Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Latest from TechCrunch

The Latest from TechCrunch

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Solving The Scoble Problem In Social Networks

Posted: 09 Jul 2011 08:14 AM PDT

Editor's note: Guest writer Rocky Agrawal  blogs at reDesign and Tweets @rakeshlobster.

I finally blocked Robert Scoble in Google+. I have absolutely nothing against Scoble. I quite admire him, actually. He’s a great asset to the startup scene and he works damn hard. I’ve met him a few times and I’m sure we’ll meet again. But he was just getting to be way too much.

My Google+ feed was dominated by him. I tried to take a half-step and just remove Scoble from my circles. But then he became Google’s perpetual #1 suggestion for a new friend.

I’ve seen the Scoble effect elsewhere. When Scoble joined Quora a while back, his entry caused a sudden shift in Quora behavior. His legions of followers followed him onto Quora and upvoted his answers to the detriment of others. (Often, it seemed, without even reading the answer.) Quora regulars retaliated by downvoting his answers, even when they were good answers.

This is an ongoing problem with new social networks. Silicon Valley celebrities dominate the conversation. A close friend is on the Google+ top 100 list; I can’t comment on one of his posts without keeping my notification indicator lit for days at a time as his large following continually responds to the post.

While this may create a great experience for popular people in Silicon Valley and even for readers in Silicon Valley, it’s not the way to build a mass-market social network.

Although I like a lot of the content I currently see on Google+, it has limited appeal. It also has a dangerous priming effect as new entrants either look at the conversations and mimic them or decide that this isn’t their scene. It’s like peeking into a party and realizing that the people who are inside are nothing like you.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again with hyped properties like digg, delicious, FriendFeed, Wave, buzz and now Google+.

I wasn’t on Facebook in its very, very early days. But I would be willing to bet the conversation was not primarily about tech companies and the lives of tech executives. It was more likely about hot people on campus, Cambridge bars and restaurants, terrible professors, crappy weather, the success of the crew team and who hooked up with whom.

One of my early experiences with what drives social behavior online was when I was working at AOL. A portion of our team had gone to Dublin to meet with our dev team. One night we were out and my boss chugged a Guinness. I took a video of that and posted it to the failed AOL UnCut video site. I IMed the link to a friend. Within an hour, pretty much every one on our team around the world had seen it.

That type of content is a shit-ton more interesting to most people (me included) than discussions on whether Google+ should resurface a post every time someone comments or whether clicking a +1 button on a Web site has an effect on Google+.

Paradoxically, the extent to which the constraints of Twitter stifle conversation helped its growth. Because real conversation is hard using Twitter (vs. just tweeting out your own story) there isn’t the expectation that people will engage with you in it. Because tweets disappear as the firehose continues to gush, it’s easier to ignore them. I know—I’ve done it.

This appeals to a lot of the people that have popularized Twitter: A-list celebrities, media outlets, politicians and megabrands. Their primary purpose on Twitter is to relate their version of events. It isn’t about conversing with their audience. CNN doesn’t really want to talk to you. They want to talk at you. This isn’t entirely about lack of desire, it’s also a matter of time. Ashton Kutcher can’t possibly respond to every @aplusk from his 7 million+ followers.

You only need to look at recent changes in Quora to see this dynamic in action. Three key elements of Quora were the ability to comment on answers, to ask questions directly of people and to message them through Quora. I’ve built a number of great friendships through Quora’s behind-the-scenes interactions.

But Quora recently gave users the power to block all of these features. This is essential to attracting celebrities to the platform. Larry Summers and JJ Abrams blocked these features. Former D.C. schools chancellor and education reform activist Michelle Rhee recently joined Quora. I would love to engage with her on education reform (a topic I’m passionate about), but she blocked these features as well.  Kutcher is one Quora celebrity who has left his account open to user interaction. (I’m not a celebrity, so feel free to ask me a question.)

The current Google+ interface would be less appealing to celebrities, because the interface is designed to invite conversation and engagement.

For Web celebrities, this kind of conversation and engagement is great. Joshua Schachter recently tweeted that he got “30 responses on twitter w/ 14000 followers, 42 on plus w/ 1500 followers.” That doesn’t surprise me at all—it’s a natural result of Google’s user interface decisions. Google+ continually resurfaces threads that get comments; Tweets keep sinking as time goes on.

How Google responds to the Scoble challenge will be interesting. Robert, I’m sorry I had to block you. But when you get back from Florida, I’d love to buy you a drink.

The Space Debris Threat And How To Handle It

Posted: 09 Jul 2011 07:00 AM PDT

Editor’s note: The following guest post is by Scott Spence, Director, Raytheon Space Fence Program, Integrated Defense Systems.

Yesterday marked a momentous day in U.S. history as NASA launched its final space shuttle, ending a 30-year era. Four astronauts—commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus—are leading the 12-day Atlantis mission, the 135th and final flight of the storied space shuttle program. After Atlantis returns to Earth, NASA will officially retire the program and shift its focus to developing next-generation crew exploration vehicles (CEV) capable of carrying crew and cargoes to Earth's orbit, the moon and Mars.

But just days before the Atlantis launch, something unexpected made headlines.

Rocketing past the International Space Station at 29,000 miles per hour, a piece of space debris came only 1,100 feet away from a collision, forcing crew members to take refuge in two space capsules reserved for an emergency escape.

Since the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, Earth's low orbit has become increasingly filled with man-made space debris—objects ranging from a single fleck of paint to larger explosion and collision fragments to entire defunct satellites. Just two years ago, an Iridium satellite collided with an expired Russian Cosmos spacecraft, significantly contributing to the amount of debris already orbiting the Earth.

A piece of debris as small as one centimeter traveling at incredibly high speeds can completely destroy an operational satellite if the orbits of the two intersect. Leveraging existing technologies, more than 20,000 objects have been catalogued by Space Command, but it is estimated that more than half a million pieces exist. Though untracked, these pieces of "space junk" can be lethal to our space systems—from military space systems to commercial systems to civil space systems—no one is invulnerable to the threat.

Our Increasing Dependence on Space

Throughout the past ten years, space has become inextricably linked to all aspects of human life. Just try to imagine one day without essentials like ATM machines, GPS devices, DirectTV and Both private activity and global commerce largely depend on communication, remote sensing and navigation satellites from space. Just three years ago, world government space program expenditures reached historical highs of more than $62 billion dollars.

Similarly, space has become vital to military operations. Investments in satellite communications programs have been climbing rapidly, reaching $6.6 billion spent in 2008 for both non-classified defense and civil programs. But the increasing importance of space to daily life, global commerce and national security has given rise to a major concern about the vulnerability of American space systems to disruption in the event of international conflict.

Consequently, more than 128 satellites are planned for launch in the next decade driven largely by our nation's defense sector.

But this growing number of satellites in orbit around the Earth has made space a much more hazardous place in recent years. Low orbits have now become so crowded that operators are regularly forced to make emergency maneuvers by firing thrusters to avoid disasters.

This coupled with the rapid proliferation of space debris highlights the imperative for more precise space tracking and surveillance improvements.

Emerging Opportunities

In the near future, enhanced “space situational awareness” capabilities will be paramount to detecting and reporting on the proliferation of space debris and ever-increasing numbers of space objects in Earth's lower orbits.

As various organizations and individuals focus on developing the next disruptive technology to combat the space debris crisis, the U.S. Air Force is simultaneously working to improve its space surveillance capability. First it wants to replace its current Space Surveillance System, or VHF Fence, which has been in service since 1961. The replacement program, dubbed Space Fence, will be designed to provide enhanced space surveillance capabilities to detect, track and measure these smaller pieces of debris as well as commercial and military satellites. For example, Space Fence will be able to detect a piece of debris the size of a softball traveling at 17,000 miles per hour from more than 1,800 miles away. This enhanced capability will allow precise cataloging of up to 10 times the number of low earth orbiting objects than the current systems in place.

Most importantly, Space Fence's enhanced situational awareness capabilities will provide more accurate positioning data, providing satellites and spacecraft with much longer lead times to assess potential collision dangers and make more timely and strategic maneuvering decisions. For example, had this technology been operational during last week's close call for the International Space Station, Space Fence would have provided highly accurate tracking data long before the threatening piece of space debris even approached. Instead of having only 15 hours of lead time, NASA could have had much more time and information necessary to make an informed decision to maneuver—or not—eliminating the need to consider an emergency crew evacuation.

Space Fence will be designed to create a larger field of vision using sensors in both hemispheres to provide a more complete picture of orbiting objects. Delivery of the first radar system is expected by 2015.

Once we have better data about what kind of debris is out there, we can develop all sorts of products and businesses to take advantage of the data and build better systems to avoid it. That’s where entrepreneurs and computer programmers come in. Improved situational awareness will create a host of opportunities for those daring enough to solve one of the most challenging problems keeping us from fully realizing the commercial potential of space: debris.

How Hydrostor Aims To Change The Power Game By Storing Energy Under Water

Posted: 09 Jul 2011 06:00 AM PDT

Editor’s note: Guest writer Joseph Puopolo is an entrepreneur and start-up enthusiast, who blogs on a variety of topics including green initiatives, technology and marketing.

There has been a fair bit of concern in recent years about the ability of our power plants to supply adequate electricity during periods of peak demand. Hydrostor, a Toronto-based company, is taking a different approach in offering a solution that allows plants to store their power using compressed air in underwater storage tanks.

More specifically, Hydrostor takes the excess energy created during periods of off-peak consumption and converts that energy into compressed air via an air compressor, which in turn inflates accumulators placed under the surface of a body of water. The depth of the water keeps the air at a constant pressure, helping to store the energy potential.

When power is required, the air is released through an expander and electricity is produced. Through the heat-exchanger, modern compressors and expanders, the system approaches adiabatic operation, achieving efficiencies over 70 percent.

This technology has the potential to address the intermittent nature of renewable energy, help decongest transmission and distribution lines, and create better efficiencies of existing generation.

To date, Hydrostor has relied heavily on government and research grants to get started. They are now seeking further funding from both private sources and government groups to expand. They are currently in the pilot stage of a number of projects.

The benefits are obvious—tapping into a store of power when consumers demand it, rather than constantly maintaining a higher-than-normal supply would create a more efficient network. Hydrostor estimates that over 50 percent of the world's biggest load centers are located by water and would therefore be candidates for their system. If this model proves true, it would save billions of dollars and the years it takes to build new generators. Hydrostor is not looking to replace new generation projects, but merely to make the existing grid more effective and reliable.

The company was founded by Cameron Lewis in 2010 when he identified the need for a more efficient way to store electricity. Cameron estimates that the cost of storing energy using his system is 50 percent cheaper than storing electricity via batteries.

He came upon the idea while working at a wind farm in Northern Ontario, and saw the potential of power storage. Alternative power sources, such as wind, require some sort of power storage mechanism to create an augmented base load. For the uninitiated, “base load” refers to the minimum amount of power that a utility or distribution company must make available to its customers at any time. A base load is traditionally created by running plants 24/7 to generate the required energy.

One of the traditional knocks against renewable energy comes over the question of what to do when wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining, since demand for power never stops. Cost effective storage of that power would make it possible to create a reliable base load and enable smart grid technologies.

The ripple effect from this application would be widespread as there becomes new opportunities for energy arbitrage and increased viability for renewable projects near large bodies of water. One of the potential limiting factors of the success of Hydrostor will be its adoption at a larger scale.

All current projects are 1 to 4 Megawatts (MW) in design, while larger plants start in the hundreds of Megawatts. Cameron insists not only that this system can scale, but as soon as they have a demonstration facility to prove out costs to the industry, there can be large scale adoption across the industry.

Hydrostor is based in Toronto, Ontario Canada and is part of the MARS Cleantech Portfolio of companies.

Eric Schmidt On Gauging Google+’s Success

Posted: 09 Jul 2011 12:02 AM PDT

Speaking at a press event on Thursday at the Allen & Co conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, former Google CEO and now Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt gave a 70 minute talk to the relatively few reporters that are here about various topical Google issues, including the most topical of Google issues, the launch of Google+.

When asked by a reporter how he would gauge the success of Google+ Schmidt replied, validly, “Well it’s been out for a week!” before going on to say that the biggest marker of its success was the fact that “An infinite amount of people are unhappy because they don’t have their invitation.” He later went on to say that the amount of people who had invitations but weren’t let in because of high demand was the greatest problem the service was facing. “We’re reviewing it on Monday,” he said.

Schmidt also seemed pleased that people seemed to understand that Google+ was different than Facebook.

“Circles is particularly well suited to the contact list you have in your phone, we have a somewhat different view of privacy. We tried to build a system that you could use for the relationships over time. The people who built the Internet did not get a stable version of identity; You need identity, in the sense that you are a person, this is who you are these are your friends and so on … The issue on the Internet is not the lack of Facebook, the issue on the Internet is the lack of identity. “

When asked by reporters whether Google planned eventually to fill out Google+ with other products, Schmidt answered, “Yeah, and there’s a lot coming,” saying that business accounts and ads are expected, assuming Google+ continues to grow. ”We test stuff and when it works we put a lot more emphasis on it,” he said.

When pressed to reveal how many people were part of the Google+ beta currently Schmidt replied, “I don’t know but it’s millions, it’s a lot.”

Image: Esthr

Our Executive Assistant Greg Gets A Surprise In-Office Haircut

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 09:23 PM PDT

Who says working for TechCrunch isn’t just about the best job ever, ever? Case in point: Bummed after losing to Causes’ Josh Persky in Zaarly’s ”Startup Haircut Contest” this week, our newly minted executive assistant Greg Barto was just going about his Friday business today, planning meetings and filing files, etc when he was surprised by Zaarly's Shirley Hornstein with the haircut prize he thought he had lost.

Watch his priceless response here. "I love surprises … I thought I was going to win and when I lost I thought, ‘Now I need to find a place to go get a haircut.’"

The startup responsible for wacky contest, Zaarly, recently bagged $1 million in funding from Ashton Kutcher, Paul Bucheit, our own Michael Arrington and others.

Now You Can Use LinkedIn To Stay Up To Date On Who’s Getting Hired (And Fired)

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 06:50 PM PDT

Today, LinkedIn passed Myspace to become the second largest social network in the U.S. LinkedIn has seen a surge in traffic since it went public in May and reached an all-time high of 33.9 million unique visitors in June.

Taking advantage of the professional social network’s continuing growth, Roger Lee, the co-founder of PaperG, has built a cool little service called, aptly, Job Change Notifier. As you may have already guessed, Lee’s service enables you to track and receive notifications when one of your LinkedIn contacts changes jobs.

As such, the service allows users to keep tabs on “persons of interest”, be they startup founders, executives, to find out when they resign, get poached, or are acui-hired. The service will also likely be useful to business-to-business startups and companies that sell their products to other businesses, as it allows them to discover when their allies are promoted or move into decision-making roles, for example. It’s also an easy way to stay up to date on your professional network and congratulate your friends and contacts for snatching up that job that you had your eyes on.

Lee used LinkedIn’s API to build the site, but is not affiliated with LinkedIn in any way, though he says that he has been contacted by LinkedIn employees, who have expressed interest in the site.

Of course, not everyone updates their LinkedIn profiles immediately following a job change, especially for those who have been let go, and there’s generally some lag time between a job change and its corresponding update on LinkedIn, but it’s still the fastest way to find out about your contacts’ career moves.

Using the site is easy, and set up is quick: Users simply enter their email addresses to receive alerts, choose which LinkedIn connections they want to track, and bada bing, bada boom, you’re ready to track.

Though Job Change Notifier only launched a few days ago, the site is already tracking over 300,000 profiles and continues to add swaths of profiles every day. Though Lee wasn’t able to give me a good breakdown of usage analytics quite yet, he did say that the site has already become popular among startups, sales and biz dev executives, recruiters, and, unsurprisingly, LinkedIn employees.

Lee said that he’s already been asked by LinkedIn if he would be interested in going to work for them, but he has no intention of leaving PaperG. (We covered PaperG back in August.) So far, notifications are only available via email, but depending on early user feedback and demand, Lee may add further notification channels as traffic increases.

It’s a great tool, and it gives TechCrunch writers another way to keep tabs on all you upwardly mobile professionals out there, so get back to work. Because we’ll be watching.

Update: It seems a similar service was also covered today on that is like Job Change Notifier, but for recruiters. The company is called Bullhorn (as is the software they make), and the feature is called Radar, which “tries to identify talent before that talent is actively out looking for a new gig”. Interesting. Worth a look as well.

Don’t Call It A PivotPlz: PicPlz Spun Off As Mixed Media Labs Prepares Their Next Product

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 05:06 PM PDT

When Mixed Media Labs raised a $5 million round last November, it raised quite a few eyebrows. After all, the money came from Andreessen Horowitz, the VC firm which had backed Instagram. To be fair, they backed Instagram when it was still known as Burbn — before it became what is now a massively popular mobile photo-sharing app. Still, there’s no question that Mixed Media Labs’ PicPlz product was a direct competitor. And Andreessen Horowitz sided with them, while Instagram found other investors.

But as Sarah noted at the time, Andreessen’s bet wasn’t so much against Instagram, as it was a bet on Mixed Media Lab founder Dalton Caldwell. Caldwell, who had previously founded imeem, was said to have a broad vision for a company beyond photo-sharing. PicPlz was just the first product to leverage what they were creating. And while it has achieved moderate success, it has not seen the success Instagram has in terms of users. And now Mixed Media Labs has moved on to their next product, we’ve learned.

Specifically, PicPlz has been spun off as a separate company that will be run by Ali Aydar, a former executive at Napster, imeem, and yes, Mixed Media Labs. We had been hearing for weeks that PicPlz was being shopped around for potential cash deals as Mixed Media Labs sought to focus on what’s next. But ultimately, they decided to simply spin off PicPlz as a separate company while maintaining some ownership.

Reached for comment, Caldwell confirmed the PicPlz spin-off, but declined to discuss the deal further beyond expressing his excitement about what his team is working on next.

So what is Mixed Media Labs working on next? All we know for sure is that it’s inline with the initial goal of a broad idea in the app space. Specifically, we’ve also heard that there will be a strong focus on a business model from day one, unlike PicPlz.

Meanwhile, PicPlz will live on as a service, but Caldwell and the rest of the Mixed Media Labs team will not be involved any more.

The move away from PicPlz comes at an interesting time in the mobile photo sharing space. While Instagram continues to gain users rapidly, other players like Path and Color have been preparing other products as well. Path recently launched their first “joint” — hipster/Dr. Dre lingo for “side project” — With. Color Labs, meanwhile, is said to be preparing an entirely new app after Color failed to catch on in the way they had hoped.

Epic Gif: The Facebook Google+ Slapfest

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 04:32 PM PDT

Oh, I could just watch this all day. We’ve been writing about the growing rivalry between Facebook and Google, with its new Google+ social network. But here you have it in gif form, with the Facebook and Google+ favicons superimposed on the dwarf from Game of Thrones (Google+) slapping the child-king (Facebook) over and over again. I am not sure why Google+ is a dwarf, but it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching.

It kind if sums up visually the whole fight between the two companies. Don’t you think?

And where did I find this? On Google+ of course. It was created by graphic designer Ala’a Assamawy . Well played, sir. A meme is born.

YC-Funded Quartzy Reduces Entropy In Science Lab Supply Cabinets

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 03:43 PM PDT

When we think of scientists, we often picture distinguished researchers in white coats, methodically conducting experiments in labs that run like well-oiled machines.

Unfortunately things are usually less glamorous. Science labs have a lot going on, and while they’re generally very focused on making sure safety protocols are followed and contamination is minimized, there are some things that are a little less organized. Like ordering supplies — oftentimes reagents are either ordered in excess (resulting in waste) or forgotten about until they’re needed (resulting in delays).

Quartzy, a startup that’s part of the most recent Y Combinator batch, is setting out to fix that problem. The company launched around 18 months ago and has 4,500 scientists worldwide using the service — and there are plenty more who could use help keeping their supplies in check, many of whom are spending thousands of dollars on supplies every year.

At first glance, the service seems a bit like a science social network. You sign in and create a profile, then link up with your coworkers and other colleagues. But founder Adam Regelmann explains that the site isn’t really about connecting with your colleagues in a social sense — rather, it’s about keeping track of which supplies your lab has in stock, and what needs to be ordered . He adds that it’s a problem he’s faced himself as a MD and PhD from Columbia, which is when he had the idea for the company.

Anyone in your lab can log in to see the current inventory status, which helps make sure that they don’t place order requests for things that they don’t need. The site also lists expiration dates, which is important for reagents that only last for a relatively brief amount of time (like some enzymes).

Inputting the inventory information into the system is something each lab will need to do themselves — there’s currently no direct integration with vendors, so your inventory won’t automatically be updated each time you order more supplies. Regelmann says this is partially because the industry is very fragmented, so labs are oftentimes ordering their supplies from many different vendors (some of which use arcane technology) which makes integrations difficult. Update: Regelmann adds that while the service doesn’t tie in directly with these vendors, Quartzy does allow labs to upload their existing inventory Excel spreadsheets to quickly get their labs up and running on the service. And Quartzy also includes online versions of each supplier catalog, so you can quickly add supplies to your database by keying in vendor names and catalog numbers — the system will automatically populate the rest of the information.

Quartzy does more than keep track of your lab supplies. It’s also building out a review database for supplies commonly used in laboratories (you can rate how effective a given enzyme was, for example). At this point the database is fairly small, with around 1,000 reviews, but it’s an idea that has potential.

Also very cool: Quartzy has a feature that’s the scientist equivalent of asking your neighbor for a cup of sugar. It’s quite common in scientific communities for researchers to ask friends and colleagues in other, nearby laboratories for a certain reagent that they only need a small amount of (Regelmann says he’d get five or so such requests per week during his research days).

Quartzy helps with this by letting users run a proximity-based query that lets them see if anyone in their city happens to have what they need. And it’s smart about doing this — any results you see will be anonymized. You can send a message to the anonymous researcher and ask if they can spare a dash of whatever you need (they’ll be able to see who you are), and if they’re interested they’ll respond.

So how does Quartzy make money? So far Regelmann says that the company is focused entirely on growth. Down the line it will let science supply vendors purchase advertising on the site, giving a very targeted channel directed toward a group of people who are typically hard to reach (he explains that many vendors often have time informing scientists about new products). And scientists will get exposed to new products they might not have otherwise known about, so it stands to be a win-win situation.

Quartzy’s team currently includes three programmers in addition to founders Regelmann and  Jayant Kulkarni.

BioLite Stove Charges Your Phone While Cooking Your Dinner

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 03:29 PM PDT

Wood-burning stoves aren’t known for being particularly efficient, and their smoke not only contains high carbon emissions but causes health risks to those who inhale it. A portable design from BioLite aims to tackle this problem and turn the stove into a cell phone charger in the process.

The stove converts heat energy into electricity, powering a small fan to improve the wood’s combustion. Beyond this, one to two watts are available to charge a cell phone or LED light via a USB port.

The company sees two markets for their stove: Families in developing countries, and avid backpackers and campers. BioLite will release the CampStove version first, in spring of 2012. They hope profits from this product will help subsidize the cost of the HomeStove model for families in developing countries.

BioLite claims to require half the amount of wood as an open fire and to cut smoke emissions by as much as 95%. Because billions of people depend on wood as cooking fuel, the stove has potential to improve health and, perhaps, slightly curb deforestation.

The CampStove model weighs just under two pounds and boils a liter of water in less than four minutes. A variety of materials can be used to power it, including sticks, pine cones, dung, rice husks and underbrush. This could be convenient for campers tired of carrying cans of gas or petroleum to power their stoves.

BioLite has already won awards for its designs, including the St. Andrews Prize for the Environment and first place in the 2010 Sustainable Brands Innovation Open.

BioLite’s COO Jonathan den Hartog explains how the stove works:

Here’s the CampStove in action:

Google To Buy Mobile Loyalty Card Startup Punchd

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 02:15 PM PDT

We’ve just gotten word that that Google plans on acquiring digital loyalty card service Punchd. The team, which consists of developers Reed Morse, Xander Pollock and Niket Desai (and formerly Grantland Chew), will most likely still be working on Punchd within Google according to our source. While our original source pegged the deal at a low seven figures, a second source pegged the acquisition price at more than $10 million.

Punchd, which is basically the digital equivalent of the "Buy 10 Get One Free Card" offered by coffee shops and supermarkets, is part of Dave McClure's first 500 Startups brood. The acquisition makes complete sense for Google considering how much the NFC and deals space is heating up and the recent Google Wallet announcement.

It’s been a great week for 500 Startups, which has now sold a company to Twitter (BackType), LinkedIn (CardMunch) and Google. Punchd itself actually made our list of  "The Seven Most Interesting Startups At 500 Startups Demo Day" back in April (Guess Google agreed).

Fun fact: The company were accepted to the 500 Startups brood of “little monsters” after they "Iced" McClure.

Update: Punchd denies that it’s been acquired.

Alexia Tsotsis
@ Yup. Pay close attention to the words "To Buy" in my headline. cc: @ @

Esther Dyson On The Future Of Space Travel: We Are Only At “The End Of The Beginning”

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 02:10 PM PDT

Today might have marked the last Space Shuttle launch, but it is not the end of people going into space. In fact, technologist, angel investor, and space privatization advocate Esther Dyson says it’s only “the end of the beginning” and that private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Xcor will fill in the gap.

I spoke with Dyson yesterday at our TCTV studios in New York City (when it was still unclear if a weather delay would prevent a launch). You can watch the video above.

Dyson has a lifelong love for space. Her father, the physicist Freeman Dyson, led a project at Los Alamos in the late-1950s to design a nuclear-powered spacecraft called the Orion Project. Today, she is an investor in Xcor and Space Adventures, as well as the more earthly Airship Ventures and Icon Aircarft. She recently completed six months cosmonaut training in Star City, Russia and is ready to go to space if she can catch a ride.

Of course we’ve seen space startups come and go before. But Dyson points out that this generation of startup entrepreneurs like Bezos, Musk, and Richard Branson are a lot richer, a lot more patient, and that now there is actually a need for them. “This time it’s different because these guys are credible,” she argues, “and they started out with billions, not millions.”

On Musk’s SpaceX rocket, she predicts, “it will be human-rated in a few years.” Until then, it’s Russian rockets that will take people to the Space Station. (Who was it who won the space race again?)

Verbling Links Up Language Learners With Native Speakers Through Live Video Chat

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 02:09 PM PDT

It’s a well known fact that people improve foreign language skills when interacting and communicating with other people who speak the same foreign language. Y Combinator-backed Verbling is launching today as a easy to use online conversation exchange for language learners, leveraging in-browser video chat.

The site allows you to sign up and choose the language you want to learn. Since the site doesn’t have a massive userbase just yet, Verbling hosts sessions as specific times daily (12 pm PT and 7 pm PT) where people can show up and chat with each other. Once you join the site during a session time, you are automatically paired with a language speaker who is fluent in the language you wish to learn. The site encourages users to talk to a number of different speakers within each session.

So if you speak French and want to learn English, you’ll be paired up with a native English speaker who wants to learn French. You start in one language and halfway through the video session, a timer tells you when to switch to the other. Speakers are also matched by their language levels, and to aid in the conversation, Verbling will suggest topics according to the ability of the participants, such as “What chores are you responsible for in your home” or “what kind of music do you listen to?”

The chats are conducted via video chat, but the startup doesn’t seem to be too worried about any Chatroulette-like issues because everyone has to register with their name and other personal info to use the service. Currently, Verbling is using Flash for the video streaming itself, but the startup has built significant infrastructure around the player to ensure that the audio video quality is as good as possible, even when faced with varying internet connection quality.

The site soft launched this past week and already has 1,500 signups. So far, native Spanish speakers who are looking to learn English have dominated the sign-ups.

There are a number of startups competing in the online language learning space including Live Mocha, Busuu, and Voxy. But crowdsourcing and matching people up based on their skill level and interest makes sense in terms of adding another layer to language education.

LinkedIn Surpasses Myspace For U.S. Visitors To Become No. 2 Social Network; Twitter Not Far Behind

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 01:30 PM PDT

Professional social network Linkedin surpassed Myspace in terms of traffic to become the No. 2 most visited social networking site in the U.S. in June. LinkedIn, which has seen a resurgence of traffic after its IPO in May, reached an all-time high of 33.9 million unique visitors in June compared to Myspace, which saw 33.5 million unique visitors (that’s down from 34.9 million in May). Hopefully Myspace’s new owners can recharge the troubled social network.

Twitter posted record U.S. traffic, with June as the first month the site saw over 30 million unique visitors. had 30.6 million unique visitors in June, compared to 27 million unique vistors in May. The increase in traffic is actually a big win for Twitter, which splits traffic between its own mobile clients and the many third-party clients that are used to access the network.

Facebook also reached an all-time high in terms of U.S. traffic in June, according to newly released comScore data. In June, Facebook saw 160.8 million unique vistors in the U.S., which is up from 157.2 million uniques in May. The company also announced that it crossed the 750 million active users mark worldwide in June as well.

Tumblr saw 11.8 million unique visitors in June, up from 10.7 million unique visitors in May. In June, we reported that Tumblr was seeing around 400 million pageviews per day, thanks in part to international growth and faster response times.

Feast Your Eyes On Recipe Curation Site Gojee

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 01:17 PM PDT

There’s no shortage of food recipe sites on the web for virtually any kind of food. In fact, trying to find a recipe online can be overwhelming with all of the options available. Enter recently launched foodie favorite Gojee, which curates recipes from food bloggers around the web in a visually beautiful way.

On Gojee, you can search for recipes by ingredient, either via ‘cravings’ or by one ingredient you have in your pantry. You can also input your dislikes or allergies and Gojee will make sure to surface recipes without these ingredients. So say I had leftover snowpeas in my pantry, I can enter that query and Gojee will show me all the recipes that include that ingredient from the many food blogs it curates data from. The site presents a beautiful image of the food along with a list of what else is included in the dish, a short description of the dish, and a link to the full recipe on the food blog. You can also star the recipe to save it to your favorites.

Besides the fact that all the recipes look absolutely delicious, one of the things that makes Gojee compelling is the photography and imagery that accompanies each recipe. These photos, which are taken by the food bloggers themselves, make you want to eat and create each dish. The startup has even caught the eye of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson.

Gojee is also attempting to make your life easier by allowing you to import your rewards card info from your grocery store of choice, and the site will give you recipes based on the items you have purchased. Unfortunately, the feature is only integrated with New York grocery store chain D’Agostino but the startup hopes to add more stores in the near future.

The end goal for Gojee, says founder Michael Lavalle, is to offer a more curated, personalized experience for finding recipes on the web. Currently the site has under 50,000 recipes, but is focused on adding quality recipes vs. quantity.

Heads Up! TechCrunch Will Look A Little Different Next Week

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 12:00 PM PDT

Next week we’ll be rolling out significant enhancements to TechCrunch. A new design and a new logo will be the first thing you’ll notice. But behind the scenes we’ve made significant changes to the other end of TechCrunch as well – the admin system that we spend all day typing into. We are particularly focused on speed and efficiency. Pages should load much more quickly now than they have, and content should be much easier for our writers to create and publish.

We’re also going to fold some of our sister sites into TechCrunch. CrunchGear, MobileCrunch, and TechCrunch IT will all be under the TechCrunch domain. The old URLs will redirect, and readers will be able to see the content from those same writers via filters and topics on TechCrunch. TechCrunch EU, TechCrunch France and TechCrunch Japan will remain separate sites on the domain.

This has been a big project. We began last summer before the AOL acquisition. After the acquisition Dave Feldman, Director Consumer Experience at AOL, took over and brought in additional resources.

The team Dave put together involved people across AOL. Dave, Vice President Consumer Experience Matte Scheinker, Kiersten Hollars and Jason Tusman are from Brad Garlinghouse’s west coast operation. The core dev team, who all report in to Paul Berry from the Huffington Post, include Stephen Rouse, Nate Eagle, Andrew Vayanis, Ramesh Kumar, Dave Artz and Andrea Doyle. The TechCrunch dev staff also participated – Vineet Thanedar, Rob Saurini, and Anthony Nguyen. And we’re thankful to expert WordPress contractors Stresslimit and 10up, and to design agency Code And Theory.

We’ve also gotten a lot of help from WordPress VIP as well. And we’ve decided to remain on the WordPress platform for now. They’ve been excellent partners to us over the years.

When the new site launches we’ll write a new post from Dave Feldman detailing the changes you’ll see. Feldman has been hard at work finalizing the project – he even spent six hours in the emergency room this week after taking a surfboard to the face (his own, funny story). He spent four of those hours, he tells me, fixing bugs on UCSF’s WiFi.

This is the fourth time we’ve redesigned TechCrunch since launching in 2005. You can see some of the earlier versions here – 2005, 2006 and 2008.

Excited about Zynga’s IPO? Get Ready for Korea’s Nexon

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 11:35 AM PDT

Silicon Valley loves to dismiss Asian companies as nothing more than copycats who thrive, particularly in China, because the government protects them and punishes Western competitors. Even when the businesses in question are dramatically different in practice and scale, they are described as the “eBay of China”, “The Google of China” and “the YouTube of China,” not Alibaba, Baidu and YouKu. I’ve argued why this is mostly nonsense before.

But the starkest argument that Asia does indeed innovate may be found in the world of free-to-play games and virtual goods. This is a new market we’re in a lather about here with the impending $1 billion IPO of Zynga, but one that is much larger and more than ten years old in Asia.

And one of the industry’s pioneers, Nexon, is also said to be readying itself for an IPO. Nexon was started in Korea, but more recently moved its headquarters to Tokyo. And get this: It has higher revenues, far better margins and dramatically better user engagement statistics than Zynga, even if most average Western investors have never heard of it. No big deal, because it’s likely to file somewhere in Asia according to sources familiar with the matter, not on the NYSE or the Nasdaq. And in Korea, China and Japan, Nexon most definitely doesn’t have the problem of being unknown.

Nexon is a 17-year-old company with 1.14 billion cumulative registered users and 3000 employees. In 2009, it reported revenues of $643 million– just north of Zynga’s 2010 revenues. And we hear from people close to the company, Nexon has been growing revenues at about 30% per year for the last five years. That would put 2010 revenues around $900 million, and revenues in 2011 on pace to comfortably break $1 billion. That’s impressive growth considering Nexon’s size, age and penetration in its home market, and it means Nexon’s revenue-per-employee is almost double Zynga’s.

What’s more: Nexon’s margins are far better than Zynga’s because they don’t have to pay the 30% Facebook Credits fee on purchases. Our source says the margins are in the range of their largest competitor, Chinese juggernaut Tencent which had 50% margins in 2010. Increased tax and marketing expenses caused margins to fall to 46.3% in its March 2011 earnings report. Still, for what’s essentially a media business, those margins are pretty enviable.

And like Tencent, Nexon is starting to eye North America and Western Europe for growth. Nexon’s biggest market is in Korea, closely followed by its business in China. But its fastest growing market is North America. Nexon is growing more than 50% a year here, albeit off a pretty small base. Nine days ago it launched a private beta on its first Facebook game, a version of its popular MapleStory Adventures. (Featuring that world-weary pig above.) Some 31,000 players have “purchased” 363,000 items over that period. Purchase is in quote marks because the company isn’t actually using Facebook Credits during the beta period, so the purchases are being made from game play points. Actual monetary purchases will almost certainly be less. Still, it gives you an idea of the engagement going on. The game opens to the public July 27.

Recently I talked to Nexon CFO Owen Mahoney about the North America strategy. He wouldn’t comment- or even hint about- the IPO speculation, Nexon’s revenues, growth or margins, but he had some interesting color on Nexon’s push into the US. The driver isn’t so much Zynga’s success, although the company has done an exemplary job of evangelizing the free-to-play, virtual goods model. The biggest driver is that North America and Western Europe are finally reaching critical mass of broadband needed to support Nexon’s traditional graphics-rich games. Yep, when you are a Korean-born gaming company, we are considered an infrastructure and technology backwater that’s just now starting to look interesting.

For the last few years that Mahoney has been working between the US and Asia, it’s been a surreal experience, with the US considering virtual goods an absurd business model, and Asia considering console games selling in boxes on store shelves just as absurd. The journey has been all the more surreal, because Mahoney spent nine years as an executive at EA.

There’s no dying EA equivalent in Asia, because that model was largely leap-frogged over a decade ago as companies like Tencent, Nexon, Shanda, Giant and others started to soar on the free-to-play model. Even subscription-based gaming models have long been out of vogue. “For two years we couldn’t talk to anyone in North America about microtransactions. It was this weird disconnect because Asian markets couldn’t understand why you would ever go to BestBuy and buy a box. It seemed insane. That’s much less the case now,” Mahoney says.

That disconnect is core to how the social Web and the Web in general has evolved in Asia. In the US, the Internet started with email, commerce, transactions and finding information. It was all about convenience and efficiency, and it’s only in the last five-to-ten years that entertainment-for-entertainment-sake has started to become a huge business online. In Asia, it’s largely the opposite. Put another way, social networks emerged because of gaming in Asia, not as an after-thought add on. And that’s benefitted the big Asian game makers who don’t have to pay the 30% customer acquisition costs to a platform like Facebook or Apple. (Although clearly, Nexon is swallowing those terms to expand more broadly in the US.)

The Nexon game and type of gamer is still pretty distinct from Zynga’s casual Farmville farmer. While Zynga excels at games that continually rope you in for short periods of time and develop new versions of its games to keep people engaged, the life of a Nexon gamer playing a single game is measured in long sessions over months and years. A whopping one-third of its users have played for three years or more and play for tens of hours a month. So you could argue just as big Chinese Web 1.0 giants were never true copy-cats of Valley companies, so too has Zynga iterated and “localized” the free-to-play model.

Of course since Asian gaming companies have the five-to-ten year headstart, it’s their turn to be the giant foreign Web company tapping a new market– in this case, the US. In addition to Nexon, Tencent has been wading in as quietly as it can, doing one big acquisition of Riot Games in February and dozens of smaller, unreported acquisitions over the last year or more. It’ll be interesting to watch whether the Asian Web companies coming to the US have a better track record than we had going to Asia.

(Expect this to be a big topic at our Disrupt Beijing conference this fall. Tickets and more details will be available on TechCrunch soon.)

Zynga Buys Canadian Mobile App Development Firm Five Mobile; Opens Toronto Studio

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 11:00 AM PDT

Zynga has made its 15th acquisition in 13 months today, with the purchase of Canadian mobile app development firm Five Mobile. Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed and the Five Mobile team will now become Zynga Toronto.

Five Mobile is a mobile application development company that specializes in multi-platform development across various smartphone platforms. The team has worked with some of the largest media and technology companies, including Disney, Sony Pictures, AT&T, Bump, Flurry and RIM, in North America to develop branded, interactive mobile apps for a number of platforms.

The startup’s founders, who all came from Tira Wireless, include Ameet Shah, Jeff Zakrzewski, Oliver Tabay, and Troy Hubman. All the founders are joining Zynga Toronto and Shah will head up the Zynga Toronto studio, reporting to Zynga’s mobile head David Ko.

Mobile is a big part of future strategy for Zynga and it’s not surprising that the social gaming giant is building out and staffing up its mobile team. The company just launched a mobile version of CityVille for iOS, and debuted another iOS game last month, Hanging With Friends. Plus, Zynga landed a marketing deal with AT&T to bring bring customized games and content to the carrier's customers.

Zynga’s past acquisitions in 2011 include DNA Games, the team behind cocos2d, Wonderland, JamLegend, MarketZero, Floodgate, social browser Flock, and New York’s Area/Code.

Mobile First Speaker LineUp: Joe Hewitt, Omar Hamoui, Kevin Systrom, And More

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 10:54 AM PDT

Update: The tickets are now sold out. Stay tuned for more next week.

At the end of this month, we are putting on a Mobile First CrunchUp, which will focus on the increasingly popular strategy of creating a mobile product first, and a regular Web product second, if ever. Mobile is just a more interesting part of the Web right now for many reasons—iPhone/Android, tablets, location-aware apps, cell phone cameras, GPS.

People are so interested in this topic that tickets sold out before I even announced any speakers. Well, if you bought a ticket, you won’t be sorry because the speakers are awesome. Joe Hewitt, the former Facebook engineer who created its iPhone app—one of the most downloaded of all time—and then left Facebook to pursue a more native HTML5 approach to creating mobile apps, will talk about native versus mobile Web apps. Omar Hamoui, the founder of Admob, which he sold to Google for $750 million, is now doing Churn Labs, which churns our one mobile project after another. He was doing mobile first before it was cool. Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom built the most popular photo-sharing app with hardly a Web presence at all. Other speakers will include Soundtracking’s Steve Jang, Tango’s Eric Setton, Foursquare’s Tristan Walker, Kleiner Perkins’ Chi-Hua Chien, and August Capital’s Howard Hartenbaum.

If you didn’t get a ticket, don’t worry. We’ll be livestreaming the event right here on July 29. The Mobile First Crunchup will precede our annual summer party at August Capital.  There are still tickets for just the party, and we are releasing another batch of 100 tickets right now.

Below is the line-up of confirmed speakers so far (we’ll be adding a few more). And if you have a great mobile product that you want to launch for the first time at the event, contact me.


Chi-Hua Chien, partner Kleiner Perkins
Omar Hamoui, Churn Labs
Howard Hartenbaum, partner August Capital
Joe Hewitt, software engineer
Steve Jang, CEO Schematic Labs/Soundtracking
Eric Setton, co-founder Tango
Kevin Systrom, CEO Instagram
Tristan Walker, director business development, Foursquare

The combined CrunchUp – Summer Party also gives us a great sponsorship platform for start-ups and brands to reach both conference and networking attendees. Please contact Jeanne Logozzoor Heather Harde to learn more about sponsorship packages and custom opportunities.

TechCrunch Giveaway: Tickets to Outside Lands Festival And Summer Party #SongkickApp

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 10:19 AM PDT

The San Francisco Outside Lands Festival is one of the biggest music, food, wine, and art events of the year. Musicians like Phish, Muse, Arcade Fire, MGMT, The Shins, and many more will be performing over the course of three days. You can take a look at the lineup of musicians here. The festival is taking place in Golden Gate Park on August 12th through the 14th. Thanks to Songkick, we have two tickets to give away. There will be two winners and both will win a ticket to the San Francisco Outside Lands Festival, plus a ticket to our 6th annual summer party at August Capital on July 29th. If you want a chance at winning these tickets, all you have to do is follow the steps below.

1) Become a fan of our TechCrunch Facebook Page:

2) Download the Songkick mobile app from the App store (using your iPhone, iPad, or iPod)

3) Then do the following:

  • Retweet this post (making sure to include the #SongkickApp hashtag)
  • Tell us one of your favorite summer memories

The contest starts now and ends July 10th at 7:30pm PT.

Please only tweet the message once or you will be disqualified. We will choose at random and contact the winner with more details. Anyone in the world is eligible. Please note that this does not include airfare or hotel.

Good luck!

iOS 5 Beta Reportedly Sets One Developer’s iPhone Cable On Fire

Posted: 08 Jul 2011 10:14 AM PDT

Oh, the many woes of being an early adopter in the Beta software world. The software might crash, causing you to lose all your work! It may have gaping security issues, leaving an entry way for malicious misdoers! It may start your stuff on fire! Wait, what?

According to developer Gus Pinto (who sum ups his life in under 140 characters as “Pioneering Mac Desktop Virtualization. iOS, Mac & Android Development”), that last bit is exactly what happened to his iPhone 4 running a Developer Beta build of iOS 5.

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