Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Latest from TechCrunch

The Latest from TechCrunch

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The Web Is Full Of Hyperlinks Waiting To Happen, Apture HotSpots Makes Them Happen

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 09:00 AM PDT

While hyperlinks are a fundamental backbone of the web, they’re also a bit odd. After all, hyperlinking is for the most part a subjective process. Someone decides if and when to link to something. It nudges the web from a completely open story into more of a choose your own adventure one. But what if we could change that?

That’s what HotSpots, a new feature from Apture aims to do. Most of you will know Apture as the contextual add-on service that both publishers (through simple JavaScript) and web surfers (through browser extensions) use to augment their web experience with information. What you may not know is that thanks to this service, Apture has access to some really good data. A lot of it. And the key part of that data shows exactly what users highlight when they browse webpages.

In other words, it shows where those users wish there were hyperlinks, taking them to a site to learn more.

With HotSpots, Apture can now populate those hyperlinks on the fly on any page on the web. All publishers have to do is add one line of code and they’re set. Hyperlinks will now magically appear for your readers without you having to link a thing. These links, naturally, will point to Apture overlays which give a range of data to a reader without them having to leave the page: Wikipedia, CrunchBase, search results, maps, etc.

The same thing will occur for anyone who has the Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or IE extensions installed (this will roll out over time).

Apture co-founder Tristan Harris explains that thanks to the 900 million or so collective pageviews they’re seeing across the sites and people using Apture now, they’re able to do something like this. And it points to the core idea behind Apture. “The plan all along wasn’t just a widget for publishers. The end game was always connecting all of this information together,” Harris says.

He notes that if you think of the web as a brain, and each page as a neuron, each link is then like a synapse that connects the pages together and makes everything work. And each click or highlight or search makes these connections stronger. And in turn, the brain gets smarter. With HotSpots, he hopes to make the web smarter by automating part of this process. The feature is quite literally the missing link(s).

So is Apture just going to turn the web into one continuous stream of hyperlinks? No. They’re smart about it. They’re watching what’s hot to determine what should actually be a link and what shouldn’t be. As trends change, links will pop in and out of existence.

Hundreds of publishers like ScientificAmerican.com will be going live with HotSpots today. Others can sign up for the beta on Apture’s site.



Connected Raises $500K For Contact Management Application

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 08:55 AM PDT

Connected, a startup that manages all of your personal relationships on the web, has raised $500,000 in funding led by Trinity Ventures with 500 Startups, Ignition Partners, Christopher Michel, Michael Hoydich, and Mark Gray participating.

Via a web app, Connected integrates with Gmail, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google Contacts, Google Calendar, and Google Voice to become a personal relationship manager. Connected builds comprehensive profiles for each of your contacts with your entire conversation history as well as their latest status updates, photos, and work history from across their social profiles.

So you can easily access any relevant information in one place about a contact. The goal is to give you a single comprehensive view of your relationships across all the apps and services you use.

Since its launch in February, Connected has accumulated over 7 million contacts under management. And the app has added integration with Outlook, Evernote, and Yahoo.



HomeAway IPO Shares Pop 39 Percent, Market Cap Reaches $3 Billion

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 08:33 AM PDT

Vacation home rental service HomeAway has begun trading on the NASDAQ this morning under the symbol ‘AWAY’, with the shares trading as high as $37.10. giving the company a market cap of $3 billion. That’s an increase of 39 percent, up from the company’s initial pricing of $27 per share last night.

HomeAway, which filed for an IPO in March, raised $216 million in the offering.

As revealed in the company’s filings, HomeAway saw $167.9 million in 2010 revenue, which is up 39.6% from 2009. In 2010, 37.9% of the company’s revenue came from outside the United States, including 36.6% from Europe and 1.3% from Latin America. In 2010, rental listings contributed 91.1% of HomeAway’s revenue. Net Income for 2010 came in at $16.9 million, up from $7.6 million in 2009. And the company says there is plenty of room for growth—the vacation rental market is valued at $85 billion in 2010 in the United States and Europe.

I spoke to HomeAway CEO Brian Sharples this morning who told me the company is just getting started, and that the markets will take care of itself. The market opportunity, says Sharples, is still large. “We are still in the early stages of building this business,” he explains.

Some of the cash raised may be used for acquisitions to expand in additional geographies. “The reason we took the company public,” he says, “was less about the money and more about the marketing and branding event.”



Microsoft Scares Two More Android Makers Into Paying Up Over Patents

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 07:55 AM PDT

Microsoft loves them some Android. Google’s mobile OS is turning into a major cash source as Microsoft convinces more Android OEM makers to hand over royalties concerning some of Microsoft’s patents. A recent report states that Microsoft has made five times more from Android than their own Windows Phone 7 — without building, supporting, or developing a single Android device.

Both Velocity Micro and General Dynamics just entered into such an agreement where both will pay an undisclosed royalty to Microsoft. HTC signed one of these patent-protection deals with Microsoft back in 2010 and reportedly pays Microsoft $5 for each handset it sells.

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Google Sites Now Allows You To Create A Mobile Landing Page

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 06:01 AM PDT


Google has long offered Google Sites, which gives businesses and consumers a way to quickly build their own websites with no HTML knowledge required, making it relatively easy for anyone without a technical background to build a simple website. Until now, the platform has not had a mobile component. Today, Google is launching new functionality in Sites that allows users to create a simple mobile landing page for free.

Similar to templates for Google Sites web pages, Sites for Mobile allows users to pick a template that suits the consumer’s needs. For example, Sites offers and e-commerce template for users who want a mobile site to sell products (via Google Checkout). Google also offers customer mobile templates for local businesses, restaurants, lead generation and social.

On these mobile sites, businesses and users can include the ability to integrate their Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and other social accounts. Users can also feature the phone number, directions to their business, coupons, menus and more. Businesses can also get analytics on traffic to their mobile sites.

Google says that mobile sites can be deployed within minutes. Google tells us that one in five search queries in retail are on mobile phone, and most of these queries are for local availability. Allowing local retailers and businesses to quickly deploy a mobile site made sense.

Considering the local element, it would make sense for some sort of integration with Google Places. But Google says that they have not yet determined how the search giant is planning to add these mobile sites to Places.



Big Data Storage Startup Basho Nabs $7.5M (And Accenture CTO Don Rippert)

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 05:55 AM PDT

Basho Technologies, a data storage and management software startup serving the enterprise market, this morning announced that it has raised $7.5 million in Series D funding. In addition, Basho announced that its board of directors has named Donald J. Rippert, long time CTO of Accenture, as the company's new president and chief executive officer.


MediaMall’s PlayLater Promises To Be A DVR For Internet Video, Enters Limited Beta

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 05:53 AM PDT

MediaMall, the folks behind the popular PlayOn media software, just announced the closed beta of PlayLater, a so-called DVR for online video. The service, which is available in a closed beta starting today, allows users to “record” online programming from over a dozen service for viewing later either on the computer it was recorded on or a device loaded with the retail version of PlayOn.

Believe it or not, the term DVR is actually appropriate here. I’ve used the service and it actually records the programming and wraps the video file in a DRM-laced .plv container that’s only playable on approved programs. How does it work? I have no idea, but it does and MediaMall’s breakaway success with PlayOn says this company knows media streaming.

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SAP Ventures Leads $14M Round In Collaborative Sales Software Developer SAVO

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 05:50 AM PDT

Chicago-based SAVO has raised $14 million in new funding led by SAP Ventures with existing investor Sterling Partners participating in the round.

SAVO’s on-demand, collaborative Sales Enablement software aims to open communication across a company’s sales teams. The software connects sales reps with the best sales materials, insights and expertise across an organization. SAVO promises to helps drive better sales conversations so reps can close more deals.

Current clients include IBM, American Express, and Staples. The new funding will be used for product development and for the expansion of SAVO’s sales enablement platform.



Cloudera Updates Enterprise Offering; Debuts Quick Apache Hadoop Deployment Software

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 05:36 AM PDT

Cloudera, the startup that commercially distributes and services Apache Hadoop based data management software and services, is unveiling a new version of its service, Cloudera Enterprise 3.5. The company is also releasing Cloudera SCM Express, which makes it fast and easy for anyone to install and configure a complete Apache Hadoop-based stack.

Hadoop is a Java software framework born out of an open-source implementation of Google's published computing infrastructure which is fostered within the Apache Software Foundation. Hadoop supports distributed applications running on large clusters of commodity computers processing enormous amounts of data. Cloudera helps distribute Hadoop, and provides practical services around the technology, similar to what Red Hat does for the Linux framework.

Cloudera Enterprise is a subscription service that offers authorization management and provisioning, integration configuration and monitoring and resource management.

Cloudera Enterprise 3.5 has been upgraded to allow enterprises to manage the complete operational lifecycle of their Apache Hadoop systems. The new version gives companies a deeper visibility into Hadoop clusters and automates the ongoing system changes needed to maintain and improve the quality of operations.

For example, users can now easily get, install and configure Apache Hadoop in minutes from a central dashboard and continue to make configuration updates while the system is running. Cloudera also automates manual administrative processes to save time and reduce errors, automating the enablement of Hadoop security for a multi-node cluster in just one click.

An activity monitor provides a deep, real-time view into Hadoop systems and consolidates all user activities (MapReduce, Pig, Hive, Streaming, Oozie) into a single, real-time view of what is happening across a Hadoop cluster at both a macro and micro level.

Cloudera’s new SCM Express takes the complexity out of deploying, configuring and managing a range of Apache Hadoop services and allows anyone to develop and centrally operate a complete Apache Hadoop cluster up to 50 nodes. The free software automates installation and configuration, reducing deployment time from weeks to minutes, and provides cluster-wide, real-time views of nodes and services running in a single, centralized location for easy configuration across the cluster.
 
Cloudera has raised $25 million in new funding.



Oracle Acquires Larry Ellison-Backed Storage Company Pillar Data Systems

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 05:33 AM PDT

Oracle this morning announced that it has agreed to buy Pillar Data Systems, a privately-held provider of SAN Block I/O storage systems based in San Jose, California, which is said to serve nearly 600 customers across 24 countries. Financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. An interesting purchase, particularly since Pillar Data Systems is majority-owned by Oracle founder and CEO Larry Ellison through his venture capital firm Tako Ventures. According to a 2005 CRN article, Ellison invested over $150 million in the business.


You Can Now Use American Express Membership Points To Buy Facebook Ads

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 05:19 AM PDT

American Express this morning announced that customers will now be able to pay for Facebook ads using Membership Rewards points, which the company says are used by millions of American Express small business and consumer Cardmembers.

Cardmembers can redeem Membership Rewards points for Facebook Ads through AmEx OPEN's Facebook Page or the Membership Rewards program website. Each $6,750 spent can be redeemed for $50 worth of Facebook advertising.

American Express will soon start rolling out a national marketing program to support the launch.

This isn’t the first time AmEx has partnered with a social media company. Just recently, the company expanded its relationship with Foursquare to provide local deals to people who sync their cards to their Foursquare accounts.



Jive: 53 Percent Of Execs Believe They Must Adopt Social Business Or Risk Falling Behind

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 05:16 AM PDT

Social enterprise giant Jive is releasing a study today, called the Jive Social Business Index, which surveyed 902 US-­‐based executives at large and mid-sized companies on their views of social in the enterprise.

The study revealed that Social Business is increasingly perceived as a strategic executive imperative in the enterprise, with 78 percent of the executives surveyed admitting that having a social strategy is critical to the future success of their businesses.

Specific findings include:

  • Sixty-­‐six percent of executives believe that social applications for business represent a fundamental shift in how work will get done.
  • Fifty-­‐three percent of executives believe they must adopt Social Business or risk falling behind.
  • 57 percent anticipate "increased revenue or sales" as a result of implementing a Social Business strategy.
  • Seventy percent of executives and 51 percent of millennials have downloaded at least 1 web-­‐based application for work use either on their mobile device or personal computer.
  • Fifty-eight percent of executives and 58 percent of millennials did not seek or receive permission from a systems administrator or an IT professional before downloading or using apps in the workplace.
  • Eighty-nine percent of executives, 88 percent of millennials and 76 percent of general knowledge workers believe that they and their teams would be more productive if they could dramatically reduce the time spent writing and reading emails.

The findings aren’t earth shattering but interesting considering that more and more companies are looking to add social to their in-house communications.



Blekko Partners With Foodily On Recipe Search

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 05:00 AM PDT

After announcing its Zorro visual revamp and its Three Search Engine Monte challenge, Blekko is announcing today that it’s partnered with recipe search engine Foodily in order to curate its recipe search results.

As of today. users who search on Blekko for things like Kale Chips or Grilled Fennel will tap into the Foodily community’s curation for foodie-related slashtags like /recipe /nocarbs or /glutenfree, providing people with a curated result as well as insight into what recipes their friends like using Blekko’s slashtag technology and Facebook integration.

"Foodily's mission is to help everyone find the food they want and love, and share it with their social circle. We're excited to play a role in helping Blekko searchers find great resources on food, cooking and recipes," said Foodily CEO Andrea Cutright, in a release.

Funded to the tune of $24 million by Ron Conway, Mike Maples, Marc Andreesen and others, Blekko currently has over a 100K slashtags, aiming to provide users with a more relevant search experience. Narrowly targeting vertical search by partnering up with interest-based communities is an interesting strategy, as indeed there are sometimes riches in niches.



Clearspring Takes AddThis Mobile With Social Sharing SDKs For iPhone, Android And The Web

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 05:00 AM PDT

Clearspring Technologies, the developer of social sharing platform AddThis, is launching its mobile strategy today, unveiling optimized technologies for the iPhone, Android and mobile web.

For background, the AddThis button sharing tool is currently deployed on 9 million websites worldwide and allows users to easily and quickly share content with others through more than 300 social networking services in 70 languages.

Previously, the company’s AddThis button was able to work on mobile sites, but these specialized versions can be used within apps, and are optimized for the native mobile OS. AddThis for iOS and Android is easy for app developers to implement, says Clearspring, because it is designed and optimized specifically for mobile devices.

Further, there is no additional work for publishers wishing to implement AddThis on the mobile web. The same tool used for the website automatically works in the mobile environment.

And AddThis integrates mobile sharing data from native apps and the mobile web with all other sharing data in an analytics dashboard giving publishers a complete view of the impact of social sharing on traffic. AddThis for iOS is available for download now, and developers can sign up for the Android version due out this summer.

Clearspring also just raised $20 million in new funding.



Health Video Site HealthGuru.com Lands $6 Million

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 04:58 AM PDT

Exclusive - Health Guru Media, a provider of health information videos, has raised $6 million in funding from a syndicate that includes new investor Western Technology Investment as well as existing backers Castile Ventures and Village Ventures.

Health Guru Media operates HealthGuru.com, a video destination site with a library of more than 2,250 titles covering more than 100 different health conditions, plus lifestyle topics that include wellness and nutrition.

In May 2011, Health Guru Media had more than 30 million video views and was ranked first in minutes per viewer, video views, unique viewers, and total minutes of video streamed out of all health video providers (comScore VideoMetrix).

"HealthGuru streams more video than WebMD and Everyday Health combined," adds CEO Joshua Silberstein. Next month, the company is to shed the beta tag currently attached to its video syndication platform.

Health Guru Media also announced that Donald Hackett, formerly the CEO of DrKoop.com and 1-800-Doctors, has joined its board of directors.



Animoto In It To Win It, Takes $25 Million In Third Venture Round

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 04:29 AM PDT

Well, apparently Animoto is going for it. This jewel of a startup, which lets people easily create professional-looking videos from audio and video clips and pictures, has raised a third round of funding – $25 million in a round led by Spectrum Equity Investors.

Ben Spero, a managing director at Spectrum, joined the Animoto board of directors.

Previous investors Madrona Venture Group and Amazon also participated in this round.

That brings the total raised by Animoto to $30 million.

If they were going to go for the easy sale, any time in the last year or two would have been a good time. This round signals that Animoto is going to go it alone and see if they can turn it into a very large company. My guess is that part of the round was taken off the table by founders/execs, which is often a risk mitigation move and can align the risk tolerance of investors and founders.

Animoto won’t comment on whether any or all of the round is secondary.

The company has been profitable since 2008. 700,000+ videos are created per month, over 15 million have been created since the company launched five years ago. There are 3 million registered users (they had 1.75 million this time last year), and 100,000 of those users, including me, pay for the service.

(Tat tip on the use of the classic “in it to win it” in the title of this post to Skype’s PR team)



SiliconBlue Scores $18 Million In Series D Funding

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 04:22 AM PDT

SiliconBlue Technologies, which offers custom solutions for handset applications, including IP, design services as well as low-power, single-chip, CMOS SRAM mobileFPGA devices, has raised $18 million in Series D financing. The capital injection comes from private equity firm Atlantic Bridge, with the existing group of investors including BlueRun Ventures, Crosslink Capital, NEA and Apex Venture Partners all participating in the round.


Blue Jeans Nabs $23.5M For The Video Conferencing Platform To Rule Them All

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 04:21 AM PDT

A pain point for online video conferencing platforms is that many of them don’t integrate with each other. For example, a Skype user needs to engage with a fellow Skype user to start a multi-party video conversation. Today, the Blue Jeans Network is coming out of stealth as a video conferencing solution to integrate across many platforms. In conjunction with its public release, Blue Jeans is announcing that it has raised $23.5 million from Accel Partners, New Enterprise Associates, and Norwest Venture Partners.

The name for the company is definitely original for a video-conferencing startup, but the company says that the name is exactly how clients should feel when using their product. So, you know that comfortable, easy feeling you get when wearing your favorite pair of blue jeans? This company wants to provide that ease and comfort when initiating multi-party conference calls in the cloud.

Dubbed "any(ware) video conferencing," Blue Jeans Network bridges together conferencing technology from Cisco/Tandberg, Polycom, Lifesize with consumers platforms such as Skype and Google Talk. Remote workers, travellers and telecommuters with access to Skype and a video-enabled desktop or mobile device, can participate in video meetings with their colleagues on traditional enterprise video conferencing equipment.

Blue Jeans Network users each get a private “meeting room” in the Blue Jeans cloud that they can use to schedule, host, and manage meetings. Participants join meetings by simply dialing a number or clicking on a link from their systems, whether that be Skype or Tandberg.

The beauty of Blue Jeans is that there's no new infrastructure to buy or software to download.  All that is required is an Internet connection, an existing video-enabled device and people to meet with.

The service has been in beta testing since the beginning of 2011, and has seen considerable traction since mid-April. The service is being used by 500 companies an has held video conferences spanning a half a million minutes with over 15,000 participants in 1,000 cities in 100 countries.

Blue Jeans Network customers span a wide range of sizes, industries and geographies. Current customers include Facebook, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, Partners HealthCare, Heidrick and Struggles, Internet2 and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The company also announced a partnership with Deutsche Telekom.

The ability to bridge the world of Google Talk and Skype with legacy systems like Polycom is a significant move forward in video conferencing technology. And Blue Jeans has not only invested time into integrating all of the platforms, but also money. For example, the company is licensing Skype’s technology for the integration (but is using Google’s open API).

As for cost, Blue Jeans charges companies similar to the way cell phone carriers charge us per minute. Packages range from $0.10 per minute to $0.25 per minute.



Does The Google+ Interface Remind You Of Facebook? You’re Not The Only One

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 03:36 AM PDT

There’s no question about it: Google+ genuinely looks good. But, as thousands of people have already noted and joked about, it also really does look a lot like Facebook.

UX designer and consultant UXboy agrees, and put the two interfaces side by side to showcase just how much the entry pages of both services look alike.

Judge for yourself:

Update – from xkcd:



That Was Quick: Chrome Extension Adds Facebook, Twitter Sharing To Google+

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 02:08 AM PDT

I’ve also been playing around with Google+ (and the neat mobile Web app) this morning and so far, I think it has some potential (not everyone agrees).

But people like me tend to use more than one social networking service, so I was happy to see someone has already built a Chrome extension that lets Google+ users push posts to Facebook and Twitter. It’s a little buggy from time to time, but overall, it works as advertised.

What it does is add a ‘Send to …’ option to Google+ posts to allow you to repost anything that appears in your stream right on your Facebook and Twitter profiles.

My main gripe with it is that you sometimes need to hit refresh in order to see the link.

Of course, you need to be a Google+ user to see shared posts; note that the project is still in ‘field trial’ and invitation-only at this point.

In the future, developer Mohamed Mansour says, the extension will enable people to instantaneously share Google+ posts on Twitter and Facebook sans dialog box (and perhaps more social networks). The source code is available on GitHub, by the way.



Good First Sign: I Have A Strong Desire To Keep Using Google+

Posted: 29 Jun 2011 02:03 AM PDT

I’ve spent the last several hours using Google+. That’s a good sign.

While I first got a glimpse of the project when meeting with Google last week ahead of today’s story, such meetings are usually little more than fast-paced tutorials or worse, sales pitches. I definitely prefer to sit down and use things myself in a somewhat regular setting and see how I react. And seeing as the roll-out for Google+ is very limited right now, I thought I’d share some of those thoughts.

First of all, Google+ is easily already the most compelling social project Google has ever done. Yes, I know that’s not saying much — but it is saying something. That statement includes Wave, which was more ambitious, but was not nearly as polished at any point in its brief life as Google+ is right now.

That’s not to say Google+ doesn’t have bugs — it does. But they’re relatively minor and the team seems on top of all them. They should go away long before most people actually use the service. Even in this trial phase, Google+ is solid.

To me, Google+ feels closer to Google Buzz — but it feels like the version of Google Buzz that should have launched. There is no question in my mind that Google Buzz is now dead as a result of what Google+ is. It’s better in every way.

To that end, Google+ actually may remind me more of FriendFeed than anything else. But instead of being the ghost town that FriendFeed became after its acquisition by Facebook, Google+ feels like an frontier town that could erupt with growth if gold is found.

But it’s also substantially different from both Buzz and FriendFeed in that those services rely heavily on users importing data from other services to populate feeds. Google+ doesn’t give you any options to do that beyond manually brining in outside links. This is important because it means that any information users put in, they explicitly want to put it. As a result, they’re more likely to both be more discerning and to interact with it.

One thing that Google appears to have learned from the failure of Wave is that there needs to be some sort of notification system alerting you to new activity. The activity email options which are on by default will be annoying for users with a lot of activity (I turned those off within a few minutes of signing up). But for casual users, they’ll be key.

More vital to me is the new black toolbar which spans all of Google’s properties and brings with it a notification system. It’s brilliant. A few times today I left Google+ and probably wouldn’t have come back for a while, but these notifications pulled me back in. I’d be reading an email in Gmail and I’d see the red number calling to me. Or I’d be doing a Google search. Same thing.

I even found myself looking for the notifications when I wasn’t on a Google property. That’s how I know the idea is a winner. Google needs to release browser extensions ASAP to give you these alert no matter where you are. And if they really want to ensure that Google+ takes off in the long run, they should bake this system into Chrome itself.

Would that be evil? Some would say so. Facebook, for example, might. But remember, Chrome is Google’s — they control it. Chromium is the open source one that they don’t control. I’d be in favor of such an option. I’m sure Google is going to take a long wait-and-see approach there. I’m just thinking out loud here.

Regardless, the notifications are great. The fact that you can interact with the content (+1, comment, etc) right from the drop down is brilliant.

The +1 Button, which now resides beneath every Google+ post and every comment, still strikes me as a bit silly. But all of this usage of the button coming together is bringing it into perspective. It is Google’s “Like” button, and they want it to be just as ubiquitous as Facebook’s.

Have I mentioned how nice Google+ looks? Oh I have? Well, I’ll say it again. The design work here is well beyond what we usually see from Google. The Circles stuff in particular is good. That shouldn’t be too surprising given who created it.

The whole Circles concept is still going to be difficult for many users to understand at first. They’ll understand that when they share something, they’re doing it with a certain group of people, but when something is shared with them and random people start commenting, it will seem a bit strange. If they comment back, who sees that? — will be a common question. Google has a way to show you this, but it may need to be more apparent.

Overall, it took me about 15 minutes to get fairly comfortable with all the major elements of the Google+ system. That’s good, especially given how much you can do. At first, it seemed a bit overwhelming, but the concepts are actually pretty easy to learn once you experiment and understand how things work.

The Sparks area sounds great in concept. In reality, it needs a lot of work. Still, there’s a lot of potential there.

The Incoming area (where you see the updates from people who have connected to you but you haven’t connected back with) won’t make sense to most people at first.

The concept of “Extended Circles” is interesting but also odd. It’s not public, but it’s not your circle. It’s not clear who exactly you’re sharing with at all. I guess you’ll just have to trust the people you trust enough to put in a circle.

While the Stream will be the focal point at first, the real power of Google+ could eventually be the ancillary features. Hangouts are one such particularly promising feature right now. It uses the Stream to draw users in, but doesn’t over-pollute it. Hangouts work well, and as a bonus, they don’t require Flash (though they do require another plug-in which you already have installed if you have gChat video installed).

The “+” concept to add people to a conversation (or share) makes a lot more sense than using “@”, which is of course the norm on Twitter and other services these days. This change takes a little bit of getting used to.

Google+ finally gives Google Profiles a purpose. And the new editing functionality for them is very, very slick. The “View profile as” area is also great.

Right now, most people seem to be sharing information publicly. This is to be expected since there are relatively few users of the service, so Circles are being fully fleshed out. But as Google+ scales, the publicly sharing will have to slow down significantly or it will be chaos. Can you imagine a million (which would be a low number for Google) people using this and sharing publicly? Conversations under shared items would be filled with nonsense.

Mobile may be the real key to all of Google+. While it’s being largely downplayed for now, I suspect that when (hopefully when) the iPhone app is approved, that will be the primary way I interact with the service. Notifications will be key there, just like they are on the web. The mobile web app is great, but lacks the necessary push notification.

Overall, I’m impressed by Google+ after day one. Of course, like many, I also had fairly low expectations of anything Google tried to do in the social sphere after Wave and Buzz. Still, I used Google+ for hours and kept coming back. And I have a desire to come back tomorrow. That’s never a bad thing.

Google has done a very good job with the early execution. Can they maintain that? Once the novelty is gone, will there be a reason to use it? And will the idea scale — meaning both in absolute size and in terms of moving beyond an early adopter market? Remember, as great as FriendFeed was, it never really went beyond the early adopters.

Of course, you could also make the case (as I once presciently did) that a lot of what FriendFeed was is now being used by hundreds of millions of people around the world inside of Facebook. Google, given its size, will have a similar opportunity to take their concepts to the masses. It didn’t work with Buzz, will it with Google+?

Let’s revisit the question in about a month.



Square Closes That $100 Million Round, Mary Meeker Joins Board

Posted: 28 Jun 2011 10:21 PM PDT

It’s official. Jack Dorsey’s Square has joined the billion dollar valuation club. The mobile payments startup closed a $100 million series C led by Kleiner Perkins, a story we broke a few weeks ago. The new round values Square above $1 billion.

Tiger Management is also an investor. And Mary Meeker, the former Morgan Stanley Internet analyst who is now a partner at Kleiner, will get a board seat. She will join other new board members Vinod Khosla and Larry Summers.

Square is bringing credit card payments to a new class of merchants and, eventually consumers. It’s shipped more than 500,000 credit card readers, is processing more than a million transactions per month, and more than $3 million a day. It recently launched an iPad app to replace cash registers and Square devices are now sold in Apple Stores.



Accel, Khosla, and Andreessen Horowitz Pour Another $30 Million Into Social Browser RockMelt

Posted: 28 Jun 2011 09:14 PM PDT

Is there a future for social browser startup RockMelt? Despite attracting only a few hundred thousand active users since its much-hyped launch, the company filled with ex-Netscape rockstars and backed by former Netscape founder Marc Andreessen just managed to raise another $30 million in a B round led by Accel Partners and Khosla Ventures, with Andreessen Horowitz, Ron Conway, Bill Campbell and Josh Kopelman also participating. Jim Breyer of Accel and Vinod Khosla will be joining the board as observers. That’s some pretty serious money.

What do these investors see in RockMelt that most users don’t? Could it have anything to do with the special interest Facebook is showing towards the social browser? After all, both Marc Andreessen and Jim Breyer are now board members of both RockMelt and Facebook. Seems like an interesting coincidence.

There are a few possibilities here. One is that Facebook will end up buying RockMelt if it feels it needs to get into the browser game. But if that was the case, why not just buy them right now before this round, when RockMelt was still cheap? Maybe Facebook is ambivalent about having its own browser. In the meantime, it is helping RockMelt with engineering resources. But that is not enough.

And that brings us to the second possibility. RockMelt needs to start getting users, lost of them, millions. It needs to prove that it is not just another Flock flop. And that millions of people want a social browser with Facebook chat and sharing built in everywhere they go across the Web (no wonder Mark Zuckerberg likes it).

But getting millions of users costs money. You either have built-in distribution like Google, Microsoft, and Apple or you have to pay money in online marketing and distribution deals to acquire new users. That’s where the $30 million comes in.

During an interview with CEO Eric Vishria this spring, I asked him why RockMelt had so few users. “Our focus has been engagement,” he told me. “In the next couple of months we will shift to grow the number of users in a serious way.” I think we are going to see that now. How many users will $30 million get RockMelt?

Up until now, RockMelt has depended on viral distribution. But Vishria broke down those numbers for me as well, and they don’t look that good. While about half of all people who have tried RockMelt invite an average of 4.8 friends to also try it, only 18 percent of those actually converts, or one out of those five. So what you end up with is that each user recruits one new user, on average. That translates into slow and steady growth, but not the hockey-stick curves RockMelt needs to be taken seriously.

And even if RockMelt can become an independent player in the browser market—which means taking share from Firefox, IE, Chrome, and Safari—its a tough market to be in. All the other browsers are essentially subsidized by bigger companies (even Firefox is dependent on Google search dollars). So not only does RockMelt have to figure out a way to get a lot more users, it also has to figure out how to make money from them. Or else just get big enough that Facebook has to buy them.



Is Google Asking The Wrong Question With Social?

Posted: 28 Jun 2011 08:53 PM PDT

Editor's note: Guest contributor Semil Shah is an entrepreneur interested in digital media, consumer internet, and social networks. He is based in Palo Alto and you can follow him on twitter @semilshah.

Today’s soft-launch of Google’s new social galaxy, Google+, raises one interesting question: Can Google, a massive, multinational, cash-rich, consumer technology company with multiple successful productivity applications and services, take its dough out of the oven and bake a social network into their bread?

Over the past year, Google has undergone some big changes. Chief Executive Eric Schmidt stepped down. Co-founder Larry Page stepped in, reshuffling the deck and tying employee bonuses to creating a successful social experience. The result seems to be a slick-looking yet potentially Wave-like confusing constellation of social “circles,” “huddles,” “hangouts,” and  ”sparks” that could, theoretically, lay the foundation for new, more nuanced social networks to form. In the middle of all the reactions to today’s release, I believe it’s important to step back and ponder whether Google is focusing its efforts on the wrong problem, and in doing so, to investigate a potentially better fit that coincides with the company’s own DNA.

What made Google “Google” was its groundbreaking PageRank technology that allowed us to search the web more efficiently. Powered by a mandate to organize the world’s information online, Google trained all of us over more than a decade to tune our online search behavior to entering in keywords and symbols. As obvious as that seems today, this is not how humans as a species are wired to search for new information. Before the Internet, most “search” was conducted through offline directories and by the time-honored evolutionary tradition of asking questions. “Where would you recommend I stay on my trip to Hawaii?” “What dish did you order at that new restaurant in the hotel?” “Where can I get the best deal on that hotel?” Google has elegantly stripped down these queries and trained us to, instead, enter the following text in a search box: “Hawaii + hotel deal” or “Hawaii + restaurant + popular dish.”

Now, that might be how some geeks actually ask questions in real life, but this is not how we are wired to search. We are most accustomed to asking questions as an extension of our own curiosities. And while Google keyword search is incredibly efficient, the content it points us to is unfortunately declining in quality. There’s been enough debate about the proliferation of run-of-the-mill and high-end content farms, so I won’t beat that drum. The bottom line is that although it’s never been easier to search online, it’s getting harder and harder to find exactly what we’re looking for because there are perverse incentives to not only create, but also promote, keyword-optimized content.

The alternatives, however, don’t provide a clear path yet either. The idea of shifting search back to questions isn’t new. Ask tried it, as did Yahoo! Answers. More recently, companies like Aardvark (acquired by Google), Fluther (acquired by Twitter), Formspring, Quora, and AnyAsq are picking up where the 1.0 versions left off, each taking a slightly different tack and growing in slightly different ways. On Formspring and AnyAsq, users can invite the audience to ask them direct questions, provide answers to the ones they want to, and then remain searchable for others to peruse. On Quora, users can pose questions within topics or, if the question has already been asked, to search within the site for the answer, assuming someone has provided one. No doubt, Google and Twitter were thinking about capturing questions when they acquired the Aardvark and Fluther teams, respectively.

I wanted to lay all of this out to demonstrate that it’s the questions posed by people—not the people themselves—that are most central to Google’s DNA. In spite of this, the company has trained all of us to ask questions in unnatural ways.  The flurry of new companies trying to get back to questions demonstrates just how powerful that force can be.

With the threat Facebook is posing to the company, Google’s search strategy has been two-pronged: (1) to crop-dust the emerging mobile handset landscape with Android and, thereby, to have a huge footprint on mobile search; and (2) to “bake” social retroactively into its overall makeup, the digital equivalent of genetically modified food. On #1, Google’s acquisition of Android will prove to be one of its most important moves, though there remains much work to be done to provide some controls on the platform. On #2, however, I believe that while social isn’t perfect (can it ever be, online?), that war has already been won.

The fear for Google is that as more people spend more and more time on Facebook, people will search less by keyword and conduct more searches by discovering things through their friends online. We may chose our next vacation based on seeing where our friends have been, but we’re still going to ask them questions about the trip. This type of search, or social discovery, will become important, but it won’t dominate search—it’s just one channel, and different social networks exist for different parts of our lives.

Google still holds tremendous mindshare and user-intent for search. While in a perfect world it would have been helpful to require every GMail user to create a Google Profile account when they signed up (Whoops!), the reality is that Google is in a better position to organize all of the social signals we broadcast online rather than to organize all of the individuals making those signals.

Instead of building another social network, I’d like to see Google focus on helping us search through all the user-generated signals and content and to help us with our search, much of which is done offline through social questions, not keyword-speak. (Although, the threaded comments approach Google+ is using in the main stream it presents to users does lend itself to friends asking each other questions and answering them).  This approach would let Google focus on what it excels at, helping us find information online, especially information created by our friends and friends of friends, perhaps even in an instant. Now, that would be a huge plus.

Photo: Stefan Baudy



While We Await The Native App, The Google+ iPhone Mobile Web App Is Pretty Solid

Posted: 28 Jun 2011 08:29 PM PDT

After the big launch today, some of those lucky enough to get a Google+ invite were still left out in the cold a bit: iPhone users. You see, while the Google+ Android app was there ready to go on day one, the iPhone app remains in review with Apple. But fear not iPhone users, there is a little hidden gem you may not know about: a mobile web version of Google+ that works great in Safari.

If you simply point your iOS Safari browser to plus.google.com, you’ll find a solid web app written in HTML5. You can’t do quite everything you’ll be able to with the native app, such as Huddle (group chat). But it the main parts of the Google+ functionality are there. Stream, Photos, Circles, Profile, and Notifications appear in the main menu.

And there are actually some other unique features, such as the ability to check-in to a venue and see Google+ message from users nearby to your current location.

The app is solid enough that it might be acceptable as a native app replacement if it did actual notifications. Alas, that’s not possible. And that will be a big part of the Google+ iPhone app, especially with the revamped notifications coming in iOS 5. There are mobile web notifications that are pretty nifty (a red box in the upper right corner), but you have to have the app open to see them, obviously.

Below, find some pictures.

 

 



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