescueTime Launches Introductions, A Carfax Report For Top Job Candidates

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 04:04 PM PDT

Y Combinator-backed RescueTime is a web-based time management tool that lets users monitor the time they spend on the Web, like what applications and websites they’re visiting most frequently, all in an effort to help heavy web users cut down on inefficient uses of their time. (Maybe those three hours in Chrome Angry Birds weren’t adding to your overall productivity, friend.) The service can be used on an individual basis or by businesses — priced by number of users per month — to help keep their employees on track and focused.

RescueTime’s awesome user-friendly service inspired a $900K investment from True Ventures, Chris Sacca, Tim Ferris and some other notable angels back in 2008. The company broke even in 2010, and has since been focused on building hockeystick-type growth. Today, RescueTime is cleverly expanding its service into complementary territory with a new feature called RescueTime Introductions, which offers a way for top talent to find jobs at top companies — and may very well excite that next round of funding.

Back in 2006, RescueTime Co-founders Tony Wright and Brian Fioca sold their two-month-old startup called Jobby to Jobster. Unlike Indeed, Jobs.com, etc., Jobby offered a cool new approach to the hiring process by taking information directly from job seekers in an effort to help recruiters filter through job qualifications by offering a fast tagging and tag filtering approach. Wright and Fioca brought key members of the team with them to RescueTime (and even recently added Jason Grimes, who worked with Fioca at Jobster, as VP of Product Marketing) — and with RescueTime Introductions, the team is integrating its experience with the recruiting process into its web-based time management service.

In today’s digital world, competition for highly skilled engineers is extremely high, and the companies that can find talent quickly have the best chance at recruiting that top talent before it’s snatched up by the competition. RescueTime is aiming to help those companies streamline the recruiting process, find talent that wouldn’t have thought to apply or might be (unhappily) working at another company, and remove inefficiencies that would turn away or turn off top people.

Fioca told me said that the idea for Introductions came about because many of their friends at Y Combinator companies and local startups were continually asking them if they could recommend good programmers for their companies. It occurred to Fioca that the same methods RescueTime was using to screen its own hires during the interview process could be used on a large-scale, using the profiles of RescueTime’s 350,000 users.

Thus, RescueTime Introductions aims to be the “Carfax report for candidates”. Instead of promising recruiters that it can find a candidate that is 100 percent perfect for a job, RescueTime Introductions narrows candidates down based on the right “cultural fit” and vouches for a candidate’s skill set, but of course, your company will still have to interview them.

So, how does RescueTime it work? The service uses machine learning and pattern matching techniques to find matches between companies and employees based on “archetypes”; in other words, people are matched to companies based on the ratio of, say, time spent in productive categories, tools used, industry websites visited, research done, and so on. Fioca cited an interesting example, saying that it turns out using Aquamacs is a good indicator that someone is likely to be a great programmer.

RescueTime Introductions downplays the importance of things like efficiency scores, downtime, distracted time, and so on, although Fioca did say that patterns in these areas can sometimes indicate that a person is bored in their current job and is looking for a new challenge.

The startup currently has partner companies running RescueTime on their own teams to develop internal profiles of what working in particular positions within the company entails, so that Introductions will then be able to find matches based on those profiles, rather than having to post jobs or write confusing job posts on craigslist, for example.

Fioca also said that privacy is the team’s primary concern. In doing some due diligence with current RescueTime users, 98 percent of them were favorable to the idea as long as they could control with information is shared with what people. Fioca said that RescueTime has been careful not to build a lead generation service for recruiters that they can then use to spam potential candidates without RescueTime intervention.

“We’re calling it ‘Introductions’”, Fioca said, “because the idea is that we serve as the agent, spotting the top talent, and so we ask the user if they want to talk to a list of possible companies, making the handoff only once they’ve given us permission”. What’s more, none of the user’s usage data is shared with recruiters. Huzzah.

RescueTime isn’t changing its model to be a recruiting company or selling recruiting software, it’s building a market where top talent can be introduced to top companies — if they choose to do so. And the best part? Fioca says that the team will only consider working with companies that they would want to work for themselves, which is why Dropbox, Twitter, Justin.tv, posterous, and eBay are among those they’re offering at the start.

For a brief handshake with RescueTime Introductions, check out the video below, or visit the website in its office here.

Smarterer Raises $1.25M To Prove You’re Good At Anything In 60 Seconds Or Less

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 04:00 PM PDT

Ever wished you had an easy way to tell the world (and potential future employers) just how great you are at using Microsoft Office, Salesforce, and.. err.. Facebook? Your chance is coming.

Today a new company called Smarterer has raised $1.25 million from True Ventures and Google Ventures, with participation from angels including Mark Gerson, Shikhar Ghosh, Scott Kurnit, Peter Lehrman, Thomas Lehrman, and Dharmesh Shah, among others. And tonight the service is opening in an invite-only private beta (more on that in a moment).

Smarterer’s product revolves around a fairly straightforward theory: it doesn’t take a lot of time to gauge if someone is competent in a given subject. In fact, Smarterer thinks it can determine your proficiency in just about anything in 60 seconds and 10 multiple choice questions.

The experience is slightly nerve-wracking. After starting a test you’ll be given a practice question that doesn’t count, so that you can familiarize yourself with the system, but then it’s on to the real quiz. A question appears at the top of the screen with a handful of multiple choice answers below it, and a bar representing the amount of time you have left trickling rapidly downward (remember, you’re only supposed to be spending a few seconds on each question). Pick your answer, and you’ll immediately be told whether or not you were correct. Click a button and you’re onto the next question.

After ten or so questions, you’ll get a score, which goes into your user profile. You can also generate embeddable badges that you can put on your personal website. The beta system is actually taking advantage of the badges — in order to gain access for now, you need to find someone with a badge, and click on it to request that they send you a beta invite.

The system seems pretty simple, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Smarterer users your performance on the first few questions to get a sense of how much you know, then uses that information to determine which questions to ask next (i.e. if you miss the first two questions, you’ll be presented with easy questions for the remainder of the session, and you’ll probably get a fairly low rank).

Now, the idea behind Smarterer isn’t entirely novel. Gild, which launched at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco last year, also lets people demonstrate and display their skillset using a variety of tests. But that site is geared primarily to the tech industry, whereas Smarterer seems to have a broader focus.

Smarterer is planning to hit a large number of topics with its tests by using a crowd-sourcing system. After completing a test in a topic, you can opt to submit additional questions, and if they’re good, you’ll earn more points (the system can figure out a good question based on how many people get it right — the best questions will be difficult). Users can flag questions that they think are incorrect.

The company plans to eventually monetize by working with recruiters and companies looking to hire. They say that eventually they hope this will replace the ‘Skills’ section in a standard resume.

So does it work? I took several tests (most of them seem to be tech-oriented at this point, so I did tests about Gmail, Facebook, and Google Search). My results: I’m apparently awesome at Facebook, pretty good at Gmail, and not-so-great at Google Search. I don’t really agree with that assessment (my Google-foo is pretty strong, thanks), but over time the questions will improve, and I can always take more tests to try to prove my real worth. Overall, I could see this working well at gauging experience for many topics, but there’s a risk that some of them will become tests of trivia as opposed to skill.

The company was funded and conceived by BzzAgent CEO Dave Balter, and Jennifer Fremont-Smith is Smarterer’s CEO. The Boston-based team currently has four employees.

Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ For Rent On YouTube!? Well Not At The Moment

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 03:53 PM PDT

So I’ve been sitting here for the past 30 minutes writing a blog opus about how Rebecca Black’s “Friday” is now a $2.99 YouTube Rental, heralding a new era for YouTube’s content monetization strategy and the idea of a meme as premium content … but guess what? It’s no longer a rental!

There are three possible explanations for why it appeared to be for rent earlier:

  • The brilliant geniuses at Ark Music Factory were experimenting with the YouTube Rental feature for about a couple hours in order to spark up some more press coverage.
  • A YouTube glitch set the video to “Rental.”
  • The feature was switched on by Black’s camp as an accident and then switched back off after media caught on to the story.

While I don't know for sure, I'm going to go with "accident" and/or "glitch." At least one user reported not being able to actually rent the video when clicking on the “Rent For $2.99″ function, while it was still available.

All YouTube partners have had the ability to charge a rental fee for their content for about a year, but paying around $1 a minute to hear Black drone on about the front seat and the back seat seems like a major major rip off, which is probably why the story made headline news in the first place.

What’s amazing is how many people actually cared about the video’s availability, even if the concern was ironic, much like the bulk of its 165,271,223 views. YouTube itself declined to comment officially, holding that it doesn't comment on the status of individual videos.

Image via @Larsskou

AMA: A Peek Into The Future Of Google Docs

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 02:28 PM PDT

Earlier today, a handful of members of the Google Docs team announced that they were doing something fairly unusual for employees at a large company: they’re giving members of the popular link-sharing site Reddit a chance to ask them anything (you can find the thread right here).

The team has now responded to plenty of questions, offering some insight into where Google’s free online productivity suite is headed over the coming months. Sure, they’re being a little vague with some of their answers, but they still hint at plenty of nifty upcoming features. Here are some of the highlights so far:

Regarding an offline version of Google Docs:

“You’re going to see offline start to roll out later this summer. We used to have offline with Google Gears, but it became pretty clear that plugins weren’t the right approach. We’ve been reimplementing offline using HTML5 standards like AppCache, File API, and IndexDB.

We’re some of the first webapps that are really putting those standards to the test, so it’s taken a while to iron out the kinks.”

Well, we will launch in whatever incremental pieces make sense. But the long term direction is if you access a Doc URL while offline, it should open the local copy of the doc and let you edit. When you go online all your edits get synced in the background. You should also be able to see a list of your docs while offline. We’ll need to work through all the tricky problems with how to merge conflicting edits. It’s fun stuff.

Regarding how data stored in Google Docs is kept safe:

Document data is stored in a storage system built on top of Bigtable. Storage is distributed across many machines and geographic locations, and all access to the underlying storage is tightly controlled and audited in compliance with SAS70. For more details, I'll refer you to this set of FAQs.

Cloud print will be coming to more devices (right now it’s only on mobile and Chromebooks).

The most topic so far appears to be ‘mobile;. The general theme of the answers is that there’s a lot of work being done in this area to make the experience better. Among them: it sounds like the Android Google Docs app will be getting a native editor (right now it kicks you off to a web editor, which is clunky). It sounds like offline editing will also be possible using the native app.

Another smaller (but important) feature: the team plans to improve the flow of naming new documents. Right now it’s pretty easy to wind up with dozens of files called ‘Untitled document’ — the team is currently figuring out the best way to solve this.

At 5 Million Users, It’s Hard Not To View Instagram Through A Rose-Colored Filter

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 12:53 PM PDT

When we first previewed Instagram nine months ago, most of the initial comments predicted it would be dead on arrival. To say those people were wrong is a vast understatement. And Instagram now has five million ways to prove it.

Yes, Instagram now has five million users. That’s 625,000 users for every month they’ve been in existence — with the growth accelerating. Just this past weekend they added 100,000 new users, for example. Even more amazing, there are now 1.25 million users for every one employee of Instagram.

I got a chance to catch up with Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom this morning to talk about the milestone and the bigger picture for the service. Beyond the five million user mark (which they actually hit yesterday), Instagram is about to hit another huge milestone: 100 million photos. They’re at 95 million right now, and they’re adding roughly 860,000 a day. In other words, by the end of this week, the total number of pictures should cross 100 million.

For comparisons sake, it took Flickr two years to hit 100 million photos. Again, Instagram, just eight months. If you still had any doubts that a mobile photo revolution is happening, there you go.

As for the burgeoning Instagram ecosystem, Systrom says that there are now 2,500 unique apps out there accessing their APIs. Remarkably, they are also seeing some 350,000 connections across their API, meaning that some of the apps connected are massively popular. Which are the most popular? Webstagram and Flipboard were the top two the last time he looked, Systrom says. There are also now applications pushing photos into Instagram — not through the API, but through more creative means.

The emergence of Webstagram, which is a web-based viewer for Instagram photos, leads to the question of when Instagram might finally release their own web app? Systrom declined to comment on that, but did confirm that work continues in that area. As for the all-important Android question, same deal — nothing to share yet, but work continues. Systrom will say that the top priorities right now are to scale the service, scale the team, and improve the core parts of the existing iPhone app.

One of the most remarkable things about Instagram is that they’ve achieved such success while only being on one platform: iOS. There is no way to sign up on the web. No way to sign up on Android. They’re currently a mainstay in the top social networking apps list in the App Store. And that’s big because they’re not spending anything on marketing, and Apple has only promoted them a few times. In other words, the growth and traction has been largely organic.

Instagram has scored some deals with partners to help promote the app. But in terms of bringing in revenue, “We’re much more interested at growing the ecosystem right now,” Systrom says. And they have plenty of money in the bank from nice funding round this past February to continue growing for some time.

He also says that they have a lot more work to do on the current iPhone app. “Lots of very cool new stuff coming soon,” is all he’ll vaguely say. Though I did get him to admit that yes, more filters, are in the works. He also says there will be some “fundamental shifts in the underlying technology,” coming soon.

“We want to give people the tools to tell the story of their lives in a visual way — we’re working hard on making those tools top-notch,” Systrom says.

Giving their size and the rate at which they’re growing, Instagram clearly has a lot of competitors gunning for them. So far, most have failed to gain any meaningful traction. But Twitter just recently put themselves in the photo-sharing game in partnership with Photobucket. Given that Twitter is such an important social discovery mechanism for Instagram, does this worry Systrom? “I’m excited to see how a more first-class experience of photos on Twitter will allow people to have a better Instagram experience within Twitter,” he says. In other words, he think the rising tide will boost all boats, including his.

There are also a number of apps popping up that are attempting to be the “Instagram of video”. That’s interesting since Instagram does not currently support the sharing of videos — might they move in that direction? “I still think it’s early — mobile video will always be slower to download and consume than photos,” Systrom notes. “Instagram is about fast, beautiful experiences. Short snippets of friends’ lives,” he continues.

At the same time, “video is something that I think fits naturally into our roadmap — just not at the moment,” Systrom says.

Earlier, I alluded to the fact (with math!) that despite their size, Instagram still has only four employees. That’s insane. “Hiring great people is a top priority for me right now,” Systrom says. “We clearly have something special, and we want to make sure to have the best of the best to help us to the opportunity,” he continues. But they’re not going to rush. “The thing we don’t want to do is to hire just because we’re big. Building a company is about building a product, but it’s also about building a team. They’re both very important to us,” he says.

Given that Instagram is still iOS-only, surely they must have some thoughts about the just-announced iOS 5. “iOS5 provides some really awesome new tools for Instagram users. Twitter integration makes it easier than ever for users to share their photos with their followers,” Systrom says. Since they have no need for DM access, Instagram should be one of the key apps helped by the new, deep iOS Twitter integration.

When I pointed out that I saw Instagram make a few appearances on stage during the keynote (in the background in demo images), this clearly made Systrom happy. “It was awesome to see Instagram on stage behind Steve during the keynote. It’s humbling to think that we only started 8 mos ago and Instagram is now part of the de-facto set of apps that people use on the iPhone.”

It’s pretty well known as this point that Apple executive Phil Schiller is a big time user of Instagram. But we’ve heard other Apple executives are hooked on the service too — though more under the radar.

“It’s not surprising that notification demos featured Instagram — we send over 10 million Push Notifications per day,” Systrom says. “And I think having a home for all those pushes to be out of the way and usefully grouped makes total sense,” he says of the new notifications system in iOS 5.

As for Apple’s new Photostream feature (which shares pictures you take on your devices automatically with your other devices over iCloud), “Photostream is really awesome. I think there was a big focus on unity between your Apple devices this year. So it totally makes sense for photos to sync between devices,” Systrom says. “I’d imagine photos you take with Instagram will get sync’d as well, but I’m unaware of exactly how it works,” he continues.

Assuming that Instagram’s huge growth keeps up, they could very well hit 6 million users before the end of June. And 10 million before the end of the year looks like a shoo-in. And none of that is taking into account the possibility of an Android app before the end of the year. Let’s just hope Instagram finds a fifth employee before then.

Meet The Most Dangerous Device In The Air: Your iPad

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 12:27 PM PDT

I'll be honest, I'm probably the first one on a flight to ignore the flight attendant's announcement that "all portable electronic devices must now be switched to the 'off' position." My reason? I simply don't believe that one phone could cause an issue, especially since mine has been on during almost every flight I've taken. I know I'm not the only one to break the rules, either, and it seems like we doubters are winning the debate, with a number of different services available that offer in-flight phone calls. However, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) claims that our gadgets may be posing a greater risk than we thought, outlining 75 instances where flight crews believed "electronic interference" with flight systems was caused by electronic portable devices.

The reported incidents were based on 125 airlines' responses submitted between 2003 and 2009, noting that flight controls, autopilot, auto-thrust equipment, landing gear, and the communications kit were all allegedly affected by electronics use. Of course, not one of the seventy-five incidents were verified to be caused by electronic devices. Instead, the IATA reports that crew-members and pilots believed that electronics were the culprits in those cases.

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Y Combinator Brings On Alumni To Be “Part Time Partners”

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 11:22 AM PDT

Y Combinator has just announced its “Part Time Partner” program, which will bring in former YC alumni to mentor the most recent cohort of startups, like regular partners, but only 1/5 of the time.

Joining the prestigious ranks of Paul Graham, Paul Buchheit, Trevor Blackwell, Jessica Livingston, MIT professor Robert Morris, and Harjeet Taggar are Loopt’s Sam Altman, Posterous’ Garry Tan and Justin.tv founders Emmett Shear and Justin Kan. Altman, Shear and Kan are from the first YC batch in 2005. “They’re good eggs and it’s nice to have them around,” Paul Graham wrote in the “Welcome” blog.

Y Combinator has funded a total of 316 startups to date with 64 in the current class. In a recent post on the value of a Y Combinator startups, Paul Graham pinned the total value of the top 21 YCombinator startups at $4.7 billion, which puts the averages out to around $22.4 million a startup.

“There is massive value creation happening through mentorship, the passing of knowledge, the value of the YC brand, and the community of hundreds of founders,” said new part time partner Tan. “I consider it a rare opportunity to help make YC the Harvard of this kind of value creation.”

Paul Graham explained the rationale behind the program, “These guys are more like the founders’ peers.  They went through what the founders are going through, and perhaps still are dealing with more advanced versions of the same problems (e.g. raising money).  So their advice is hard to ignore.”

YC partners are famous for the invaluable advice and mentorship they provide during “office hours” with the fledgling startups in each batch. You can watch Y Combinator founder Paul Graham bring these office hours to prime time onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt here.

Proterra Raises $30 Million To Mass Produce Electric Buses

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 11:17 AM PDT

Golden, Colorado-based Proterra, Inc.— the makers of electric commercial vehicles, systems and charging stations for them— raised $30 million, the company announced today. The investment was led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) and joined by GM Ventures, Mitsui & Co., Vision Ridge Partners and 88 Green Ventures.

According to a press statement today, Proterra will use its new funding to: complete federal testing of its buses; supply vehicles and systems to pilot fleets; and increase the number of buses and systems its Greenville, South Carolina plant manufactures each year. The plant is supposed to have the capacity to produce 400 buses annually, when fully operational.

Proterra’s brands currently include the EcoRide (image, above) bus and FastFill charging station. The company promises that the EcoRide bus can be fully recharged in ten minutes or less on the FastFill charging station. Of the components and content in a Proterra, EcoRide bus, 80 percent are made in the U.S. across 33 states.

Manufacturing industry veteran, David Lehmann, joined Proterra as its new chairman with this deal. Lehman previously worked with General Electric (GE) and Solar Turbines Inc., a subsidiary of Caterpillar. Michael Linse, a partner at KPCB, also joined the board.

Image: The EcoRide BE35, a 35-foot, low-floor composite body transit bus with battery-electric vehicle architecture (courtesy of Proterra, Inc.)

AisleBuyer Raises Another $7.5 Million To Make Checkout Lines A Pain Of The Past

Posted: 13 Jun 2011 10:50 AM PDT

AisleBuyer, a startup that’s looking to help do away with the tedious checkout lines seen in most retailers, has raised a $7.5 million round of Series E funding. Leading the round is Old Willow Partners, LLC (which led AisleBuyer’s first round of funding last year). The Boston-based company has now raised a total of $11.5 million (they raised $4 million in November 2010).

AisleBuyer — as its name suggests — lets shoppers purchase goods in a store without having to wait in a checkout line, or even for one of those self-service machines. Instead, shoppers scan their items using a mobile smartphone application (currently available for iOS, Android, and BlackBerry), then pay for them directly from their phones. Previously you’d have to manually enter your credit card information, but now the app will let you actually take a photo of the credit card to enter your information using OCR. And because it facilitates in-store payments, the app competes with Square and other similar services.

But AisleBuyer isn’t just about the checkout process itself — the application also offers a suite of other features. While you’re browsing store shelves, you can use the barcode scanner to look up product reviews left by other customers (you can also post questions to social media channels like Twitter or Facebook). If you find something you like but it isn’t in stock (or you want a different flavor, or size, or whatever) the app will often let you order directly from the store’s website. You can do combination transactions, where you pay for items you’re purchasing in the store and items in the online store in one fell swoop.

The service also offers a variety of features for the stores themselves. Retailers can look at analytics (they can see if people are scanning a given product but then choose not to purchase it) and also benefit from the fact that shoppers are directed to their online stores, rather than a competitor, when something runs out of stock.

Obviously these kinds of apps are going to be battling against decades of habit, which isn’t going to be trivial. Then again, I’m sure people would be more than willing to try out a new smartphone app if it meant skipping the checkout line entirely.

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