Friday, July 6, 2012

The Latest from TechCrunch

The Latest from TechCrunch

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How Big Is Too Big? Samsung’s New Galaxy Note Said To Sport 5.5-Inch Screen

Posted: 06 Jul 2012 09:01 AM PDT

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I don’t know too many people who would look at the Galaxy Note and its 5.3 inch display and say “y’know, it would be great if this thing was just a little bigger,” and I now I know why. As it turns out, those people live in Korea, work for Samsung, and may have decided just that.

According to their usual unnamed sources, Korea’s MK Business News reports that Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2 will sport an even larger 5.5-inch display when its unveiled at Germany’s IFA 2012 trade show in August.

Naturally, the display isn’t all they’re said to be upgrading here. The next-gen Galaxy Note is also rumored to pack an unspecified quad-core processor (most likely an Exynos 4 Quad), and a 12 or 13 megapixel camera around the back instead of the 8 megapixel shooter as seen in the original. To top it all off, it’s said to run on Google’s newly-revealed Jelly Bean version of Android, though it’s unclear at this point how the company will be tweaking their UI to account for Jelly Bean’s new features.

So how much of a handful is thing going to be? Well, while the display has been stretched out a bit, the device itself isn’t expected to be significantly larger than the current Galaxy Note. Frankly, this seems like both a blessing and a curse — users who can comfortably wrap their mitts around the original model should do just fine, but that slightly larger display may make one-handed operation even less feasible than before.

Now I’m all for pushing limits and whatnot, but this just begs an obvious question: how big is too big? Most tablet manufacturers are loath to dip below the 7-inch barrier, and if this report holds true then Samsung is eagerly chipping away at the other side of that limit. Samsung’s success with the Galaxy Note has also prompted companies like LG to take up the super-sized phone challenge, so it’s very possible that phone screen sizes haven’t topped out just yet.



Hooray! Google Now Gets Ported From Jelly Bean To Ice Cream Sandwich

Posted: 06 Jul 2012 08:39 AM PDT

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Good news, Android fans. A developer over on the forever awesome XDA Developers forums has figured out how to extract Google Now from Android Jelly Bean and port it over to devices running Ice Cream Sandwich. The process for doing so requires a slightly geeky skill set, of course. You have to have a rooted device and you’ll need to be comfortable navigating through the Android file system, for starters. But assuming that’s you, then you can be among the first to try Google Now in (nearly) all its glory.

In case you’re wondering what the big fuss is about, Google Now is only the most innovative, futuristic, and even downright creepy updates to Google’s search service ever to come. Instead of presenting a blank box where you type in text and hit enter, Google Now flips the search paradigm on its head. It alerts you to things you’ll want to know about before you search for them. Yes, really. Billed as a smart personal assistant to rival Apple’s Siri, Google Now comes pre-loaded on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean devices (the most recent version of Android, introduced at Google I/O), and proactively alerts you to things like weather changes, flight times and delays, sports scores, interesting places near you where you might like to eat, shop or visit, and more.

Google Now works best in a situation where it’s deeply embedded in the Android operating system itself, as in Jelly Bean, which may be why Google has made the decision not to release it as a native app for older versions of Android (either that, or the native build is still in progress. Fingers crossed!). But serious Android fans don’t have to wait to upgrade their OS to get most of the functionality Google Now offers.

XDA Developers forum user febycv figured out how to extract Google Now from Jelly Bean, and, by modifying the build.prop file, users can install the modified APK file.

He posted the instructions here on the original thread which detail the steps involved.

  1. Open Root Explorer & navigate to /system
  2. Now Open build.prop in Text Editor.
  3. Edit ro.build.version.sdk = 16 & save.
  4. Now go to /system/app & Rename GoogleQuickSearchBox.apk to GoogleQuickSearchBox.apk1
  5. Now reboot & install the app from the download link (mirror).
  6. Now edit build.prop & change ro.build.version.sdk = 15 & reboot.

There’s also a second method in another forum thread which doesn’t involve editing the build.prop file. The link for that one is found on post #142 on this page. The news made its way through the Android developer community just prior to the holiday, thanks to post on XDA itself. (But now we’re all finally sober enough to try it out.)

Depending on your device, and your general good luck, you may experience some issues with the hacked app, including an inability to use voice search and other bugs.

Regardless of which method you attempt, keep in mind that rooting your phone and making modifications like this is something you should only attempt if you understand the risks involved. If you don’t know your way around Android, you can do some serious damage.

However, if you have been searching night and day since Google I/O for a hack that lets you install and run Google Now, then you’re definitely in luck. I’m even digging out my old Android phone (the sad little one with the cracked screen) just for the hell of it in order to see how well this hack works. If you’re bold enough to give it a go, let us know how it turned out for you.



Report: Apple Developing A Thinner And Cooler 9.7-inch Retina-Equipped iPad For A Q4 Release

Posted: 06 Jul 2012 07:50 AM PDT

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There might be a new new iPad soon. Apple is reportedly retooling the new iPad to feature a different battery and LCD backlighting scheme, resulting in a device that’s less hot and with the thickness and weight similar to the iPad 2. This new model will hit sometime before the holiday season and, since we’re already aboard the rumor express, let’s assume it will launch alongside the iPad mini, also rumored for the same time.

The word comes from Digitimes relaying several Chinese news reports. Apple is apparently looking at several different ways to reduce the device’s internal temperature. Reportedly, this upcoming model will employ an improved battery and a single LED backlight rather than the two used in the new iPad. The report’s sources indicate that this shouldn’t impact the luminosity and clarity of the iPad’s Retina display.

In addition to the slight reworking of internal components, the so-called iPad 3.5 will use Sharp’s IGZO touchscreen rather than a Samsung-sourced panel like in the current model. This matches up with the reported component lists of the heavily rumored iPad mini.

If this rumor turns out to be correct, it would mark a stark departure from Apple’s usual release cycle, which through the first three generations had a yearly release cycle. It’s entirely possible that this full-size iPad update was not planned, but rather in response to the harsh criticism to the new iPad’s excessive heat and slightly thicker design. It’s a different story for the iPad mini, though, which if it really exists, was likely in the pipeline for more than a year. Either way, you might want to leave a spot open at the top of your Santa wish list ’cause all signs point to some sort of iPad launching prior to the holidays.



Amazon Is Reportedly Working On A Smartphone, But Cracking The Market Won’t Be Easy

Posted: 06 Jul 2012 07:18 AM PDT

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Amazon’s Kindle Fire has done a remarkable job carving out its own niche in the tablet space, and it seems a sequel is already barreling down the pipeline for a release in the coming months. That new tablet may not be alone though, as rumblings of yet another Amazon hardware project have started up once again.

After conferring with their sources, Bloomberg reported late yesterday evening that Amazon is working on a new smartphone that they hope will go toe-to-toe with the iPhone and Android smartphones.

For those keeping tabs on rumors of Amazon’s potential forays into hardware, this doesn’t exactly come as a surprise — Citi analysts Mark Mahaney and Kevin Chang first pointed at the possibility of an Amazon smartphone after a series of supply chain checks with Chinese hardware manufacturers last year. What’s more, they also fingered Foxconn as one of Amazon’s conspirators in the project, a tidbit that Bloomberg’s sources confirm.

Sadly, the report is light on some of the juicier details — what OS it runs, how far along the project is, etc. — but there’s enough smoke here that it would be a surprise if there wasn’t any fire. Bloomberg’s report goes on to say that Amazon is bolstering its patent portfolio to give themselves some cover (sadly, this is a must for smartphone players), and Amazon’s acquisition of 3D mapping service UpNext suddenly makes a lot more sense.

That said, at this point Amazon’s potential smartphone play yields more questions than answers. There’s the issue of carrier support for one, something that Amazon luckily didn’t have to deal with when they launched the Kindle Fire.

Comparatively speaking, tablets are easy — slap a Wi-Fi radio in there and you’re off to the connectivity races. That approach obviously doesn’t cut it if Amazon plans on making a splash with a smartphone, and the company will need to link up with one (or more) wireless carriers in order to give their new device some legs. There’s also an argument to be made that carriers aren’t exactly fans of rocking the boat, and the prospect of selling a phone simply because it has Amazon’s name on it may not be the most comforting one to mull over.

Successful smartphones also require a hook — be it thoughtful design, a strong spec sheet, or forward-thinking features. Again, we don’t know what Amazon has planned on any of those fronts, but for their sake it had better be something good. What they almost certainly can’t do though is what they did with the Kindle Fire.

The Kindle Fire is a completely adequate device, but what really made it shine when it launched was its low price tag. Its sheen has begun to wane a bit since Google’s superior Nexus 7 was revealed at I/O, and Amazon is bound to face a similar situation if they branch out into the smartphone space.

Just being cheap isn’t good enough there — most smartphones are attached to multi-year contracts and have their price tags slashed as a result, so there’s literally no shortage of solid devices at nearly every price point. There is of course the possibility that Amazon will try something really novel like selling a super-cheap unlocked smartphone and let users choose their own GSM provider, but I suspect that’s a bit too off the beaten path for them.

Arguably, Amazon’s hook is their ecosystem. Easy access to Amazon’s vast stores of content combined with thoughtful integration of services like CloudDrive could make Amazon a real contender. Still, that won’t appeal to everyone, and it becomes a question of positioning at that point — serious workaholics and power users may want to find something different, but pitching the device as a one-stop shop to everything Amazon has to offer could be a boon for the all-important first time smartphone owner segment.

Much of the device’s potential appeal also rests on the operating system it runs on, and Android is a very likely choice considering their track record with the Kindle Fire. The question then becomes what will Amazon do to Android — the heavily tweaked fork seen on the Fire bears very little resemblance to the mobile OS that most of us know, and it’s not impossible to think that Amazon would do something similar for a new smartphone in an attempt to make it stand out among a sea of competitors.

All things considered, Amazon has a chance at successfully cracking the smartphone market, but they’ve got a long road ahead of them. Plenty of established players still have trouble crafting a formula to satisfy users, and Amazon has more than a little hubris going on if it thinks it can make a name for itself in this terribly competitive space. Then again, hubris is sometimes exactly what it takes pull something crazy off, so the rest of us will just have to wait and see what happens.

[Image via Shutterstock]



Apple Resets App Ratings For Developers Affected By App Crashing Bug, But Negative Reviews Remain

Posted: 06 Jul 2012 07:16 AM PDT

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One more update on this week’s “app-ocalypse” – Apple says it has resolved the issue which caused iOS and Mac apps to crash upon launch, and it has now pushed out new, untainted updates to fix the previously corrupted apps.

But in developers’ minds, the bigger worry here had been what to do about all those angry, one-star customer reviews related to crashes which were not their fault? It seems Apple is taking care of that, too.

According to the developers we’ve spoken with, the one-star reviews are not actually being removed from the iTunes App Store, they’re just being hidden. There seems to be some confusion on this point, however. For example, the folks at Readdle, makers of the Scanner Pro, blogged about the situation, noting that “Apple has decided to remove ALL comments of corrupted apps on the App Store, since many of those get 1-star ratings from angry users.”

But when we pointed out to Denys Zhadanov, Readdle’s Marketing Manager, that there are still many negative reviews remaining in plain sight, he agreed, saying that, he thinks what has actually happened is that Apple has relocated those reviews off the app’s main page. You can’t see all the bad comments people left because of the app crashes unless you click on “All Versions” in iTunes and scroll down, he says.

We should point out that this is only the case in the iTunes desktop software. In the mobile App Store, you can simply tap on “More Reviews” and scroll down to find the negative rants from angry customers (see photo on right as well as other examples here and here and here). We’ve checked into several of the affected apps this morning and were still able to pull up reviews with one-star ratings related to the app crashes – so, no, they were not removed entirely.

While it’s not fun for developers to see negative reviews for a problem that they were powerless to fix, it makes sense to not wipe out all the customer reviews that came in while the issue was occurring. As Readdle’s blog post points out, some of its users installed an uncorrupted update and left good reviews – and they didn’t want to lose those, they said.

Instead, it appears what Apple has done is to take away the impact of the one-star ratings. The review’s text remains, but the one star will no longer lower the app’s review average. Here’s how Joe LeBlanc of Metronome+ explained it to me this morning: “there are two review averages that iTunes tracks, your all-time average and the average for the latest release only. In the App Store, they initially show the all-time average upon a new update release, but when the app has gotten five new reviews, they show only the average for the latest release.”

He says that when Apple pushed out the updates for all the affected applications, it had the effect of “resetting” the review average. In other words, the one-star reviews don’t disappear, but their effect on the all-time average has been somewhat mitigated by the forced update process.

One developer tells us the same resolution hasn’t yet occurred in the Mac App Store, but he suspects that’s because Apple is taking care of the iOS App Store first.

As for developer sentiment, it has been across the board. Some says they think Apple handled the situation well while others say the experience has been “miserable.” Just remember folks, Apple is not infallible.

Image credit: thetechbuzz on flickr



Mobile Gaming Startup Zipline Games Raises $750,000 More From Seattle Angels

Posted: 06 Jul 2012 06:00 AM PDT

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So can we all agree that the future of gaming is mobile, and if you’re not building fun apps for your game studio, you’re missing out on a huge potential audience and huge monetization opportunity? If there’s any lesson from the success of Rovio’s Angry Birds or OMGPOP’s Draw Something, it’s that people love nothing more than putzing around on their mobile phones when they’ve got nothing better to do. And so that’s why startups like Zipline Games are so exciting.

Zipline recently raised an additional $750,000, adding to a nearly $2 million seed round that includes Seattle-based investors such as Founders Co-Op, Benaroya Capital, Groundspeak, and Pioneer Venture Partners. The Seattle-based game studio has 16 employees and hopes to use the funding to create more games and to increase development of its Moai mobile gaming development platform.

Zipline has created popular mobile games like Wolf Toss and Slots Tycoon, which are available for iPhone and Android devices. But in addition to its own games studio, Zipline has created a platform called Moai which games developers can use to build advanced mobile games.

Moai uses the Lua programming language to build cross-platform mobile- and cloud-based apps. It also provides all the tools developers need to power their games in the cloud — stuff like storage, leaderboards, achievements, and notifications.

According to founder Todd Hooper, Moai isn’t for anyone to quickly develop games. In fact, the company’s aim is to provide the tools needed by more advanced game studios — which have mostly built for consoles — and provide them the tools necessary to make really compelling mobile game experiences.

That’s a pitch which seems to be resonating, as the platform has been chosen by a number of gaming studios to create apps that have appeared in top 20 lists on the Apple App Store, Google Play, and Chrome Web Store. Double Fine Productions, for instance, which raised $3.3 million on Kickstarter in March, is using Moai to build its Double Fine Adventure game. And the recently released StrikeFleet Omega from 6waves also leverages the platform.

The Moai team is hoping to get even more game developers signed up, and Hooper said the company has some pretty exciting partner announcements coming up soon. So there’s that. In the meantime, game on.



Microsoft’s Imagine Cup Student Competition Turns 10, Gets Underway In Sydney

Posted: 06 Jul 2012 01:30 AM PDT

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Microsoft’s Imagine Cup is probably one of the world’s best-known student technology competitions and Microsoft itself likes to call it “the world’s premier student technology competition.” Every year, thousands of local teams compete to represent their country in the finals. Over the last 10 years, over 1.65 million students from over 190 countries have participated in the event in some form or another. Ever since the first event in Barcelona, Microsoft has hosted the Imagine Cup in a different city around the world. This year, the event is going down under and is taking place is Sydney, Australia, where about 350 jet lagged students from 75 countries descended on the city’s convention center today to register, fine-tune their presentations and kick the event off in style.

In a way, the Imagine Cup is similar to some of the pitch competitions we’re all familiar with: students present their projects in front of a panel of judges and over the course of the next few days, the field is winnowed down to six finalists who then get one last chance to describe their products and business models before the winner is chosen. Thanks to how international the event is, though, the overall atmosphere is definitely more like the World Cup, with the marked difference that teams that don’t move on to the next phase tend to cheer for other teams from their region.

“Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.”

This year, the competition’s theme is “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.” The students who made it to the finals definitely took the competition’s motto to heart. Among the projects that were chosen for the finals (all of which obviously use Microsoft’s platforms), for example, are a tool developed by the Australian team that uses a phone, a digital stethoscope and a cloud-based backend to help diagnose childhood pneumonia in developing countries.

A surprisingly large number of teams, by the way, decided to use Microsoft’s Kinect, including the Argentinian team, which uses Microsoft’s motion detection hardware for the Xbox to help people with disabilities learn about music and play virtual instruments.

As Walid Abu-Hadba, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for developer and platform evangelism, noted in a press conference in Sydney earlier today, the idea here is not just to inspire students to solve tough problems, but also to help them build sustainable businesses that help make the world a better place. Those businesses, he stressed, don’t have to come out of Silicon Valley and the Imagine Cup’s mission is, in part, to encourage students from anywhere in the world to create their own businesses, too. Students get feedback from local mentors from the beginning of the competition and some of the finalists even get a chance to present their ideas to Bill Gates and win additional grants later on.

Besides the flagship software design competition, by the way, the Cup also features two game design competitions, one focused on Windows/Xbox and one on Windows Phone, as well as competitions that focus on specific Microsoft technologies like Azure, Kinect, Windows Metro and Windows Phone.

Disclosure: Microsoft provided me with transportation to Sydney and accommodations during the event.



Higgs Boson For The Layman

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 11:31 PM PDT

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Yesterday afternoon, I was looking for a science-obsessed TC writer to take on the Higgs Boson story. Instead, I got an extremely elegant Yammer summation of the discovery news from TechCrunch executive assistant Greg Barto. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

When I asked him later via text where he learned about physics, Greg said, “My dad got me into it as a kid. Also been a fan of Steven Hawking and read his books. This has been on the verge of discovery for like five years so I’ve been following it.”

Video of Greg spinning around in a barrel in Beijing, below.

Greg Barto Fooling Around in the Disrupt VIP Dinner


British Airways Borders On Creepy With “Know Me” Google Identity Check

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 10:32 PM PDT

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British Airways is using Google Images to develop passenger dossiers for checking people out as they come through the gate. Now that’s what you call customer service.

At least that’s British Airways spin. Privacy advocates have a different take.

According to The Evening Standard, the airline is facing considerable backlash today after it announced a plan to launch a program called "Know Me.” The new intelligence tool uses Google Images to find pictures of passengers for staff to use so they can approach them as they arrive at the terminal or plane.

In many respects, British Airways is doing what they have been told to do. Go to any vendor conference these days and you will hear executives talk about the power of social. A favorite theme: how to draw analysis from customer data, social streams and the Web.

That’s exactly what British Airways is doing. The plan is to collect data from its own systems and that from Google and other sources.

Here’s what Jo Boswell, head of customer analysis at BA had to say:

 "We're essentially trying to recreate the feeling of recognition you get in a favourite restaurant when you're welcomed there, but in our case it will be delivered by thousands of staff to millions of customers. This is just the start — the system has a myriad of possibilities for the future."

Ray Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research said in an interview today that it’s pretty basic.This would all be okay if passengers had some clue about what personal data British Airways planned to use.

“Before you put a program together like KnowMe it’s only right to ask passengers for permission first,” Wang said in an interview today. “Otherwise it’s borderline creepy.”

British Airways maintains it is developing a service that will allow it to offer a new level of personal service. But without trust, there is nothing.

“When companies and brands seek to put new customer experiences together, they have to figure out how their customers wish to be engaged,” Wang said.  ”They should also give customers control over what data they want to share and what data the company has on them.  That’s how you build trust. and trust is  the new social currency.”



500Friends Predicts And Rewards Big Retailers’ Most Valuable Customers

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 08:01 PM PDT

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Not all customers are created equal — that’s the idea behind a new product from Y Combinator-backed loyalty startup 500Friends.

The company already allowed businesses to reward customers for activity like referring friends, writing reviews, checking in on Foursquare, and so on. Recently, however, it released an enterprise product that does a lot more.

CEO Justin Yoshimura says the new product creates “archetypes” of different kinds of customers, then uses the businesses’ data to determine which archetypes are going to be the most valuable, either in terms of dollars spent or social influence. Then, when a new customer comes to a website, a business can match them against the different archetypes, effectively identifying which ones are likely to be the most valuable and allowing businesses to give them special service and offers. Yoshimura says:

“For example, if you purchased a necklace from Ice.com, we could compare your datapoints (what you bought, your facebook interests, and what other sites you’ve visited) against their BEST customers and influencers to PREDICT your lifetime value. If you are determined to be a potential high value customer, your order could be overnighted.”

Hopefully, that service will fill customers with warm, fuzzy feeling so they keeping buying from you or tweet good things. Of course, you may be a bit grumpy to hear about this if you’re not in one of the desirable archetypes. But that’s just the reality, Yoshimura says — for most retailers, “the margin just isn’t there” that you can overnight products to everyone. He adds that ideally, a business should give all of their customers good service, but then provide a “ridiculously amazing experience” when it really counts.

500Friends launched the enterprise product in April, Yoshimura says, and it has already signed up six of the top 100 retailers, but the company hasn’t been talking about until now. It’s also running a special promotion called the Win/Win Challenge, where the business that offers the best customer loyalty experience wins $25,000 or 1 million airlines miles.



Ridejoy Will Roll Out Drivers’ License Verification, Re-Launch ‘BurningManRides’ On Tuesday

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 07:27 PM PDT

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Seeking to stand out in a crowded field of questionably differentiable ride-sharing companies, Ridejoy will release digital identification verification for driver's licenses and passports on Tuesday. They will also offer optional background checks and re-launch BurningManRides.com.

"Safety is the biggest concern people have about ridesharing and collaborative consumption in general, and seeing that someone’s ID is on file and matched with the other info we have is a huge reassurance," co-founder Kalvin Wang tells us.

Ridejoy's current safety procedures rely mainly on users' vetting of each other through social networks, using Facebook authentication, user reviews and references and a safety checklist sent to users.

Starting Tuesday, users can put their driver's license or passport in front of a webcam; Ridejoy will then check the identification information against the information the user has provided when joining Ridejoy. Wang said most users–he estimated 80%–sign up for the service by connecting through Facebook.

Ridejoy’s main competitor, Zimride, also uses Facebook Connect as well as testimonials and a number of other safety features; however, they do not verify users’ drivers’ licenses or passports. This could give Ridejoy an edge in the market, although adopting a verification system would not be difficult for Zimride. Ridejoy tells us they also try to stand out by being easy to use and developing a community–but users can only see this once they join the site.

Wang explained that users' biggest concerns are about safety. While Ridejoy's safety checklist already tells users to take photos of their companions' identification, users complained that it was annoying and could be awkward to do.

Citing statistics that there are 2.3 billion long-distance trips every year and 76% of them are single-occupancy vehicles, Wang and co-founder Jason Shen hope these features allow Ridejoy to attract a larger audience.

"You have massive amount of what's essentially inventory and we just need to make it convenient and safe," Wang said.

"This idea of sharing resources is still just getting off the ground," Shen added. "Things like this safety feature are the kinds of things that will really open up ridesharing for everybody."

Wang said the verification would work for IDs from dozens of countries from five continents. The company already includes rides to and from Vancouver, Canada, and Wang said they "definitely plan to expand to other parts of the country later this year."

On Tuesday, the company is also re-launching BurningManRides.com, Ridejoy's original site. Wang went to Burning Man in 2010 when they were getting ready to launch Ridejoy and they decided to launch a "bare-bones, Burning Man-specific" site. They launched in early August, 2011 for the late August festival and saw 1,600 rides get posted as well as five plane rides. Wang and Shen took a plane ride back with a man they described as "a 55-year old Indiana Jones."

I wonder if “The Janky Barge crew” will be offering rides this year.

Finally, the founders told us Ridejoy has three thousand active rides listed at any given time, up from just a thousand earlier this year; they will be launching a mobile app later this summer.

(Photo Courtesy of Flickr/Robert Scales)



Big Data Startup Clustrix Raises $6.75 Million From Sequoia And Others To Build Scalable Databases

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 06:27 PM PDT

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Pretty much everyone nowadays is chasing after the opportunity to take a shit-ton of unstructured data, and well, structure it. That means taking huge databases and making them searchable. Which is exactly the business that Clustrix is in. The company was founded in 2005 and about two years ago, it launched a proprietary database appliance that provides SQL database functionality at like, limitless scale.

Now with its product mature and the market wide open, Clustrix has raised $6.75 million from existing investors Sequoia Capital, USVP, and ATA Ventures. Robin Purohit, who took over as president and CEO of the company last October, tells me that it’s a round of convertible debt being used as a bridge to an upcoming Series C round.

After signing up the early adopter market, it’s now going after rapid customer acquisition, and Purohit says the funding is going to be used to aggressively build out the Clustrix sales force. The company is already expanding, with headcount increasing from about 40-some employees when he joined to 60 today. Since he joined, the company has also made significant executive hires, bringing in a new VP of sales and a new chief marketing officer.

Clustrix previously raised $12 million, including a Series B round that it closed in December 2010. Prior to that, it was part of the Y Combinator winter class of 2006. The company is headquartered in San Francisco, with an R&D office in Seattle. It just opened up a European headquarters in Amsterdam, with plans to add another office in India later this year.



Nielsen: Digital Music Sales Up 14% So Far This Year, On Pace To Set New Sales Record

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 04:55 PM PDT

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Nielsen today announced its 2012 mid-year SoundScan numbers for the U.S. and the trends look pretty familiar: digital album sales were up 14% compared to the same time period last year and digital track sales were up 6%. Overall, music sales were up 6%, though overall album sales were down a little bit (-0.6%), as the sales numbers of physical CDs continues to drop. Still, Nielsen says CD album sales still accounted for 61% of all album sales in the last six months. That’s down from 66% last year, but still higher than most of us who live in the digital world would expect.

Overall, says Nielsen, digital album and track sales are on track to set new sales records by the end of the year. Digital sales now represent 57.7% of all music sales, up from 53% in the first half of 2011. "Sales trended well in the first half of the year," said David Bakula, Nielsen’s SVP of client development in a canned statement today. "While retail sales continue to face challenges related to broader market trends, digital sales gains are expected to achieve another record-breaking year.”

It’s worth noting, by the way, that there is still life in analog as well: sales of vinyl albums grew just as fast as digital sales (14%) over the last six months (though the bestselling vinyl album, Jack White’s Blunderbuss, only sold 18,000 units).

The numbers for total album sales may have looked a bit different though if it weren’t for Adele’s 21 – an album that was released all the way back in January 2011. It’s still the bestselling album of the year so far, with over 3.6 million total units sold (and almost 900,000 digital sales). That’s far ahead of the #2 album, Lionel Richie’s Tuskegee, which sold just over 900,000 units in total.



Fab.com For The Mass Market: NoMoreRack Sees $46M In 2012 Revenue With No Outside Funding

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 04:43 PM PDT

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eCommerce is going through a second revolution, and flash sales have become a big part of that story over the last two years. Sites like Gilt, Rue La La and Fab have been getting a lot of attention from both consumers and investors. Yet, while many flash sales sites focus on luxury products or fashion, NYC-based startup NoMoreRack is finding success by trying to give consumers the things they need in everyday life at reduced prices — to enable users to afford products they couldn’t otherwise. Co-founder Melina Ash tells us that the startup wants to be the Walmart of deals — with a little TJ Maxx and Target to boot.

Their goal has been to cut out the middle men and work directly with suppliers to put consumers closer to the products they buy, offering an average of 70 to 80 percent off everything from consumer electronics to clothing.

Launched initially in Vancouver, the startup has flown under the radar compared to others in the space, but in just 18 months, NoMoreRack has grown like a weed. Today, the startup has grown to a team of 30, with 4.5 million subscribers, 25 million page views per month, and is selling 8,000 items a day — and 5 items per minute.

In the first two quarters of 2012, NoMoreRack did $46 million in revenue, and Ash tells us that they’re projecting to do $100 million in revenue this year. That’s not bad for a startup that hasn’t taken a penny in outside funding.

Of course, flash sales have taken a lot of heat over the last year for being more of a marketing gimmick than a disruptive eCommerce vertical complete with sustainable business models. There’s been a lot of cutbacks, layoffs, and consolidation in flash sales, in spite of the excitement from consumers over finding exciting digital venues for their impulse purchases.

But like Fab, ask the NoMoreRack founders how they define their business, and they’re quick to say they’re not a flash sales site. That’s not exactly true, as the site offers nine big deals per day, posting those discounted items for sale at the top of the site (along with hundreds of other items) in the morning and wrapping up every night, meaning that most deals last 24 hours. That sounds like a flash sales model, doesn’t it?

However, in the last few months, the startup has expanded on its core model, offering what it calls “events.” Events typically focus on one area, like household items for example, and might offer 20 to 50 related products for a longer period of time, say, three to four days, for example. This will become a larger part of the startup’s business as it attempts to evolve into a true eCommerce site, not a one-trick flash sales pony. (Part of the reason that NoMoreRack had a record day on Monday, selling 20K+ items, and just north of $500K in revenue.)

Of course, ust as the road has bumpy for flash sales sites on the whole, so, too, has it been for NoMoreRack. A quick Google search is all one needs to see that, in the beginning, the site struggled with being able to juggle working directly with retailers and wholesalers, manage quality in buying overstock, while maintaining quality customer service.

There are more than a couple of complaints to be found about having orders cancelled because of damaged goods from suppliers, or customers receiving the wrong item or not being able to get a refund without making a ton of noise. These are big problems (not to mention the poor SEO), but ones that the co-founders are quick to own up to.

At the outset, NoMoreRack advertised a penny bid auction, which caused many of those customer complaints, but the startup has since moved past any penny bid controversies to greener pastures. It now offers a “make it great” guarantee — full refund for those not satisfied with what they get, along with a 30-day window to return items.

Ash tells us that a good portion of the revenue they’ve created, they’re sinking back into customer service, knowing that their long-term viability relies not only on offering good value, but keeping their customers happy. No easy feat in the flash sales world.

Today, two stats in particular show that the company has been making progress in this regard: The co-founders tells us that 50 percent of their customers return to buy again and that 75 percent of the revenue over Q1 and Q2 came from repeat buyers.

Beyond a renewed focus on customer service, the co-founders attribute their success to focusing on a mass market, offering a broad spectrum of products, instead of going the design-driven route, like Fab. Taking a page from Zappos, NoMoreRack also focuses on fast and affordable shipping and fulfillment, offering a $2-per-item flat shipping rate.

NoMoreRack continues to tweak its model as it moves forward, with its sites set on becoming a viable online retailer in the order of the Walmarts of the world. Looking to the future, Ash sees plenty of room for growth in both apparel and household products. It’s also becoming critical for eCommerce businesses to focus on mobile — a part of the NoMoreRack business that’s been underdeveloped of late as the team focuses on managing scale.

But Ash tells us that the company is in the process of developing mobile apps, for iOS, Android, and the Web, which she hopes will launch in the next few months. The team also moved into new office space near Union Square into New York to be closer to the eCommerce action — a move which puts it in good company, thanks to Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to attract technology companies and startups to the Big Apple.

With renewed focus on mobile buying and customer service, NoMoreRack stands to become a bigger part of the online retail conversation — especially if it’s able to maintain its 70 to 80 percent discount rate. The key is cultivating an engaged membership and not wearing customers out with emails, as so many flash sales sites tend to do. That kind of value is hard to ignore.

More on NoMoreRack here.



Seedrs Goes Live To Help Crowdfund The Gap In Idea-Stage Investing

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 04:02 PM PDT

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Seed funding is difficult to raise in Europe. Often, very difficult. Though some might say that it should be when a company is only at the idea stage. But that's a view in stark contrast with Silicon Valley, which is a constant complaint aired by the European entrepreneurs that I talk to.

However, the situation in the UK at least could be about to get a whole lot better with the launch of Seedrs, a platform that aims to crowdfund the gap in “idea-stage” investing by making it easy for anybody to invest from £10 and £150,000 per-startup in return for actual equity. Three years in the making, it’s opening with full regulatory approval — an achievement that rightfully gained the startup many plaudits as it was crowned winner of the recent London Web Summit.

In conceiving Seedrs, founders Jeff Lynn and Carlos Silva, who came up with the idea while studying together at Oxford University, set out to solve two problems. The first is a lack of access to idea-stage capital for entrepreneurs and burgeoning startups.

"Unless you have rich friends and family or have worked in the City for 10 years, finding the first £50K or £75K to build an MVP is the toughest", says Lynn.

That's because the startup is too small for VCs and too early for Angels — a familiar story for anybody who has tried to raise early-stage capital in the UK or elsewhere in Europe (and I’ve actually been lucky enough to have successfully done so). Accelerators, on the other hand, help bridge the gap a little but “don’t go far enough”.

The second problem is that seed investing is currently restricted to the 1% of high net-worth individuals due to the relatively steep financial barriers to entry.

"The 'mass affluent' — the "2%-20%" — want to be able to invest in startups (due to returns, enjoyment, social reasons or a mix of all three) but can't do so now because the ticket size is too high. We solve both problems by connecting idea-stage entrepreneurs with mass affluent investors", he says.

In terms of the mechanisms, Seedrs takes money off the table at two points in the process. A fee of 7.5% is charged on any amount raised through the platform, which is deducted before the balance is transferred to the startup. Therefore, if the fundraising isn't successful then using the platform doesn't cost anything. And there is second charge of 7.5% levied on any returns that investors make above their original investment, whether through the proceeds of a sale, dividends or "other payments from the startup to the investors". So in a big exit scenario, Seedrs could make a tidy sum.

In return, Seedrs takes care of the administration and holds the shares as nominee. They don't take a seat on the board, however, but play a role “roughly equivalent to what the leader of an Angel syndicate would, ensuring compliance with the subscription agreement, preventing the company from doing ridiculous things like issuing a million shares to the founders' friends for a penny each, and so forth."

For the startups that apply to the platform, there is a vetting process of sorts, consisting of a disclosure review and standard due diligence. "We do not make a business judgment about a startup, and as long as they are pre-revenue, seeking £150K or less and not doing something unethical, illegal or just plain absurd, we want to let them onto the platform and let the investors decide who to back", says Lynn.

Investors also have to go through an approval process that at least requires them to prove that they know the risks involved with early-stage investing.

"For any would-be investor who does not self-certify as high-net-worth or sophisticated (under very specific FSA definitions), we put him or her through an Investment Authorisation Questionnaire."

This looks at educational and professional background, and consists of multiple choice questions about the risks involved in investing in startups.

On that note, upon hearing Seedrs’ pitch, my first reaction was not more “dumb money", to which a few of my Twitter followers responded that even dumb money is better than no money. And of course that's true, although perhaps I was being a bit too flippant, as Lynn explains.

"There is a view that to succeed as a startup you need to have Dave McClure involved, but we think that's nonsense – Dave is a great guy I'm sure, but the celebrity cult behind startup investing, particularly at seed stage, is silly."

Instead, Lynn argues that the advice, support and connections that two-to-three hundred investors can provide is "more valuable than having one or two famous Angels behind you". And he could well be right.

To that end, Seedrs provides a private page on its platform through which the funded startups can communicate back and forth with their investors. "Beyond that, investors are welcome to reach out to startups directly and offer to get involved however they see fit, and startups are welcome to accept or reject the offer", says Lynn.

Meanwhile, Seedrs itself doesn’t appear to have had the fundraising challenges faced by the startups its trying to help. Earlier this year the company raised a £1 million investment from DFJ Esprit, Digital Prophets (backed by Luke Johnson and managed by the investors behind 1seed) and “a number of angel investors from leading technical and financial backgrounds.”



Index Shows iOS Programming Language Now In Top 3 As Mobile Development Booms

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 03:15 PM PDT

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According to the TIOBE IndexObjective-C is now more popular than C++, showing proof that mobile development is surging ahead as we enter the post-PC era.

Objective-C is the object-oriented programming language used by developers for iOS.  It had its start in 1983, the same year C++ was created.  C++ proved far more popular over the years. But in 1988, Steve Jobs changed the course of Objective-C’s future when he licensed it for NeXT. It had less than 1% market share until 2009 when iOS development really started to take off, thanks largely to the iPhone and iPad.

The two programming languages do not really compete very much anymore, as the TIOBE index shows . C++ is used heavily in large high-performance systems whereas Objective-C is mainly used in the mobile apps industry.

Also of note: the Java programming language dropped to the number two spot. It traded spots with the C programming language which benefitted from Java’s 3.16% drop compared to this time last year.

TIOBE provides a monthly index. According the site, “the ratings are based on the number of skilled engineers world-wide, courses and third party vendors. The popular search engines Google, Bing, Yahoo!, Wikipedia, Amazon, YouTube and Baidu are used to calculate the ratings.”

Here’s a look at how the programming languages compare.

The rankings should be taken as an anecdote about the state of the market for programing languages. For example, the rankings are much different from what Stephen O’Grady posted in February on the RedMonk blog. He ranked Objective-C twelfth overall.

The ranking difference is largely due to the criteria each use. RedMonk tiers programming languages and compares data from communities such as GitHub, Stack Overflow and LinkedIn while as noted, TIOBE looks largely at search engines.

The rankings provide context for the state of overall enterprise application development. Java, the long time enterprise favorite, may be showing signs that it is dropping off in popularity compared to Objective-C and others.

Look at O’Grady’s findings and you can glean another story. His results show the fracture in the programming language landscape. They reflect how vendors are changing their views in what languages to support. Java and Microsoft are not the only software stacks any more. Vendors need to consider a host of options. He explains that is why in many respects that platform-as-a-service (PaaS) stacks like Cloud Foundry and OpenShift differentiated at launch with support for multiple programming languages.

The future for enterprise vendors will look more like what CloudFoundry and OpenShift are doing. But the overall driver for growth will be the apps that developers build. In that respect, I expect Objective-C will continue to grow in popularity across the enterprise landscape as the mobile market continues to boom.



Y Combinator-Backed Delight.io Lets Developers See What Beta Users Are Really Doing In Their Apps

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 03:10 PM PDT

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Good developers are constantly trying to get feedback on the user experience and navigation of their apps, in an effort to improve them before launch. But few tools exist right now that allow them to do so, outside of just watching beta users over their shoulders.

Delight.io was launched to solve that problem. By just adding a single line of code to their iOS apps, developers can now record users sessions in video, and see how users interact with the touch screen while controlling those apps. That will allow developers in turn to improve the user experience, streamline navigation, and eliminate confusing controls.

It works like this: Developers throw a line of code into apps that they’re testing out. Once that’s done, they can begin recording user sessions through a web-based dashboard. The service then works by uploading user sessions silently in the background whenever someone opens and begins using the app in question. Developers have control over when sessions are recorded and how they’re uploaded, whether users are on WiFi or cellular networks. The resulting videos take up less than 1 MB for each minute of video recorded.

After sessions are over, recorded videos appear in the developer’s web dashboard. They show user’s interactions with the touch screen as a blue dot on the screen, allowing developers to see exactly what users are clicking on. The videos also automatically block secure UITextField entries, blacking out keystrokes and protecting user privacy when they enter sensitive information like passwords.

Delight.io was created by Y Combinator alum Thomas Pun and the team behind social video app Nowbox. They built the service for themselves initially to test out how users were playing with the Nowbox app, and to improve navigation on it. But now they’ve made the same functionality available to other developers.

Initially, the team is offering up 50 free recording sessions to developers who sign up to Delight.io, either through Twitter or Github. After that, they’re able to purchase additional recording sessions, either at the price of $50 for 20 sessions, or $100 for 50 sessions. But Pun told me that he and the team are still trying to refine the pricing structure, including working with developers on a plan for unlimited recorded sessions.

The product is still in its early stages, but the team continues to add new features. Not too long ago, it added OpenGL support, and now also works with development tools like Unity, PhoneGap, and cocos2d. As the product matures, it’s bound to add even more useful features, like maybe the ability to create aggregated views of usage based on multiple recording sessions. Even so, for what started as just a hobby, it still seems incredibly useful.



Tapjoy Looks Beyond Gaming, Brings Virtual Rewards To Popcornflix

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 01:29 PM PDT

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Tapjoy is best known as a monetization service for mobile games, but the company is working to expand into other industries. Case in point — a just-announced partnership with movie-streaming site Popcornflix.

Owned by Screen Media Ventures, Popcornflix allows its website visitors to watch movies (mostly independent titles that I haven’t heard of) for free. With the planned launch of an Android app called Popxornflix Gold, Popcornflix viewers will be able to watch movies on their phones, but they’ll have to spend Popcornflix Points to access the content. And to earn those points, they’ll have to interact with advertising.

This will be the first movie-watching app to use virtual rewards, according to Tapjoy CMO Peter Dille. He’s pitching Tapjoy’s combination of ads and virtual rewards as a smart way for mobile app developers to make money — not just in games, but in entertainment and other industries.

“The world is trying to come to grips to what makes sense in mobile,” Dille says. “Pop-ups and pre-roll don’t seem to make sense.”

Other non-gaming apps that have partnered with Tapjoy include TextFree, Appzilla, and AppDog. Dille says that for the most part, Tapjoy is doing the recruiting, but with “the huge trend towards the gamification of content, it’s not a huge leap for folks” to sign on.

Popcornflix plans to release the Android app in early August, with other platforms to follow.



Olympus Yells “Me Too!” With The MEG4.0 Wearable Display Prototype

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 01:28 PM PDT

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Watch out, Google. Here comes Olympus with the MEG4.0 and don’t dismiss this as a Google Glass knockoff. Olympus has been researching and developing wearable displays for more than 20 years. The MEG4.0 concept, and with that, its eventual production counterpart, has been a long time coming and could be a serious competitor in the space.

Olympus made it clear in today’s announcement that the 30g MEG4.0 is both a prototype and a working name. The stem-like system sits on one side of the glasses and connects to a tablet or phone through Bluetooth. A 320 x 240 virtual screen floats above the wearer’s eye line. The MEG4.0 is designed for all-day use and should last eight hours on a charge, although Olympus states the glasses are designed for bursts of use, 15-seconds at a time.

Google isn’t the only player in the augmented reality game. In fact several companies have toyed with the concept for the last few years including Olympus. The company introduced a working set of AR glasses back in 2008. Called the Mobile Eye-Trek (shown above) the glasses were designed to be worn on a daily basis, feeding information like email to the wearer on a screen placed 50cm in front of the eyes, making it appear as a 3.8-inch screen.

While the Mobile Eye-Track never hit the retail market, Olympus indicated at the time that the prototype would lead to a production version by 2012.

However, much like Google, Olympus is not revealing the user interface yet. If the MEG4.0 is to be a success, the interface, and more importantly, the depth of the information available needs to be as mature as Google Glass. Price and availability was not announced.



Apple Responds To And Fixes App Crashing Issues, DRM Software To Blame

Posted: 05 Jul 2012 12:30 PM PDT

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Just a quick update on the issues plaguing Apple’s iOS and Mac App Stores: Apple has now informed developers that it’s aware of the problem and is working on a resolution. For background, a serious problem has been discovered in the iOS and Mac App Stores which has been causing apps to immediately crash after users update to the most recent version. This is now day three of the problem, and Apple had yet to respond to the situation until this afternoon.

You can read about the app crashing problem in detail in our earlier post here, but the short of it is that corrupt app store binaries, and possibly some problem related to Apple’s FairPlay DRM, is at the root of these mysterious crashes.

According to our developer sources, Apple has now responded to numerous complaints in its Developer Forums with a brief statement posted by username “iTunesConnect.”

The statement reads:

“We are aware of the issue related to apps crashing after update. We are currently working on resolving the issue. Stay tuned for updates.”

Apple has also reached out to developers via email, again responding to the issue with a fairly generic statement:

If a customer reports receiving an error when downloading your app from the App Store, he or she can receive direct help from the iTunes Store Customer Support team:

http://www.apple.com/support/itunes/

If the iTunes Store Customer Support team determines that the issue lies with your app and not with the App Store or the customer’s account, Apple will contact you to resolve this issue.

Please let us know if you need additional assistance regarding your app.

The email also included a phone number to call, and, according to a developer who was able to reach a support representative, Apple informed him that it is aware of the problem and now has a dedicated team looking into it. This new team will be sending out additional information to developers via email shortly, this person was told.

We’ll update as we learn more.

Update: One developer said he noticed this issue back in late June, but assumed it was an isolated incident. Another said that while the support rep on the phone wasn’t in the position to make promises, he got the sense that Apple will make an effort to fix the damages done by the bug in terms of the negative customer reviews.

Update, 5:53pm Pacific Time: Apple provided the following statement to AllThingsD, saying that a DRM issue (which we heard about earlier from developers), was the cause of the problem. The full statement below:

We had a temporary issue that began yesterday with a server that generated DRM code for some apps being downloaded. The issue has been rectified and we don't expect it to occur again.

Few users were affected, Apple also said, and those people can now re-download apps that had issues.



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