Monday, August 8, 2011

The Latest from TechCrunch

The Latest from TechCrunch

Link to TechCrunch

Local Q&A Service Localmind Comes to Android, Prepares to Target Business Owners

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 08:51 AM PDT

photo 2

Location-based Q&A service Localmind is arriving on Android today, after closing a round of $600,000 in angel funding back in July. The company is also working on several developments to appeal to business owners, who will soon be able to use Localmind to connect directly with their customers, or their potential customers, in real time.

In case you don’t remember Localmind, it launched at this year’s SXSW, where it served as a useful tool to find out where the hot parties were being held.

The app leverages location-based services like Foursquare, Gowalla, and Facebook Places, allowing you to instantly message people checked in to a venue. The idea is that you could ask your friends what it’s like at any given location right now. Is it crowded? What’s the special tonight? Is the band any good? And so on.

The questions are sent out using push messages or SMS, depending on user preference. Participating users can accrue points and badges for responding to questions – an effort to “gamily” the app and encourage participation. Those who are most active in answering questions can become a “venue expert,” a designation which will soon be automatically awarded to all Foursquare mayors.

While the app was certainly a hit at SXSW (it was even Robert Scoble’s favorite at the time), there may have been some questions about how useful it would continue to be outside of major events or urban centers filled with techno-savvy, highly mobile users, like San Francisco and New York.  After all, if the majority of your friends use Foursquare, for example, you can now just message them within the Foursquare application itself, thanks to a feature added in early July. And SMS is still a lot easier than loading an app for the occasional quick question among friends.

But Localmind CEO and Co-Founder Lenny Rachitsky says that the real benefit for consumers is that Localmind allows you to message checked-in users who aren’t your Foursquare, Facebook or Gowalla friends. Of course, they have to be on Localmind for this to be possible. He also notes that the post-SXSW growth has been decent, with the app now approaching 20,000 users.

3 Business-Level Programs Now in Development

Still, Localmind is hardly a breakout success at this point, which may be why the company is now exploring three initiatives that will specifically target business owners. It’s currently trialing a service that lets local business owners get directly involved with the customers asking questions about the venue in real time. This is currently being privately tested with a dozen businesses in San Francisco, New York, Montreal and Vancouver. The benefit for business owners is that they can respond to users’ queries while away from a PC or their business landline, for example. All the conversations take place on mobile, either via in-app messaging or SMS, which is faster and easier, says Rachitsky.

Also in the works is an advertising program that allows businesses to buy ads which would appear when a user asked a question about any business in their same category. For example, after sending a question to another Localmind user about the coffee at Starbucks, a local shop’s ad could appear, suggesting their venue instead.

Finally, the company is working on a broader “regional questions” program that would let you use Localmind more like a personal assistant serving recommendations, similar to Alfred or Siri. But while those apps rely on  deeply understanding your own personal preferences, Localmind would instead serve direct recommendations from other regional “experts.” Business owners, too, could bid keywords to showcase their listings further up in the suggested recommendations page. How this exactly will look and feel to the end user hasn’t been 100% worked out yet, but will be revealed in the app’s big redesign arriving in a couple of months.

Localmind for Android is available now in the Android Market.




iTunes Replay for Movies Stalled?

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 08:30 AM PDT

appletv-movies-1

Apple has been planning to launch a new cloud-based movie streaming service, which would allow you to re-download your movie purchases to other devices for no extra charge. The service, a part of “iTunes Replay,” was originally planned to launch within “the coming weeks,” according to multiple reports.

But now it seems that will not be the case.

The movie downloading service would have been similar to the newly added feature on Apple TVs which allows you to stream any TV show episode that you had previously purchased using your iTunes account. These shows appear in the “Purchased” section of the iTunes store on desktop and mobile, as well as on the Apple TV itself.

After this feature was added through a recent software update for the Apple TV, there was hope that support for movies was just around the corner.

Unfortunately, that support may be a long time coming.

According to CNET, citing multiple film industry sources, Apple has yet to sign agreements with four of the top six movie studios, and negotiations could continue for many months.

One of the problems has to do with the “HBO Window” – the period of time after a movie’s release on DVD during which HBO has the exclusive electronic distribution rights to the films. HBO has deals with three of the six major studios, 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Bros., which means only HBO can stream their movies within that designated time frame. iTunes cannot offer streaming access to these movies at the same time.

While such a blackout period wouldn’t necessarily prevent Apple from launching a  cloud-based movie streaming service, it would make the service less attractive to consumers. However, it would not prevent Apple from signing deals with the studios not tied to HBO: Disney, Paramount, and Sony Pictures. Apple could choose to rollout a mixed offering, where some studio releases are available before others, even though they both arrived on DVD at the same time.

Image credit: MacRumors




Help This Entrepreneur Decide Between Harvard And His Startups (Vote Here)

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 08:08 AM PDT

Screen shot 2011-08-08 at 4.44.57 AM

Sometimes, when faced with an important decision, flipping a coin to let chance determine the outcome just won’t do. Instead, when life brings us to a crossroads, where two paths diverge and both seem equally walkable, we most often turn to family, friends, and trusted advisors to help us face facts and make the best choice. Or some more cavalier among us might opt for the “Magic 8-ball” approach. Of course, it’s only appropriate that, in the digital age where we have Facebook walls, Twitter streams, and polling sites, important life decisions can now take into account our social graph — or be made by way of some quick online crowdsourcing.

The latter approach is the one Mike Moradian is taking in regard to a very tricky decision he’s currently facing. Moradian was accepted into Harvard Business School in December, making him the envy of many aspiring post-graduate entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Harvard’s business school is consistently ranked in the top 5 by just about every publication that tracks such rankings, has a slate of notable alumni, and is a feather in the cap of any resume.

On the other hand, Moradian is the founder of CampusBuddy and CollegeBudget, both of which we’ve covered on several occasions, including most recently the launch of the latter.

CampusBuddy, which offers college students a social platform where they can also access official grade records and view comprehensive reviews about professors, classes, departments, and campuses, currently claims over 200K monthly active users, with over 1.5 million total, and the startup’s revenue has quadrupled over the last year. And with the enormous popularity of group buying and daily deals, CollegeBudget, which launched last week to bring those two very things to college campuses across the country, could potentially have a long life and a few dollars worth of revenue potentially in store.

CollegeBudget, in particular, is what Moradian is most excited about; it’s really the main reason he’s considering not attending Harvard, as it’s an idea that will require a lot of legwork to build into a legitimate business, whereas CampusBuddy is more stable, he said.

Thus, one can start to see that Moradian does have a difficult choice in front of him: Does he leave his startups behind and enter Harvard’s MBA program, or does he regretfully decline Harvard’s offer and help build his businesses into what could be multi-million dollar enterprises?

Moradian, who was ranked (along with CampusBuddy) as America's Best Young Entrepreneur in 2010 by Bloomberg Businessweek, tells me that he knows he can’t do both; if he were to attempt to split his time, he would be doing a disservice to his startups and to Harvard. So, he’s decided to turn the decision over to the masses via crowdsourcing. And whatever the crowd decides, he will follow through on their choice. He’s serious about it, because he knows he’s fortunate to have the choice in the first place.

He has opened up voting on this landing page, so users can vote here. Moradian opened up voting last week to CollegeBudget users, and over 20,000 people have cast their votes. So far, it’s 53 percent to 47 percent in favor of Harvard.

Moradian’s decision to crowdsource this choice is especially interesting in light of the recent debate over the efficacy of higher education in the U.S. Back in April, TC’s Sarah Lacy wrote a post detailing Peter Thiel’s thoughts on how higher education is currently the next bubble along with his founding of the “Thiel Fellowship” that financially and conceptually encourages young people to “stop out” of school and pursue their entrepreneurial and creative dreams. The project itself as well as the ideas inherent to Thiel’s foundation stirred up some heated debate, including responses from Vivek Wadhwa and Thiel Fellowship winner Dale Stephens.

As for Moradian, he understands that the rising cost and inaccessibility of education is one of the biggest problems facing young people in the U.S., and staying with his startups would help him do that. Yet, when Harvard sends you a letter of acceptance and with that comes the inherent promise of becoming better schooled in the right ways to tackle these large problems, it’s difficult to say “no”.

So, what would you do? And what do you think Moradian should do? Vote here, and let us know in the comments below.




Khosla, Greylock, Andreessen Horowitz Put $16.5M In Enterprise Cloud App Management Startup Okta

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 08:00 AM PDT

okta

Enterprise cloud app management company Okta has raised $16.5 million in Series B funding from Greylock Partners, Khosla Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz and FLOODGATE. This brings the company’s total funding to $28 million.

Okta is a cloud application management service. Okta’s platform allows companies to have control of their users, applications, and data both in the cloud and behind the firewall. The startup was founded by Todd McKinnon, the former VP of Engineering of the most successful cloud-based company to-date, Salesforce.

As McKinnon tells us, Okta is providing a platform for companies to manage corporate IT. He explains that traditional security and management platforms aren’t going to work with the cloud. When moving to the cloud, IT admins face the challenge of securing and controlling users and access, simplifying the adoption and scaling of these applications, and at the same time making sure that the business is optimizing its applications in the cloud.

Companies who are using cloud-based applications like Salesforce and Google Apps need an identity and directory service in the cloud as a place where they can store user profiles and more. Okta gives IT managers the ability to maintain one central directory and replicate this to all cloud applications.

The company launched the product to public in Janaury. McKinnon says that he originally thought customers would be small to medium businesses, but has recently seen a uptake in large companies using Okta. Companies using Okta include Enterasys Networks, Pandora, T.D.Williamson, AMAG Pharmaceuticals and others. The company says the use of Okta's on-demand service has ramped up dramatically to power over 1 million authentications per month.

And McKinnon envisions a larger empire of cloud IT management services that ‘empower businesses to eliminate cloud adoption barriers.’

Ben Horowitz, who led the company’s Series A round, has said of Okta: Okta's initial product aims to solve the Cloud identity problem. I like the problem, because it is seriously different in the cloud than it is on-premise and, for new companies, different equals good. He belivees that the market opportunity is huge “because the cloud identity market will likely become the cloud management market. Given that those current markets combined are between $10B and $20B (depending on what you count), the resulting market will be extremely large.”

The new funds will be used for sales and marketing efforts, as well as for ramping up distribution. As part of this transaction, David Weiden of Khosla Ventures will become a board advisor, and Aneel Bhusri, co-founder and co-CEO of Workday, will join the Okta Board of Directors.



Company:
OKTA
Launch Date:
12/2008
Funding:
$10.8M

Okta is the market leading on-demand identity and access management service that enables enterprises to accelerate the secure adoption of their web based applications, both in the cloud and...

Learn more


New Google+ Extension Adds Real-Time Code Collaboration to Hangouts

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 07:32 AM PDT

google_plus_logo

The developer who previously brought us the Facebook Friend Exporter, Mohamed Mansour, has created a new, experimental Google Chrome extension which adds text-based document collaboration capabilities to Google+ Hangouts. For those of you not yet versed in all the G+ terminology, Hangouts are the multi-person video chat feature in Google’s social networking service, supporting up to 10 people at a time.

With this new Hangout extension, now you can do more than simply chat – you can collaborate on text-based files, too. Mansour suggests this would be a great extension for developers to use for code collaboration, for example.

Buggy, but Works

A few caveats, before we continue: this extension is “horribly buggy” (Mansour’s words, not mine). It’s an alpha product meant to be a technology preview, not something you should expect to use in a real-world or mission-critical situation by any means. It doesn’t seem to work on Mac computers, either. Attempting to load the extension on my MacBook Pro gave me an error message. On my Windows 7 PC, however, it worked.

The extension was developed without access to an official Google+ API (application programming interface), since such a thing does not yet exist. In other words, like all Google+ Chrome extensions to date, it’s an unsanctioned hack.

It is also quite awesome.

Technical Details

Mansour says that Hangouts are currently powered using the legacy Google Wave technology and jQuery using Google Shared Spaces. To build the extension, he imitated the YouTube Hangout Gadget and intercepted all messages coming from Google Wave to the extension. The extension broadcasts a unique ID which is stored in Wave that every participant can read when they join. That ID is persistant for that Hangout session only.

It’s a fairly complex hack, Mansour admits. Luckily for us, he’s posted the code to GitHub so others can contribute.

How to Use

To use the extension, you first install the add-on from the Chrome Web Store, then head over to Google+ and start a Hangout. There’s nothing more you have to do – the text-editing interface appears directly in the Hangout window, above the video screens.

But in order for other Hangout participants to share code with you, they, too, will need to install the extension.

The extension was made possible with support from John Barrington Craggs and Jake McCuistion, Mansour says. If you give it a shot, let us know how well it fared for you.



Product:
GOOGLE+
Company
Google

A Google project headed by Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz, Google+ is designed to be the social extension of Google. Its features focus on making online sharing easy for...

Learn more


Mystery Solved: The Hercules Is T-Mobile’s Samsung Galaxy S II

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 07:25 AM PDT

herculesback

There's been some question over whether or not the Samsung Hercules for T-Mobile is in fact a variation of the drool-inducing Galaxy S II. From the words written across the back panel of that pictured phone, I'd be willing to say the evidence is conclusive — The Samsung Hercules is actually the Galaxy S II dressed up as a demigod.

The Hercules will be T-Mobile's first HSPA+ 42Mbps handset, which is pretty sweet in and of itself, but there's more. The Hercules will sport a larger 4.5-inch display much like its cousin the Infuse 4G, and as we noted yesterday, looks more like the Infuse in appearance than the S II. You can also see four capacitive buttons down at the bottom, which is another design difference between the original trackpad-sporting S II and T-Mobile’s iteration.

The TmoNews tipster claims that the phone is super fast and that it packs the Netflix app straight out of the box. Other specs include Android 2.3 Gingerbread running over a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, 16GB of internal storage, an 8-megapixel rear camera, a front-facing shooter, and support for NFC. Unfortunately, pricing and availability are still a mystery.




HTML5 Game Seen Working on Apple TV

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 06:45 AM PDT

appletv

A hacker has managed to get an HTML5-based game working on the Apple TV (2G), after having first jailbroken the device and installed the Couch Surfer application. (Couch Surfer provides a Web browser for jailbroken Apple TVs.)

The game is a simple BlackJack card game, and frankly, it’s not much to look at. But the addition is notable as it demonstrates that the Apple TV is a functional platform for HTML5-based applications.

Of course, whether or not Apple wants to open up the Apple TV to support a wide range of HTML5 games and apps is another thing altogether. While HTML5 would provide an alternative to simple Flash-based games, it could also become a compelling alternative to Apple’s native App Store applications in time, too. (The AppleTV doesn’t currently run apps, but it’s been rumored that it will eventually.)

Here’s the video of the game in action:

via RedmondPie 




Curation Tool Storify Partners With MSNBC’s Breaking News For Sourced News Content

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 06:42 AM PDT

Breaking news

As you may know, content curation platform Storify, which launched at TechCrunch Disrupt last fall, brings together Tweets, Facebook Status Updates, videos and more from social networking sites to create a realtime view into a story or issue. Today, the startup is announcing a first of its kind partnership with Breaking News, an MSNBC-owned Twitter handle and web site for realtime updates on news breaking in the world.

Here’s how Storify works. Storify allows you to build and embed a story around a gathering of Tweets, Flickr photos, Facebook status updates, YouTube videos and more Within Storify’s platform, you can simple search and drag content into your Storify story. Once you create a story with all of this curated content, you can then embed the actual story in your blog or content management system via single like of Javascript.

With the Breaking News partnership, Storify users can now add updates from the @BreakingNews Twitter accounts, as well as other updates from the newswire. So Breaking News is now a source, similar to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others.

What makes the partnership unique is that on BreakingNews.com, you can create a Storify story directly from a news story. Storify has created a special button (similar to the Tweet button or Like function), which allows anyone to create and embed a Storify story from a Breaking News piece.

Co-founder Burt Herman explains that this is the first two-way partnership for Storify, where a publisher has integrated the creation tool on its website. And he’s looking to form similar source partnerships with other major publishers.

Storify, which recently raised $2 million from Khosla Ventures, is already being used by a number of news organizations, including Al-Jazeera.

Storify has been in public beta since April 25, and is about to cross 100,000 stories created, and is averaging 6.5 million story views per month across all sites.

We’ve embedded an example of a Storify news story below.



Company:
STORIFY
Launch Date:
11/12/2009
Funding:
$2.02M

Turn what people post on social media into compelling stories. With Storify, you collect the best photos, video, Tweets and more to publish them as simple, beautiful stories that...

Learn more


E-Commerce Platform For Retailers Plimus Acquired By PE Firm For $115 Million

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 06:29 AM PDT

plimus

Plimus, a company that provides a SaaS to power e-commerce for retailers, has been acquired by private equity firm Great Hill Partners For $115 million. Primus has previously raised $18 million from Susquehanna Growth Equity.

Plimus builds and manages online businesses for thousands of software publishers, Web hosting companies and online retailers. A business can choose Plimus hosted application that spans the entire e-Commerce lifecycle, or it can deploy the a ‘Plimus Buy Anyware’ API which allows retailers to integrate the technology with existing solutions.

Using Plimus’ software, retailers can deliver newsletters to customers, coupons and promotions, realtime reporting, live chat and more. Plimus has a user base of more than 6,500 small to medium size business and enterprises worldwide.

Plimus competitor BigCommerce just raised $15 million in new funding.



Company:
PLIMUS
Launch Date:
15/3/2002
Funding:
$18M

Plimus started with a simple idea when it launched in 2001 - help companies grow their e-Business through an efficient, flexible and cost-effective e-Commerce backbone.

Learn more


BigTime Raises $2M For Cloud-Based Time And Billing Management Software

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 06:24 AM PDT

bigtime

BigTime Software, which offers cloud-based productivity software tools to professional services firms, this morning announced that it has raised $2 million in Series A funding in a round from LTC Partners, Geneva Venture Investment Management, Hickory Grove and Howell Capital.

The company delivers time, billing and practice management software-as-a-service that integrates with Intuit QuickBooks to professional services firms in industries like accounting, architecture, marketing services and IT services.

BigTime Software was originally founded in 2002 and used to go by the name Edison’s Attic.

The extra capital will be used to enhance sales, marketing and product development efforts.




How Your Social Data Will Power Walmart’s E-Commerce Revolution

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 06:15 AM PDT

walmart

Walmart is planning to launch several new projects this holiday season based on the technology it acquired from the social media startup Kosmix back in April. Kosmix’s platform previously powered several services, including a Twitter search site called TweetBeat, a health vertical called RightHealth and a homepage where users could search the Web by topic. But the core of what Kosmix was building was something called the “social genome” –  a way to organize the content in social networks in order to connect people with the information that mattered to them.

Now, that same technology is in the hands of Walmart, the world’s largest retailer.

These days, Walmart.com does around $6 billion per year in sales vs. Amazon.com’s $34 billion, according to analysts. ”Walmart had fallen behind in e-commerce,” says Anand Rajaraman, Kosmix Co-Founder now SVP of Walmart’s Global e-Commerce division, “and the board realized the issue was serious.”

Something had to change.

Although Rajaraman wouldn’t go into detail about the handful of projects Walmart has planned, it’s easy to read between the lines at guess at their nature – social search on Walmart.com, personalized alerts on rollbacks sent to email or mobile, Facebook-enabled social wish lists or gifting applications, and who knows what else may come in the future.

In April, when Walmart acquired Kosmix, it had already raised $55 million in funding from a number of investors throughout the years. What made Kosmix appealing was not just the technology itself, but also the people behind the technology: founders Venky Harinarayan and Anand Rajaraman, successful e-commerce pioneers who had sold their previous company, Junglee, to Amazon. At Amazon, they worked with CEO Jeff Bezos to transform Amazon into a retail platform, and invented the technology that now powers Mechanical Turk.

When Kosmix was acquired, it became the nucleus of a new group at Walmart known as @Walmart Labs, based in Silicon Valley. At WalmartLabs, the founders have been busy developing projects which will integrate the Kosmix technology into Walmart’s online and mobile offerings, including its e-commerce website, Facebook pages and more. There are three main areas of focus for the team: search, recommendations and serendipity.

Social Search and Recommendations

In search, Kosmix’s technology will pull data from Facebook and Twitter to improve your search experience on Walmart.com. By monitoring your ever-changing interests on topics like your favorite sports team or band, for example, Walmart will be able to serve better recommendations when you search its site. It might work this way:  you search for a new smartphone, and Walmart recommends one you friend just liked on Facebook .

Walmart plans to leverage your social data outside of search, too. It plans to directly recommend products on its homepage. At Amazon, explains Rajaraman, there’s too much emphasis placed on your purchases for recommendations. “Purchases are a window into your interests,” he says “but they’re a small window.” Anyone who has ever purchased a gift at Amazon only to be suggested similar items upon every subsequent login knows the problem. Instead of recommending more travel guides for Paris, long after your trip was complete, or more power tools, long after Dad’s birthday has passed, Walmart plans to recommend things it actually knows you like. Whether or not it can succeed where so many others have failed will soon be put to the test.

And these tools can be used to analyze your friends’ behavior, too, in order to offer wish list suggestions based on their interests. Assuming they get it done, the way Walmart is leveraging Twitter and Facebook here could be an industry first.

Personalized Alerts

If that sort of deep dive into your personal preferences sounds creepy, well, at least this is an opt-in system. Rajaraman says Walmart will never use consumers’ data in any way beyond what it has permission for, and your’e in control of that. But he thinks consumers will be willing to share there information in return for tangible benefits. Benefits, like discounts? While Walmart has no plans introduce huge discounts like Groupon offers (it’s happy to provide “everyday low prices,” says Rajaraman), it will be able to personalize alerts on items it puts on “rollback,” its own system for promoting sale items.

Instead of spamming you with notifications, Kosmix’s technology will be able to identify what sort of rollbacks you, as an individual, would like. This is what he means by “serendipity” – alerts that will surprise and delight consumers.

You may even be able to one day receive in-store notifications as you pass by items of interest that match those pulled from the Kosmix system. As for what technology would be used on the mobile side, Rajaraman couldn’t say. But the company is experimenting with several approaches for providing mobile services, including things like NFC (near field communication), barcode scanning and in-store geo-fencing. However, these fall outside of the @WalmartLabs team’s domain – they’re more focused on the data.

The first projects built on top of Kosmix’s technology will launch this holiday season.

Image credit: code poet on flickr



Company:
WALMART
Launch Date:
1962

Wal-Mart's overall impact on the retail industry and beyond has changed the way business is conducted globally, and increased consumer benefits — regardless of where they shop. From raising...

Learn more


Webtrends Buys Media Temple-Backed Realtime Analytics Firm Reinvigorate

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 05:28 AM PDT

reinv

Mobile and Web analytics firm Webtrends this morning announced that it has acquired real-time analytics company Reinvigorate, a portfolio company of Media Temple‘s investment arm.

Financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

The acquisition of Reinvigorate adds real-time analytics expertise to Webtrends’ offering of mobile, social and Web analytics and engagement solutions.

In addition, Webtrends says, Reinvigorate’s solution brings new data visualization technologies such as heat maps, link maps and visitor path analysis to its analytics solution portfolio. The company adds that the Reinvigorate solution will continue to be offered to existing customers.

Media Temple Ventures is the ‘innovation and investment group’ of web hosting and virtualization solutions company Media Temple – its portfolio also includes Virb.com, MobileRoadie.com and Krop.com.

Alternative real-time analytics providers include Chartbeat, Woopra, Clicky and Mixpanel.



Company:
REINVIGORATE

Reinvigorate is a unique, real-time web analytics system leveraging some of today's most advanced open-source technology to give you the best-looking and easiest to use analytics platform available.

Learn more

Company:
WEBTRENDS
Launch Date:
1993

Webtrends founded the web analytics industry in 1993. Today, their leadership extends much further, to social media measurement, paid-search optimization and connecting the online and offline data silos scattered...

Learn more

Company:
MEDIA TEMPLE
Launch Date:
1998
Funding:
$15M

(mt) Media Temple, Inc. is an industry-leading, privately held, profitable web hosting and software application services company based in California. Since 1998, the company has provided businesses worldwide with reliable,...

Learn more


I’m Quitting Phone Calls

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 04:32 AM PDT

phone

Inspired by MG Siegler’s “I’m Quitting Email” diatribe, although this is a post I’ve been meaning to write for quite a while. I was going to save it for my personal blog, but hey, if MG’s allowed to rant about his ongoing struggles with his email inbox here on TechCrunch, I should be allowed to inform you of my loathing of phone calls as well.

And as an added bonus, I can now easily point back to this post for anyone who pings me and asks for a “quick – 2-minutes tops, I swear – phone call” in the future.

Needless to say, of course I’m not actually quitting phone calls under any circumstances. In fact, my family and friends can rest assured that I’ll still be reachable on my mobile phone 24/7 – for better or worse.

But barring some absolutely necessary phone calls – which will boil down to only a couple per month, if that – all voice-based communication for professional purposes is out of the question, including Skype, Viber, mobile and landline calls. You can call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure it will be awesome, although, to be fair, it’s a fairly easy decision for me to make.

I’m based in Europe, while more than 90 percent of my conversations with entrepreneurs, investors, coworkers and other people I communicate with for doing my job are based in the U.S., so naturally most of my work involves email (which I don’t hate), instant messaging and other forms of digital communication not involving me having to call someone or pick up the phone.

I’m also not a native English speaker, so it’s usually in the best interest of the other party not to have me misunderstand or misinterpret anything he or she says on the phone. I speak many languages, but even in my native tongue I still prefer to get emails in order not to get things mixed up.

Apart from the difference in timezones and linguistic objections, there are three main factors that have convinced me to stop having work-related voice conversations altogether.

1) Hello? Interruptions kill my productivity

At least as far as I’m concerned. You see, in my experience, you can’t be a good tech blogger when you’re not constantly keeping your eye on what’s going on in the ever-moving technology industry.

This means keeping track of outgoing communication from thousands of companies, watching the wires and what other publications write or talk about, but also keeping an eye out for emails, tweets, Skype or Facebook messages from sources. You give me a call and I answer, that means I drop not only what I’m doing but also what I was going to be doing in the next few seconds or minutes.

It’s just an enormous distraction when your daily professional activity happens to be jumping from one browser tab or messaging window to the next every few seconds. Perhaps you need to make phone calls for your job, or you don’t mind interruptions, but it sure is a major pain in the behind for me.

2) It’s impossible – or at least not nearly easy enough – to search. Or archive. Or forward.

If people send me an email or a Skype message, that means I can go over it on my terms, at my convenience, but it also means I can easily look up the essence of the message in question. Recording / transcribing phone calls would offer me an opportunity to digitally archive and be able to search through voice conversations, but it’s a hassle that I just think isn’t worth the pain.

Isn’t it easier for everyone involved when one can simply do a search to get the gist of a conversation, even if it happened months or even years ago? And simply being able to forward a conversation to someone else so one doesn’t have to try and recall the exact words that were spoken on the phone?

3) Getting to the point is extremely hard for most people

There’s no such thing as a “2-minute” or “5-minute” phone call, no matter how many times people have tried to convince me of the contrary. Calls nearly always take longer than advertised (and that I would like them to), which makes the unproductivity aspect of them even more of a problem.

Whenever I say I prefer not to do a phone call, people who insist almost always tell me it will be ‘much quicker’ to get their point across than in an email or instant messaging conversation. Years of experience have taught me that this is simply not true in 99 percent of the cases. Trust me.

Note that there are reporters, and I wager even most on TechCrunch’s staff, who don’t mind phone calls as much as me, and some will even swear by voice conversations for all the right reasons.

But personally, I’m convinced I’ll be perfectly fine doing my job the way I’m supposed to without ever again picking up my phone to make or receive a call. It will be awesome.

And remember, dear family and friends – you can still destroy my productiveness and not get to the point with a non-searchable phone call whenever you want.

Bonus link: James Altucher’s phone number is 203-512-2161.




DuoDater Wants To Make Online Dating More Social And Less Awkward (Invites Herein)

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 03:05 AM PDT

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Last month, Nick Paumgarten penned a lengthy article for The New Yorker detailing the rise of online dating and the effect it’s had on web culture. Among other things, Paumgarten alludes to some eye-opening statistics about the industry, including the fact that fee-based dating sites have become, collectively, a billion-dollar industry, that “one in six new marriages is the result of meetings on Internet dating site”, and that online dating is now the third most common way for people to meet.

While much of the early blush (or stigma) around using an online platform to pursue a relationship is wearing off, some of the same friction that has always been there still exists: From the awkwardness of online-to-offline interaction, the potential danger of meeting an an eStranger, relying on algorithms to find your “match”, etc. And, somewhat ironically, for being socializing facilitators, most online dating sites seek to connect users with new people while remaining disconnected from their actual social life. As Paumgarten points out, online dating still is still inherently isolating.

Michael Parikh and Andrew Flachner, the co-founders of a new dating site called DuoDater, agree that there are still some very fundamental problems with current approaches to online dating (and, well, dating in general). Creating an online dating profile can be difficult; it’s hard to find the right things to say about yourself that will help the site, whether algorithmically-based or not, help match you with the right person, the co-founders said. Not to mention the facts that messaging a stranger can be a somewhat stressful process, and meeting them in person without much in the way of background is awkward, and sometimes unsafe.

So, the San Francisco-based startup is offering a platform that aims to be a bit more social and perhaps less intimidating that the model championed by current dating sites: Double dates. DuoDater is aimed at men and women in their 20s and 30s who are looking to socialize and meet new people — with the help of a co-pilot. The co-founders think that, by allowing users to have a friend by their side while on a date, the interaction can be more natural and (hopefully) less awkward way to socialize and make friends.

DuoDater is also structured in such a way as to make the creation of a dating profile a less nerve-racking process. The site offers “Duo Profiles” that only require users to write a few sentences about themselves individually, so that the main attraction is turned to creating a joint description that the pair of daters can work on together to fill out. Flachner said that, so far, DuoDater’s users have found this a less problematic and more enjoyable approach to dating profiles.

The founders also think that their model provides a higher level of accountability than is typically inherent to solo dating, as users are less likely to use trick photo angles and exaggerated or romanticized descriptions when they know a close friend will see it and may call them on it.

DuoDater also adds “featured date” ideas, so that new users can get off and running more easily and get out there and test out the model.

When I asked the founders whether they had considered a group dating option, they said that their market research and due diligence had shown that users prefer double dating to the latter because it still provides a level of intimacy that makes the experience feel like an actual date, rather than a loose, social gathering.

The founders said that, while there are a few successful group dating sites, group profiles take the focus off individuals and organizing an outing for a large group of people can be a hassle — something many are familiar with.

Of course, the inherent risk to DuoDater’s model is that one of the large players in the dating space, like Match.com, eHarmony, PlentyOfFish, and OK Cupid, could establish their own double dating service and quickly have the startup beat in terms of user base. But Flachner said that he thinks DuoDater is well-positioned as an alternative because it focuses on the casual atmosphere of double dating and is centered around events and experiences, rather than relying on an algorithmic model (a potentially less “human” approach) to connect actual people.

DuoDater offers an interesting spin on traditional dating models and, really, it’s a wonder that this model isn’t something that’s been implemented on a large scale. Of course, that could be for good reason; without a fee-based model, it’s hard for dating sites to make money, and double dating does intrinsically bring its own challenges.

DuoDater is currently free to use, and as the startup is bootstrapped at this point, it will rely on its beta to test the waters to see if this approach is truly viable and can scale. A fee-based premium service could be on its future roadmap, too, which will likely include the ability to form more Duos, post more pictures, etc. Or having featured DuoDate ideas from restaurants, concert venues, and other businesses that pay to be featured on the site is also an option.

For readers looking to do some early testing of the double dating platform, click over to DuoDater.com and enter the “TECHCRUNCH” invite code for access.

Let us know what you think.




How BlackBerry, Not Twitter, Fuelled The Fire Under London’s Riots

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 02:29 AM PDT

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Over the weekend parts of London descended into chaos as riots and looting spread after a protest organised around the yet unexplained shooting of a man by Police. Of course, there was huge amounts of chatter on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, with the latter coming under enormous amounts of criticism from the UK press for fuelling the fire. But while Twitter has largely been the venue of spectators to violence and is a handy public venue for journalists to observe, it would appear the non-public BlackBerry BBM messaging network has been the method of choice for organising it.




Apple Will Sell A Sub $1,000 iMac For Education

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 02:16 AM PDT

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Apple and education have always gone hand in hand, from the first Apple IIs gracing libraries across the nation to the countless aging machines now in place at schools everywhere. Now, however, a new version of the iMac (not shown here) may allow schools to upgrade on the cheap.

9to5 is reporting that a sub-$1,000 iMac will be released on or around August 16 with a slower processor and less RAM. The machine will not compete with the “real” entry-level iMac, priced at $1,200, and instead will be available primarily to educational clients.

9to5 writes that the machine will have a:

3.1 GHz dual-core processor (3.06 GHz rounded up), 2 GB of DDR3 RAM, 250 GB of hard drive storage space, and the AMD Radeon HD 6750M graphics processor with 256 MB of dedicated memory.

Presumably you don’t have to be a volume client to get this machine, but it isn’t aimed at the general market.




I Am Jonathan’s Starbucks Card: A Social Payment Experiment (With Free Coffee)

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 01:46 AM PDT

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Jonathan’s Starbucks card lives in Jonathan Stark’s wallet. You can download a copy of the card (shown here) and, when there is money on it, scan it at any Starbucks to buy coffee and, as far as anyone can tell, Jonathan doesn’t care. Crazy, you say? Sure, it’s crazy… like a fox.

Jonathan Stark is a programmer and writer and has been experimenting with “social sharing of physical goods using digital currency on mobile phones.” Similar to the old Italian tradition of Caffe Pagato, Jonathan wants you to use the cash on his card to buy your own coffee. He also wants you to tweet about your experience and, if you’re really cool, put a little money on the card.

He has written an API to access the current card balance and he has a Tweetstream that tweets out current numebrs. As of this writing there is about $180 (UPDATE: Someone grabbed $150 off the card just now) on the card so you can probably hit a the cafe today on Jonathan’s dime.

Want to help the cause? Here’s how to add money to the card.

1. Visit starbucks.com/card
2. Click on the “Reload A Card” tab
3. Enter the card number visible in the picture (6061006913522430)
4. Click “Reload This Card” in the left sidebar
5. Choose a reload amount
6. Choose a payment method

I think the most interesting aspect of this whole project is in the innate suggestion of trust and the expectation that many will “do the right” thing in the homogenous world that is the Internet. Sadly, I suspect the card will soon be tapped and, barring regular infusions, greed will win the day. I also wonder how long it will take before Starbucks shuts this down because of… ummm… because it undermines… um… because it’s anarchistic?

You can grab your copy of the card here. Happy sipping.




Active Junky Wants To Be Your Go-To Online Resource For Outdoor Gear (And Give You Cash Back)

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 01:37 AM PDT

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For the outdoor inclined, there are hundreds of places to do some online shopping for gear and apparel. Outdoorsmen and women can simply visit their favorite brand’s site, whether it be REI, Backcountry, Moosejaw, or Patagonia, but there’s really not much in the way of aggregation in outdoor retail. (Though there are European sites like GearZone.) As comparison shopping, loyalty, rebate and coupon sites have taken off in niche verticals, it’s only natural that the outdoor industry find its way into the mix.

Active Junky, a startup founded in 2009 that relaunched this week, is aiming to be a niche resource that brings together the biggest brands in the outdoor gear and apparel industry and allows users to share their opinions about these retailers, and get cash back for making purchases.

Active Junky is working with over 100 affiliates, including those mentioned above, to create a competitive marketplace for retailers, in which the biggest names will vie for new customers based on how much cash back they can earn through Active Junky, which, considering the price of a new pair of skis, will likely be of interest to cash-strapped outdoors enthusiasts.

Active Junky is essentially an Ebates-type cash back model for the outdoor industry in which users can browse through the site’s database of over 80,000 products to compare prices from retailer, clicking over to the retailer’s site to buy the product, earning cash back for every purchase. (ShopStyle for the outdoor market meets Ebates.)

Every 3 months, Active Junky cashes out a user’s “Junky Account”, at which point it will credit the user’s account on Paypal or donate the cash back to one of the startups non-profit partners, like the Nature Conservancy.

However, the startup’s goal here is not just to create a pure coupon or deal site, copy-and-pasting the Ebates or Fat Wallet model, says Founder and CEO Kevin McInerney, but to create a full-service community around the outdoor action sports world. Active Junky not only allows its users to compare prices on gear from outdoor brands and make purchases, but also offers content on adventure travel, action sports news, original videos, as well as gear reviews from the site’s writers and users.

In the near future, Active Junky plans to roll out a reward system, a la Gogobot or Consmr, in which users will be incentivized to write long-form, detailed reviews on products and gear. The more reviews users write, and the more active they are on the site, they will earn badges and rewards, as well as discounts and deals from the startup’s retail partners. The site also features a “Social Wall”, where users can keep tabs on what their friends are buying and reviewing, and post recommendations or suggestions for gear.

In its current form, Active Junky is positioning itself as an affiliate marketing platform for outdoor brands, driving traffic to the websites of those brands and, through partnerships, taking a cut of the increased revenue from sales and advertising efforts. While brands in all industries have been utilizing affiliate marketing through rewards programs, loyalty, comparison shopping, and all sorts of third party strategies for some time, the consumer is often unaware of these partnerships and how a comparison or cash back site (like Active Junky) profits from these relationships.

McIerney said that he wants Active Junky to be as transparent as possible in these forms and educate the site’s users about the commissions it receives from its retail partners, including offering the lionshare of those profits to its users.

“In the end, since it’s the user’s purchase, and because it’s their cookie we are tracking, we want our customers to experience the upside of that relationship”, McInerney said. “We want our customers to trust us, and we feel that transparency and profit-sharing is a good way to do this”.

Active Junky has currently raised $150K in angel funding and is looking to pursue further investment as it moves forward with its rewards programs.

For more, check out the video below, and let us know what you think. How can Active Junky better serve its users and become a go-to niche resource for the outdoor industry?




I’m Android Watch Now Available For Pre-Order

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 01:29 AM PDT

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While I found the I’m Watch ridiculous and feel that wearable tech isn’t nearly as close to being viable as we’ve been led to expect, the watch is actually shipping and will cost $350 when Blue Sky begins selling their pre-orders.

The watch runs a Freescale IMX233 CPU and connects to a cellphone via Bluetooth. It lets you check messages and other wee bits of information and little else.

You can check out the exciting video render at the Blue Sky website, below, and place your order now so you can, eventually, forget about the watch after it runs out of power and you decide it’s too much trouble to recharge.

Product Page via TheDroidGuy




Chinese Smugglers Shoot A Zip Line Across A River To Illegally Ship iPads

Posted: 08 Aug 2011 01:06 AM PDT

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Like Kramer and Newman driving the mail truck into Michigan to make a profit on bottle can returns, Chinese smugglers shot an arrow over the border between the mainland and Hong Kong connected to a rope. They then zipped down a collection of iPads and iPhones, hoping to make a profit on the tax differences between the two areas.

Gizchina is reporting that the smugglers shot the arrow from a high-rise using a crossbow in Shenzhen and hit a small house in Hong Kong, across the Sha Tau Kok river. They then sent boxes and boxes of gear over the border in the dead of night until authorities spotted boxes of electronics flying through the air into Hong Kong on a 300 meter line (my emphasis).

They nabbed $46,000 worth of gear although there is no telling how much had already gone unnoticed.




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