Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Latest from TechCrunch

The Latest from TechCrunch

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A Tale Of Two Countries: The Growing Divide Between Silicon Valley And Unemployed America

Posted: 16 Jul 2011 08:46 AM PDT

Editor's note: Guest contributor Jon Bischke is a founder of RG Labs and an advisor to Altius EducationFatminds and Udemy. You can follow him @jonbischke.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. 

-Charles Dickens from A Tale of Two Cities

For people who spend most of their days within a few blocks of tech start-up epicenters such as South Park in San Francisco, University Avenue in Palo Alto or the Flatiron district in New York, last week's jobs report must have created some cognitive dissonance. After all, we're in a boom/bubble right? It's really hard to hire good people isn't it? But take a moment to step outside the world of high technology and a dramatically different picture emerges of what's going on in America.

The number of unemployed now eclipses 14 million nationwide. Underemployment is scary too with U-6, the government's official measure of under-utilization,rising to 16.2% in June from 15.8% in May. But the worst number of them all might be mean duration of employment (the length of time that the average unemployed person has been out of work) which has spiked to 40 weeks. As a Wall Street Journal article this week pointed out, if you factored in those who've dropped out of the labor market (and therefore aren't counted in unemployment numbers), the situation would appear even worse.

Which bring us to an important question: Should Silicon Valley (and other tech clusters throughout the country) care? After all, as long as people in Nebraska or the Central Valley of California have enough money to buy virtual tractors to tend their crops in Farmville, should the tech community be worried about whether those same people are getting paid to do work in the real world? Is what's best for Silicon Valley also good for America?

On one hand, a thriving tech sector is a beacon of hope for America and perhaps one of a shrinking number of things keeping the country from slipping from its perch as the world’s foremost economic superpower. Fast-growth companies like Facebook, Groupon and Twitter create jobs, attract foreign investment (see Sarah Lacy's article "How We All Missed Web 2.0′s "Netscape Moment") and generate tremendous amounts of wealth for employees and shareholders which circulates throughout the economy.

In addition, a host of technology companies enable people around the country to make money. Etsy empowers people anywhere to make money selling handmade goods. AirBnB allows anyone with a house or apartment to make money renting it out. And whether you’re talking about design communities like 99designs, crowdsourcing platforms like CrowdFlower, outsourcing sites like oDesk or an artisan food marketplace like Foodzie, tech-enabled marketplaces allow millions of dollars to flow from consumers to producers every year. (Check out Semil Shah's article "The P2P Evolution" for more great examples of this in action.)

Furthermore, tech companies are helping to reshape how people train for and ultimately find employment. It’s easier than ever to pick up new skills online with the explosion in blogs, tutorials, screencasts and online video. For a self-motivated individual of at least average intelligence there is a shrinking number of excuses for not possessing in-demand skills. And jobs and recruiting platforms like BranchoutJobvite, LinkedIn and certainly help job seekers to smooth the path to employment.

But there’s a flip side to the argument that this technological innovation is good for the country. Books like A Whole New Mind,  The Great Stagnation and The Lights in the Tunnel make arguments that automation and outsourcing are increasingly pushing jobs outside the country and in many cases, doing away with them altogether (you did see that crazy video of the warehouses didn’t you?). The rate of increasing technological innovation certainly produces new jobs but does it produce jobs at a rate great enough to replace those it might be eliminating?

In a similar vein, many of the companies in Silicon Valley are succeeding precisely because they’re disrupting existing players in their industries. Amazon is doing really well right now (almost $10 billion in revenue in the last quarter alone). Borders…not so much. Go iTunes and Spotify. RIP Tower Records. Creative destruction is alive and well but how many people in Silicon Valley are thinking about what happens to that displaced worker at the record store or bookstore?

Maybe something is missing in the Valley and surrounding tech communities and that’s a stronger sense of responsibility to make sure that the vast majority of the country isn’t left behind by all this cool technology that we’re building. In Paul Graham’s essay Great Hackers he points out that the more sophisticated tools become, the greater variation there is in productivity. He writes:

In a low-tech society you don’t see much variation in productivity. If you have a tribe of nomads collecting sticks for a fire, how much more productive is the best stick gatherer going to be than the worst? A factor of two? Whereas when you hand people a complex tool like a computer, the variation in what they can do with it is enormous.

If accumulation of wealth correlates with productivity then, in Graham's view, increasing variation of wealth might actually be a sign of good things. But could this increase in variation lead to the creation of two almost completely distinct countries in America, one which continues to boom and create enormous wealth for those who reside in it and another for which long-term unemployment and underemployment and the corresponding frustration that accompanies those states becomes the norm?

Megan McArdle wrote a poignant article entitled "Why Unemployment Matters" in last week's Atlantic where she detailed some of the crushing residual effects of being out of work. It's worth reading and asking the questions: Can we be doing more about this? Should we even be doing anything about it? The answers to these questions matter a lot.  Please share your thoughts in comments.

Image via Getty

A Groupon For Solar? Solar@Work Offers Buildings Discounts For Going Green Together

Posted: 16 Jul 2011 06:21 AM PDT

Group buying is moving into the commercial clean energy space thanks to Solar@Work, a program designed by San Francisco’s Department of the Environment to make solar panels more affordable for business owners. Businesses have three options for acquiring solar panels through the program: Purchasing, leasing, and securing a loan. A federal grant covering 30% of installation costs is also on offer.

Solar@Work hopes to sign on at least 20 building owners in the San Francisco area by the end of the year, which could translate to as much as 2 megawatts of solar power.

While the program is innovative in simplifying solar for commercial buildings, it is not the first to harness group buying power for solar. 1Bog has a similar model for home-based solar installations, and SolarMosaic provides a crowdfunding platform for bringing solar to community buildings such as schools and churches.

The group buying model could discount the panels by 10-15% and reduce the cost of administrative fees by as much as 75%. That doesn’t sound like a steal by consumer group buying standards, but given the price tag on solar panels, it could add up to significant savings. The city says the high upfront cost of solar is the main barrier to entry into solar for most commercial property owners.

San Mateo’s SolarCity won the bid to provide the panels, and participating businesses are expected to pay less for solar than what they pay for power from the grid. Currently, commercial buildings fewer than four stories are eligible to participate in the program. If the pilot is successful, it could be expanded to other parts of the country, or even globally.

Photo by Living Off Grid

Applifier Hits 100 Million Installs, Brings Social Game Discovery Bar To Mobile

Posted: 15 Jul 2011 11:50 PM PDT

Applifier, the cross-promotional network of social game publishers, announced today that it has delivered over 100 million game installs for free on Facebook. Launched in 2010, Applifier set out on a mission to help game publishers find new users and get their games discovered on the social network, and has since grown like a weed. Now connecting over 800 games, Applifier gives publishers the tools to promote their games across their network of over 150 million monthly active users, via bookmarks and retargeting, and “featured spots”.

Of course, the best part about Applifier is that developers don’t pay anything to use the service, they can take advantage of the startup’s paid user acquisition campaigns simply by adding 5 lines of HTML to their Facebook pages or browser game.

Just as it is on the Web, the mobile game space is becoming crowded with games, and gamers are always looking for new games to whet their appetite, so today Applifier launched a cross-promotion solution for iOS. Android is set drop later this summer. Like its web version, Applifier Mobile is free. The mobile version will display recommended games on its bar, where users can click to get more information on the game or scroll to view other games.

It’s a great way for gamers to find new games and for publishers to have a way for their games to be discovered in the crowded sea of social games. It’s a similar model to the App Store’s “Featured Apps”, which is really one of the few options app developers have in the attempt to get their apps discovered on iOS, besides spending tons of cash on marketing and publicity. Smaller game makers don’t have access to those kinds of funds, and so Applifier’s free-to-use platform offers a great alternative.

As Apple recently banned the pay-per-install incentivized apps from the App Store, the fact that Applifier doesn’t pay its users to try out a new game is another leg up. While that may be disappointing for some gamers, it keeps things honest. After all, the company just wants gamers to have another way to find new games that they would enjoy playing. And help the people who make those games find them. “Our value proposition for the players is simple: Hey, you like games. How about some more?” said Applifier CEO Jussi Laakkonen.

Back in January, Applifier raised $2 million for its cross-promotional platform, which it has used to help launch its new mobile outfit and help independent game makers compete against Zynga and its cross-promotional tools. It’s been an uphill battle, but with over 150 monthly active users, 100 million installs, and 800 games, it seems to be working.

For more, check out Dean Takahashi’s early review of the service.

Google+ Ad On Facebook Is Banned

Posted: 15 Jul 2011 11:31 PM PDT

What happens on Google+, stays on Google+. At least that’s the way Facebook would like to see things. Web developer Michael Lee Johnson found that out the hard way. He was trolling for Google+ friends on Facebook by running a Facebook ad asking people to add him to their Circles on Google+. Facebook, apparently, did not like him using its site to build his own social network somewhere else. So it pulled his ads.

He writes on Google+:

I recently ran a Google+ advertisement on Facebook that got all of my campaigns suspended. – Great.

Yeah, Facebook frowns on people promoting competing products with Facebook ads. It’s even in its Terms of Service. But seriously, where else is he going to find friends for Google+?

Trimit Summarizes Emails, Blog Posts, And More With A Shake Of Your iPhone

Posted: 15 Jul 2011 07:46 PM PDT

Attention spans are short these days, and some might even say the Web isn’t helping this phenomenon. Regardless, time is money, and people are ever-looking for more useful ways to maximize what time they have. Many have little tolerance (or time) for long-form digital content, and we’re seeing the proliferation of the “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read) mentality as it sweeps the Internet nation. And, for those addicted to Twitter, content that comes in 140 character chunks is the norm, if not the preferred way, to express something shorthand. (Other than emoticons, of course.)

Enter the Trimit time-saver. Trimit is a 0.99-cent app for iOS that allows you to condense content into 1,000, 500, or 140-character summaries. Essentially, Trimit is a text auto summarizer designed to fit all those things you’re reading on a mobile device into concise synopses and share those over SMS, email, Facebook, Twitter in .txt form — all with a few clicks.

And this is pretty nifty feature: Trimit can summarize your text just by shaking your device — like the opposite of mobile Boggle. No longer will your friends have to scan through your wordy Facebook status updates about your cats; just shake your phone to condense all those emotions into 140 characters. Apparently Apple likes the idea, too, as it just featured Trimit in the app store and mentioned it on Twitter.

Today, Trimit gave TechCrunch a little piece of exclusive news, announcing a bookmarklet for the Web, (which is currently in beta and will be available for download within the week) so that you can get all the benefits of the app on your browser, too. For both web and mobile, text can be directly imported from any URL right from within the app using Trimit’s HTML parsing secret sauce.

The bookmarklet has many of the same sharing features as mobile, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, as well as URL sharing with a shorter summary to Delicious, Digg, Stumbleupon, Reddit, and more. You can print and save as a .txt file, sync with your computer, and import files from other devices to get at that summarizin’.

Trimit Founder Nick D’Aloisio, a 15-year-old Australian transplanted to London, said that he, like me, can sometimes be a bit of a waffler, which is where the inspiration for Trimit comes from. And now, through his team’s app and bookmarklet, he’s bringing pithiness to articles and blogs, to email, text, and Tweet composition, and to the transferral of desktop documents to mobile. (Trimit would have been a huge help for those poor souls who had to read my thesis in college.)

In the spirit of text summarizing, I should cut it off here. But readers may be curious as to how the auto summary works, and to that end, whether it works well or not. D’Aloisio was willing to share some of the juice behind the app, so here’s a peek. If you’re a words dork like myself, you may just like this.

The algorithm uses a process of “extraction” to create a summary of the text to one of the three specified lengths. Without completely revealing the secret sauce, the algorithm scans the text using a precise keyword search to find prominent topics within its content. It disregards general words and fillers, like articles and linking words (“but”, “and”, “when”) and gives words and phrases that are signals of importance, like time and/or place adverbials (the where’s and when’s, like “in California”, for example) greater weight.

Trimit also uses what is called “verb stemming”, which allow particular verbs in different conjugations to still be counted by the algorithm, like “speak” versus “spoke”, for example. This makes sure that past conjugations stay that way and don’t somehow pop into the future tense. The algorithm counts the occurrence of key phrases as well, taking into account the position of those phrases in the passage, so that they remain in order when summarizing.

And though linking words are often dismissed, contradictory conjunctions like “however” are given more weight because they often are included in overviews, just as facts, figures and quotes are valued higher as well. As you may have guessed, it all works on a points-based ranking system, and the words and phrases that are ranked highest, show up in the summary.

I’ll leave it at that, but you can learn more about Trimit in the video below. The Trimit team is currently in the process of raising a seed round.

… On Twitter

Posted: 15 Jul 2011 05:53 PM PDT

Philosophically there is no more arbitrary milestone than the passage of time, each year we celebrate the passing of another year, see what I mean? That’s why Twitter's second five-year anniversary milestones of 350 billion tweets delivered and 600K users signing up daily fall a little flat (Twitter celebrated its first five year anniversary — commemorating when the first tweets were sent — back in March). The torrent of tech announcement posts about INSERT COMPANY HERE hitting 100K users or downloads or "shares" or tiddlywinks or badges is perpetual enough that all tech news sort of blends into a river of user numbers and APPLE VS. GOOGLE VS. TWITTER. Sigh.

It is amazing to think that Twitter launched publicly five years ago today. When Mike Arrington first wrote, “Odeo releases Twitter” in 2006 he had no idea that one day the TechCrunch Twitter account would be nearing a 2 million-follower distribution channel and that he himself would reach 82K. Very few would have predicted that the SMS notifications system with no vowel in its name would turn into a seven billion dollar company employing 500 people. "If this was a new startup, a one or two person shop, I'd give it a thumbs up for innovation and good execution on a simple but viral idea," Mike wrote at the time.

Mike's Twttr launch post is striking in its simplicity, at 327 words it’s sort of like the blogger version of the calm before the storm. The social network (?) microblogging platform(?) new form of mass media (?) has been the subject of incessant free press throughout its upward trajectory.

There was a period of time after its breakout at SXSW 2007 where everywhere you'd look you'd see an "… On Twitter" headline: “Man Proposes To Wife … On Twitter.” “Woman Gives Birth… On Twitter.” “Shaquille O’Neal … On Twitter” “Man Tweets From Space … On Twitter.” “Bronx Zoo Cobra … On Twitter.” At this point it's news if something doesn't happen "… On Twitter."

So why can’t we shut up about it? In a sense Twitter is a mirror for life and human connection. There is a unique feeling one gets watching the flood of tweets from strangers pour in for the #iranelection, #WorldCup, #WWDC or any microhashtag on Twitter. A crucial part of my morning ritual is catching up with news on Twitter watching the quips made by friends pour in on equal footing with commentary made by media luminaries.

Thus I've been asking people all morning (on Twitter) about what Twitter, a service built essentially to communicate spurts of human activity, means to them. I've gotten back so much information it is tough and kind of meta to process, kind of like Twitter itself.

A sampling of important Twitter moments I’ve heard so far, in more or less chronological order:

When Apple released iTunes podcasting (because it forced Odeo to pivot), March 2006: the first tweet, July 2006: we cover Twttr, Twttr becomes Twitter, March 2007: it’s the breakout hit of SXSW, the fail whale supplants the fail cat, the #hashtag is invented, a plane is Twitpic'd landing in the Hudson river, CNN and Ashton's race to a million followers, Oprah joins, the co-founders play musical chairs, Twitter buying mobile client Atebits (signaling the end of friendly developer ecosystem relations), #new Twitter, more downtime, the Iran riots, the time Twitter was hacked and so on and so forth.

The most striking thing is that most Twitter users have their own unique list of moments that cemented Twitter's importance (for those that can tolerate slideshows Business Insider has a really good one here).

If you suspend disbelief on what percentage are spambots, Twitter has 200 million users whose #1 Twitter milestone is “Just setting up my Twttr" or the day they set up and account.

The company hopes by the end of 2013 to have 1 billion users (more than Facebook) in addition to $1.5 billion in revenue and an over 5,000 person staff. Just typing out that sort of ambition is sort of painful when the service still shows me that I’m following people who I’m not and is all over the place with regards to a steady revenue stream. For what it’s worth I’d pay Twitter $10 bucks a month just to archive and thread my DMs.

In fact, I think there's many that would do the same and today we're all wishing Silicon Valley’s charismatic but sort of flakey friend a very happy second birthday; Because honestly we’re all rooting for them.

Google+: One Hell Of A Trojan Horse

Posted: 15 Jul 2011 03:42 PM PDT

There’s no shortage of Google+ in the air these days. Overeager pundits and soothsayers are hoping to be among the most visible voices on the net saying which service or company it’s going to topple, why it’s going to fail or succeed, and why it should or shouldn’t be more like this or that.

It all seems awfully premature, considering Google+ is just getting started, and I don’t mean in user numbers. We’re all familiar enough with Google products to know that practically everything they’ve ever done was launched early and incomplete, whether it went on to succeed (Gmail, Android) or not (Orkut, Wave). Most if not all of the big talk surrounding the network right now will have to be adjusted in a month, six months, and a year from now. It’s fun to speculate, but Google is always playing the long game. Google+ isn’t just half-baked; they haven’t even put it in the oven yet. Let’s not judge the cookie by the dough.

Is it an alternative to Facebook? Yes. To Twitter? Yes. To Yammer, to productivity suites, to Skype, to Office, to Microsoft, to Apple? If it isn’t now, you better believe it will be. Google is like a kind of Troll-Borg. You think they put out something that stands on its own, a “Facebook killer” or an “iPhone killer” — but it’s only later that you realize that the separation from the mothership was just an illusion, and the entire bulk of Google was right there the whole time. But it’s too late — you’ve been assimilated. Problem?

I wrote a long time ago about how all these little projects of theirs would be connected and unified, the way the Romans unified their empire by joining all the little roads to their big roads. I thought it was going to happen with Chrome OS, but a tumultuous mobile market meant a late start there; Google+ is more of a clear step in that direction now.

The thing is, as I wrote then, you can’t take the measure of Rome by looking at just one of their roads. And you can’t take the measure of Google+ right now, because it’s just the first mile. The best way to debut the connecting tissue of their web empire wasn’t to make an OS — the market wasn’t ready for that. So after an OS, what is the most popular and accessible platform? Mobile (check) then Facebook, around which there’s growing enmity, distrust, and boredom. Iron: hot. Pile all the Google services into that big wooden horse and say “here’s a nice, secure alternative for sharing things with your friends.” Don’t mention the fact that lurking inside it (waiting for a reveal a few months down the line) are a hundred ways of sucking users away from their existing services — in ways that neither Facebook, Microsoft, nor Apple can. Is it about social? Yeah, because that was the face Google needed to wear this week. Beware of geeks bearing gifts.

I suppose I’ve done what I cautioned everyone else not to do: speculate on a product that’s barely even there. 10 million users is great, but the meteoric rise and fall of countless web services can bear witness to the fact that the first month is probably the least important in a service’s lifetime. Around Thanksgiving we might be talking about how silly we all sounded talking up the ghost town that is Google+. Or maybe some of us will be calling an emergency meeting in the board room because Google just ate our business model alive.

Whatever the case, I feel confident in saying that Google’s long haul plan for + is subtle, sinister, and far-reaching. Not evil, exactly, but cunning and ruthless. Sure, right now it seems like it’s aimed at Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter, but when the stakes are this high, you better believe they’ve got guns pointed at everyone in the room. Comparing features with its immediate competitors misses the point, and at any rate the landscape shifts so frequently that such comparisons are fleeting to begin with. Think big, and think sneaky. Eric Schmidt seems like a nice guy, but I sure would rather have Zuckerberg or Ballmer for an enemy. I guess we can continue to talk about it, but personally, I’m getting some popcorn first.

Fighting Ticketmaster, The Edge Invests In Ticketing Startup

Posted: 15 Jul 2011 02:30 PM PDT

Ticket Text, the makers of Ticket ABC, a white label mobile ticketing solution, announced today that they have raised $350,000 in seed funding from The Edge, a.k.a. David Evans, or the guy who plays guitar for U2. Several other Dublin and London-based angels participated in the round, with Ticket Text’s total investment now at just over $1 million. The Irish startup will use this infusion of capital to expanding its service in Europe and eventually to the U.S.

Ticketmaster has long been a source of grief for consumers, with its high fees and charges, especially considering the ticket company has long had a nearly monopolistic grip on music ticketing. Today, venues, promoters, and artists are looking to bring their ticketing solutions back in-house — out of the reach of the ticket agencies that control pricing, customer data, etc. But existing choices really just consist of outsourcing to an agency or using a licensed ticketing solution.

Ticket Text wants to change all that by providing a low cost white label ticketing and venue management solution that attempts to put the control over ticketing back in the hands of the little guy. For starters, there are no upfront, annual or customization costs, and all the data is owned by the client.

The solution also offers an automated refund process, and Ticket ABC users can reissue their tickets, both pain points for a number of ticket solutions. Ticket ABC also offers an integrated wireless solution that enables clients to scan mobile and eTickets at multiple places within a venue.

Founder and CEO of Ticket Text Mark McLaughlin said that the team has made a point to architect mobile into the core of the Ticket ABC solution, because they believe that ticketing will become commoditized, so the key for venues and ticketing companies in the future will be to know where their customers are at the venue when they scan their ticket, so that they can communicate with them there and up-sell.

Ticket ABC has also been optimized for mobile so that consumers can purchase tickets from mobile browsers and apps.

Other great features include the ability to create seat maps, set zone prices, seat statuses, and seat rankings — and for the consumer the ability to choose seats when buying tickets — all baked into the solution’s UI. And because Ticket ABC recently added support for another payment service provider, if there are outages or problems, the solution has the ability to switch providers. Always good to have a “Plan B”.

Lastly, Ticket ABC comes with social features that allow its clients to promote their events on Twitter and Facebook, so that users can share what events they’re attending and when they plan to purchase their tickets. The solution also adds a “Buy Tickets” button to a venue or business’ Facebook page, which is a nifty little feature.

And because venues may not want to create a whole new separate site for ticketing, the solution provides an embeddable widgets to that ticket providers can add the solution to their own site.

As to the cost of the solution, there is a flat fee of 5 percent, plus a 99-cents per transaction, which includes payment service provider costs, credit card and hosting fees. Ticket Tex hopes that by charging transactional fees rather than charging upfront, annual or customization fees, the pricing will allow client revenue to be generated proportionally to the costs of using the solution.

Ticket ABC’s current clients include fabric, Pacha, and Bird On The Wire.

For an example of a Ticket ABC solution, check one out here.

The Endless Bubble Debate: Kedrosky Vs. Wadhwa

Posted: 15 Jul 2011 02:03 PM PDT

With valuations for tech companies going through the roof from Facebook on down to Dropbox, the endless bubble debate sees no end. Paul Kedrosky and Vivek Wadhwa recently got into it on Bloomberg West TV.

Professor Wadhwa thinks it will all end badly with Grandma losing her piggy bank. Kedrosky points out that bubbles usually occur at the tail end of a market run-up, and he predicts we have at least a good 4 to 5 years left for this one. He compares Wadhwa to a central banker trying to take the punch away at a party before the party even begins. Wadhwa sticks to his guns and that “when this little bubble around social media bursts” it will take down all tech valuations.

It’s a spirited debate. Watch the video and tell us who you think is right in comments.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe: Skype Vulnerabilities Emerge

Posted: 15 Jul 2011 01:31 PM PDT

Silly hackers are always trying to ruin the Internet and they have found yet another target in the form of popular VOIP software Skype. According to the sweetest text security report ever, linked from h-online’s recap:

“Skype suffers from a persistent Cross-Site Scripting vulnerability due to a lack
of input validation and output sanitization of the ‘mobile phone’ profile entry.
Other input fields may also be affected.”

I love that—output sanitization. Basically what this means is that an attacker can embed JavaScript in the mobile phone field of his or her profile description. Skype doesn’t filter this field which means this JavaScript can be executed when a contact of the attacker logs in. From there, all kinds of bad things can happen like account access or even system level access. According to Levent Kayan, the current version of Skype is affected (ver. ) and Skype is aware of the issue and should have a patch available next week. Skype is downplaying the issue a bit noting that “the attacker must appear in the victim’s list of frequent contacts” in order to take advantage of the security issue.

What is the moral of the story? Until next week, remember that your mother-in-law overseas (with whom you Skype on a regular basis) can now compromise your system and bring you down! Beware!

[via The H Security]

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