Microsoft Support for HTML 5 Helps Break A Logjam But Does It Matter?

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html5.jpgThe news broke yesterday about the Microsoft General Manager who said that that the “future of the Web is HTML 5.”

But it’s important enough for us to write about even if in the long run it still does not solve the issues with earlier versions of the Internet Explorer browser.


The news came from Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft’s general manager, for Internet Explore. Of note:

“Today, video on the web is predominantly Flash-based. While video may be available in other formats, the ease of accessing video using just a browser on a particular website without using Flash is a challenge for typical consumers. Flash does have some issues, particularly around reliability, security, and performance. We work closely with engineers at Adobe, sharing information about the issues we know of in ongoing technical discussions. Despite these issues, Flash remains an important part of delivering a good consumer experience on today’s web.”

It’s this kind of development that will give more developers the confidence to build HTML 5 apps. But does it really matter that much? IE has been hands off in how it deals with support for HTML 5 on its existing browsers. Further, full support for HTML 5 is nonexistent across Chrome, Safari, Opera, Firefox and IE. We have no release schedule for IE 9 but it will support HTML 5.

HTML 5 is very cool. But IE’s market share is not to be taken lightly.

From Psyked:

“You can’t ignore 40-60% of your users because they use a browser that isn’t up to the same standard as its competitors. I’d dearly like too, but I can’t. Which means everything has to be developed without HTML5 & CSS 3, either using browser targeting and using multiple styles and coding options, or developed to the lowest common denominator – IE.

You might say that things will eventually catch up – but considering IE6 is still at 10% market share, you’re always going to be developing something for IE6, or IE7, or IE8. None of which have very much HTML5 support at all. IE9 isn’t going to be available for users on Windows XP, which means the best they’ll ever get is IE8, which means… argh, this really isn’t going to work.”

Microsoft’s acknowledgement should be viewed as a positive one for developers. HTML 5 can be used universally on any device. Google thinks that’s important. It’s good to see Microsoft showing that sentiment, too.

But still, let’s not give this too much credence, either. Microsoft’s first allegiance is to Silverlight. That’s not going to change.

We referenced a Forrester viewpoint post last week that illustrates the reality of the situation:

“Will HTML 5 make rich Internet application (RIA) technologies such as Adobe Flash/Flex and Microsoft Silverlight obsolete? For at least the next five years, the answer is a definite “no”; inconsistent implementations of the draft HTML 5 specification and immature tooling make building HTML 5 apps that work consistently across browsers and operating systems a real challenge. Furthermore, this “either/ or” scenario is driven only by vendor politics, not by developer realities. Ultimately, HTML 5 and RIA platforms will be complementary technologies, and enterprise development shops will need to invest in both approaches to deliver expressive applications that combine reach and richness.”

Well, vendor politics will always be rich in themselves. In the meantime, HTML 5 sure is sexy. Unfortunately, it may be a while before we see how beautiful it really is.


How JavaScript will lead the way to open video

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Editor’s note: This story is part of our Microsoft-sponsored series on cutting-edge innovation. Shay David is the vice president of business and community development at Kaltura, a company offering video tools for publishers.

The “open Web”, a vision for the future of the Internet that is participatory, collaborative, and free from vendor lock-in is finally coming to fruition. Following Mozilla Firefox’s successful wedge of open Web standards into the browser platform, today we see every browser vendor and every web-enabled device gravitating towards supporting a vendor-neutral platform for rich media web experiences.

Like many contentious agreements, the devil is in the details — and there are a lot of details. This article will highlight how the industry is transitioning away from targeting a single vendor (Adobe Flash) for rich media web experiences to instead targeting multiple rich media web browsers. In this environment, middle-layer solutions will bridge the small differences between implementations.

Businesses looking to take advantage of the promise of a single platform to deliver rich web experiences should also be looking towards middle layer solutions to help bridge the small gaps in rich media implementations.

The open Web has traditionally faced significant challenges when it comes to the handling of rich media, including video, audio and multi-media. Rich media on the web has been a battle ground for proprietary solutions for years. Adobe Flash has won the current battle and is now the de facto standard for rich media on the desktop web. But it’s not supported by the iPhone or the iPad. [Editor’s note: In fact, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs published a long essay this week criticizing Flash.] The new specifications for rich-media handling that are part of HTML5, the latest version of the basic language of the Web, are a great leap forward in addressing these challenges. They specify a vendor neutral, device neutral way of including rich media in webpages, just like images are handled today.

However, HTML5 requires a transition period. Until there is wide industry adoption and universal agreement on all the details of the specification, systems will be required to support existing media playback systems in cases where HTML5 is not supported. In the next few years, we will likely see open source JavaScript middle layers drawing from both Flash and HTML5 to build robust solutions for rich media web experiences. This robustness will include handling everything from analytics to playlists. During this transition period, developers can use JavaScript middle layers to bridge the current gaps between Flash and HTML5, in order to provide a unified user experience regardless of the browser and the underlying technologies that are used.

Some background about HTML5 and the future of rich-media on the Web

HTML5 aims to reduce the need for proprietary plugin-based rich Internet applications. The promise of HTML5 is that developers can write rich-media applications once, and run it on any browser, on any device, from PCs through tablets and smartphones to set-top boxes and IP-enabled televisions.

The HTML5 working group, WHATWG, is trusted with the mission of upgrading the web to support rich web experiences without dependence on proprietary technologies. True to its mission, the group has been operating in a very open manner. While key working group members are employed by major vendors, the standard creation process is open and encourages large-scale participation from web developers and browser engineers.

With all major browser vendors providing feedback or working implementations as the spec evolves, there is room for innovation while addressing a wide range of stakeholder concerns. This is no small task when vendors like Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Adobe compete for dominance in an area of rich-media, which they all perceive to be key for the future of the Web. With Microsoft’s announcement a few weeks ago that HTML5 will be supported in the next release of Internet Explorer, the standard got a big boost. But while the standard sets a high bar for interoperability, debates about the underlying technologies put the whole endeavor in jeopardy.

The most heated debate revolves around the codec agnostic nature of the HTML5 video tag. Many open web advocates promoted the idea of having a baseline, royalty-free codec supported by all the browsers be part of the specification. However when trying to get convince all the stakeholders, the standard was not able to specify a standard codec, leaving codec selection open to vendors. As a result, Apple’s Safari and Microsoft IE9 support the h.264 codec, Google Chrome supports h.264 & OGG, and Firefox exclusively supports OGG/Theora. The situation is further complicated by multiple delivery options. For example, an Apple platform will support Apple http adaptive streaming while the Google Chrome browser can only decode normal http h.264 assets, and Microsoft is likely to support Silverlight Smoothstream as a delivery option.

In other words, although all the browser vendors are participating in the HTML5 standard around video, it does not nessesaraly mean the same video with the same web page will work on all browsers.

For example, imagine a visitor who comes to your site with IE6 and Flash, or with iPad and Safari. Delivering a high quality web video experience becomes almost impossible once again, despite the standard, as the codec and delivery options require once again browser specific and device specific behavior. Moreover, as we have seen with other standards, there are likely to be many idiosyncrasies among other HTML5 feature implementations, or simply incomplete support among browsers. This will make it even more difficult to take advantage of the new features without leaving a sizable percentage of web visitors literally in the dark.

In this context, it is clear to see why the proprietary platforms like Adobe’s Flash will probably be around for quite some time.

We have been here before

If you rewind the Web a few years back, you may remember the nightmarish undertaking it was to develop any rich web experience that supported all the browsers of the day. This was not only because the browsers were not mature but also because we lacked quality JavaScript libraries that could handle browser detection and act appropriately. The latest development models were outdated.

In early 2006, jQuery hit the scene and changed the way web applications were developed and deployed. jQuery supported the emergence of new paradigms that fit what web developers actually needed. The JavaScript layer with open source development methodology enabled developers to share workarounds and chain together shortcuts of common tasks. This enabled developers to quickly build innovative rich web experiences without having to worry so much about the increasingly complicated set of underling web platforms.

Today it’s hard to imagine building a web application without using a JavaScript framework. jQuery alone is used by nearly 30 percent of the top 10,000 web sites.

In much the same way, we anticipate JavaScript libraries to emerge as bridges between the underling complexities of delivering a robust HTML5 feature set. Web developers will not have to worry about technicalities such as how their video will be played back or how their cross domain request will work. Rather, they will just issue the high level call and the underling JavaScript library will automatically map to HTML5 or Flash accordingly, allowing web developers to focus on the innovative aspects of their application, not its “plumbing”. The browser platforms are rapidly evolving to include full parity with desktop applications, including features such as 3D graphics and offline storage. As more web applications begin to make use of these feature sets, workarounds and solutions for older browsers or specific platforms and devices will become even more critical. and Kaltura’s JS library

Kaltura has developed one such library to handle HTML5 video, and has created an industry resource to get developers involved. The library was developed in partnership with the Wikimedia Foundation to handle video on Wikipedia, where only patent unencumbered free formats are supported. Kaltura’s HTML5 media library uses a “fallback” method to automatically provide the viewer with the optimal viewing experience by detecting the browser and supported formats on the backend, and displaying the right content in the right format and right container while maintaining a single look & feel and feature set. For example, if you want to deliver an h.264 video to a Firefox client, the Kaltura library would automatically switch to a Flash player in a manner that is completely transparent to the developers’ custom interface components.

To learn more, to experience HTML5 video in action, to give feedback, to get involved and to become part of changing the way video is done on the Web, go to

[Thanks to Michael Dale for help with an early draft of this post.]

The community responds

– Charles McCathieNevile, Chief Standards Officer, Opera

JavaScript libraries have become a critical tool for web developers, and they have come a long way since Macromedia produced probably the first really widely-used basic effect libraries in the last century. In particular they are helpful in dealing with cross-browser testing. Some demos do not recognize that Opera on my Mac understands HTML5 video and the free Ogg format, and want to give me a Flash version – they would obviously benefit from a well-written and well-maintained library. Likewise, libraries are important in reducing coding errors; copying in an entire maintained library is easier than remembering to write all the right pieces of code yourself.

But video does need to be coded in different versions for the time being — while more or less automatable, that’s still a piece of work you have to get right before the scripts can do all their magic. And the libraries need to be built well and used properly.

While these libraries are an important part of the solution, and for many authors will be indispensable until we get agreement on a free standard for video format, we need to remember that reaching that particular nirvana actually has practical benefit for the world — less need for script libraries means less processing, less battery used, less bandwidth, fewer programming errors (one of the original problems that the libraries already help to minimize) and a Web that works better.

– Caleb Elston, Vice President of Products,

It’s exciting to see the enthusiasm and support that browser vendors and technology companies have thrown behind HTML 5 video, but there are still issues to be resolved before we make a big move to adopt it. Our goal is to make live video part of the everyday web experience, and that means being wherever users are and creating a great experience — HTML 5 isn’t the way to do that, at least not yet.

First, supporting two new video codecs in H.264 and Theroa for a massive video library, like’s, is extremely painful; we hope to see unification on that front. Second, only a small percentage of our users even have the ability to view HTML5 video, and as a startup we will continue to focus on serving as large an audience as possible to grow our business. Finally, users embed their live and past broadcasts all over the web, and we have yet to find an easy way to make embeds usable on sites that limit Javascript use, like and Google’s Blogger.

While HTML5 is technically exciting, we only care about what our users actually experience, and today we do not see much user benefit to HTML5 video in desktop browsers.


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Only 27.3% Of Android Phones Can Use The Official Twitter Client

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Earlier today Twitter released its official Twitter app for Android — a move that’s been expected since CEO Ev Williams announced that it was coming during Twitter’s Chirp conference. In our post, we mentioned that this was only going to be available for Android 2.1, and as others have pointed out, that means we have another case of Android’s lingering fragmentation problem rearing its ugly head. But just how bad is it? We don’t have to guess.

Two weeks ago, Google updated the Platform Versions section of the official Android website, which gives the most accurate breakdown of Android fragmentation you’re going to find — it looks at how many devices running each version of the OS have accessed the official Android Market. At the time 27.3% of devices were running 2.1; 2.7% were running 2.0.1, and nearly 70% of the devices being used were on either Android 1.5 or 1.6.

Google hadn’t updated the page in four months (this is the first update since the Nexus One was released). It’s pretty clear that it was waiting for the rollout of Android 2.1 to the Motorola Droid, which took place in early April.

Obviously the majority of phones won’t be able to use the Twitter app, nor can they access the newer features Google has been rolling out with the upgraded versions of Android. Google isn’t fully to blame for this — some phone manufacturers are running custom builds of Android and are slow to upgrade (or simply don’t intend to). But developers will be looking to Google to find a way to deal with the fragmentation issue. My hunch is that things will get better at Google I/O next month, when we can expect plenty of Android-related announcements.

Here’s the full breakdown:

Posterous Starts Automatically Inserting Affiliate Links Into Sites, Forgets To Tell Users

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We’ve been tracking super-simple publishing service Posterous for quite a while now, and for the most part they’ve turned us into big fans. Unfortunately, they’ve just committed a fairly serious blunder. In a post earlier today, one Posterous user stumbled across the fact that his site was automatically converting all of his links to affiliate links using VigLink. There isn’t anything sinister about VigLink — the service helps publishers generate revenue without having to manually insert affiliate links themselves, and has received funding from Google Ventures, First Round Capital, and some prominent angel investors. But Posterous neglected to inform its users that it was starting to monetize all of their links, which is a breach of user trust.

Co-founder Sachin Agarwal agrees — in a phone interview he conceded that Posterous should definitely have informed users about the change (they’re currently drafting a statement about the incident). Agarwal says that Posterous has actually been testing the VigLink integration for months, which means the links have gone unnoticed for quite a while. But he says it’s just an experiment, and that Posterous hasn’t decided if it’s going to be keeping them in the long-term (though he agrees they should have informed users regardless).

Agarwal also says that if Posterous does wind up permanently integrating VigLink, users won’t have to take part in the program. And there’s an upside: once they’ve built the infrastructure to support it, Posterous has plans to allow its users to generate revenue from links on their own blogs, which could actually drive more people to start using the publishing platform.

It’s worth pointing out that while VigLink will convert any normal links to affiliate links whenever possible, it will ignore any links that are already connected to affiliate programs (in other words, it doesn’t overwrite existing affiliate links).

City of LA: Despite what you’ve heard, we still like Google

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It looked earlier today like Google’s work with one of its most high-profile Apps customers, the city government of Los Angeles, might be hitting some speed bumps. TechCrunch spotted a city memo stating that some early users complained about “issues and problems that have negatively affected their productivity and department operations,” leading to the extension of the pilot program and presumably delaying full implementation.

Does that mean the City of Los Angeles’ relationship with Google is on the rocks? That would be a black mark for Google Apps, the company’s bundle of online office tools like Gmail and Google Docs. Google loves to trot out LA as an example of an enormous organization entrusting its operations to web-based apps.

But a Google spokesman told me that the concerns had been overstated, and he pointed me towards a blog post from Kevin Crawford, who is managing LA’s Apps rollout:

The above issues are part of a normal Pilot and review process and [are] a normal part of a well-thought out project schedule — most large rollouts (with any technology) are built with flexible timeframes so issues can be addressed. … This is all NORMAL stuff happening here and the project is still on track to deliver per the schedule!

That sounds like a reasonable explanation. Although I suppose cloud computing skeptics could also read the post as an attempt to put a happy face on real problems.

And if you want to compare, here’s more detail from the initial letter:

At the meeting [for pilot participants] many of the departments expressed concerns about both the performance and the functionality of the new system. Performance concerns focused on the slowness with which e-mails were sent, received, and accessed in the new system. Functionality concerns focused on features currently available in GroupWise that are unavailable, or significantly different, in Google’s system. Further, the Los Angeles Police Department indicated that several security issues have yet to be resolved, and that a pilot of its technical support staff must be successfully completed before it can be expanded to the rest of the LAPD.

[image: Flickr/kla4067]

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AT&T On The iPad 3G Video Restrictions: “That’s something you need to ask Apple”

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Today in the U.S. people are getting their hands on the 3G version of the iPad for the first time. The hardware is supposed to be exactly the same as the WiFi-only version except, of course, it has a cell chip in it to receive data over AT&T’s 3G network when you’re not connected to WiFi. Since the hardware is basically the same, all the apps should function the same, right? Wrong.

Reports are already coming in that some of the most popular iPad apps — the ones that stream video — are being restricted on the new iPad 3G. Specifically, the YouTube app scales videos down to a “dramatically lower resolution over the cellular data connection,” according to iLounge. Worse, the ABC Player apparently won’t work at all unless you connect to a WiFi network, as a pop-up message informs the user. But apparently iTunes Store streaming video previews are working just fine in full resolution. No word on the Netflix app just yet.

I reached out to AT&T for comment on what’s going on. Are we going to see AT&T restricting services again (remember, in the U.S. we still have no tethering option) so their network isn’t flooded? The only response I got was, “That’s something you need to ask Apple.

I asked for clarification on that — does that mean that Apple is the one restricting the app/data, or that they’re the only ones who can comment on the matter? I have yet to hear back. I’ll update when I do. I’ve also reached out to Apple on the matter, but I doubt I’ll hear back from them.

Update: An AT&T spokesperson has responded with the following, “It’s just a question for Apple.” That’s almost an Apple-like response.

Update 2: A commenter on the iLounge post notes:

Seems some people (from what I have been told) are finding out its not AT&T that is blocking the video for the sakes of blocking video over 3G… Seems that ABC is streaming to large of a video file (or something along these lines). So ABC needs to fix there app, NETFLIX is working fine over 3G.

That could make sense as it relates to the size of the file actually being streamed as well (though overall size shouldn’t matter). On the iPhone, video is often scaled-down when network signal weakens to give optimal performance. Since even the fastest AT&T 3G connection is slower than WiFi, perhaps ABC’s quality exceeds some limit and is unable to scale down. But it’s hard to know anything for sure without either company commenting beyond “talk to them.”

Update 3: Business Insider’s Dan Frommer writes the following on Twitter:

ABC is wifi only on purpose. I believe rights play a role. (they’re different on wifi vs 3G) sounds dumb but true.

abc told me “the decision was based on a variety of business and technical considerations.” but no details

Education 2.0: The importance of ownership

This post is by from O'Reilly Radar - Insight, analysis, and research about emerging technologies.

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I’ve been teaching adults for almost twenty years. First as a lecturer, then as a professor and for the last ten years as a coach and facilitator for large organizations all over the world. I love technology and the possibility that it represents but I believe that technology can only ever enable educational success. It rarely drives. As technology becomes more pervasive we must shift our focus to the driving factors. I would argue that a key driver for educational success is the internal sense of ownership each student has for his or her own development. If they have this, they will find a way to succeed. If they don’t, the technology enables ever greater levels of complacency.

For example, companies offer more and better educational content to their employees each year via technology. The delivery mechanisms become more sophisticated, the market analysis and demographic segmentation become more precise. The richness of the experience and the connectedness of the learning with the world beyond the classroom becomes ever-broader. Do employees learn more today than they did in 1970? In 1900? I’m not sure. I’ve seen no compelling evidence either way. The ones who really want to learn, learn more. The self-starters learn more. The employees of the best companies learn at a breathtaking pace but that has more to do with these company’s ability to attract those who are committed to their own self development than it does with the quality of the educational technology. Students who own their own development use new technology well – it serves as an accelerant to their educational success. But the accelerant is not the spark.

This is the case for adults – employees in the world’s largest and richest organizations. Is it the case for children? I don’t know. Probably.

I was hiking with my son yesterday. It was a long hike for a boy his age and he asked me, “Dad, do your feet hurt?” I turned my head as we walked and said, “Yeah. They hurt. But not all hurting is bad and you wanted to get to the top of the hill. Do you want to stop?” He thought about it for a long while, ten, maybe twenty steps and said, “no, but my feet hurt too. I’ll be glad when we get to the top.” Ed 2.0 won’t make our feet not hurt. We’ll just be hiking to more wonderous places.

Ed 2.0 won’t be a kinder and gentler place, free from conflict and strife. It will be a hard place. A place where trolls and naysayers and those who would discourage others have the same loud microphone as anyone else. For each online Gandhi, an online bully. It will be a confusing place. A painful place. It will also be a wonderful place, a place where real liberation and intellectual progress will be possible in ways and on a scale we have never seen in human history.

Ed 2.0 isn’t only or even primarily about technology. It is about arming students with the tools and the fierce determination they will need to learn with and through that technology. It is about encouraging intellectual entrepreneurship – creating of our students hundreds of millions of one-person startups, kludging their way to happiness and success.

Ed 2.0 is about encouraging ownership – genuine heartfelt ownership of one’s own educational destiny. The institutions will transform faster than we can keep pace. Between the cracks of our existing educational infrastructure will grow varied species of educational delivery the likes of which we have never seen and cannot possibly forecast. What our students will need is a love of learning but we should not mistake this for an easy love affair. A love of learning is a hard relationship. Learning hurts sometimes. Learning is scary most of the time. It’s impact is all-too-often proportional to its agony. As Benjamin Franklin described it, “Those things that hurt, instruct.”

To paraphrase MLK, we must teach our students that suffering is redemptive and that that redemption takes the form of learning. Ed 2.0 is teaching a student what to do when the system doesn’t work, when the teacher is bad, when the school is failing, when the district is broke. The answer in each case is to rise above the failure and to use the power of technology to surmount each barrier. That’s the real model of liberation with technology – it’s not the gleaming cities of glass, it’s the kluge with wires poking out, too much Cat 5 cable, and the fuses in your house always on the edge of tripping because you’re downloading too much information. It’s turning on the fire hose. It’s taking the spark that is the desire to learn and building into an unquenchable fire.

Tesla Motors IPO faces new risk: CEO’s divorce trial

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The personal life of Tesla Motors chief executive Elon Musk might muddy the waters for his company’s plans to go public.

In Silicon Valley, business can be personal. Tech companies preparing to go public routinely note how dependent they are on the services of their top executives. High-profile electric automaker Tesla Motors is planning an initial public offering of stock and developing an all-electric sedan, the Model S. But the company is staying silent on the matter of its CEO Elon Musk’s pending week-long divorce trial, which begins Monday in Van Nuys, Calif.

The trial is significant because it could lead to him losing control of the company. Depending on how the trial goes, the divorce could force him to give a significant portion of his shares to his wife, and that has several ramifications for Tesla and its IPO.

Documents filed with the Superior Court of Los Angeles show that the divorce case is now scheduled for a five-day trial starting Monday, May 3. Elon Musk, who separated in the summer of 2008 from his wife Justine, a successful novelist, has previously characterized his divorce proceedings as friendly.

“This trial involves a contest over a postmarital agreement that was signed” in March 2000, six weeks after their marriage, according to Marshall Zolla, Justine Musk’s lawyer. “This aspect of the trial is not amicable.”

An ugly divorce would normally be mere fodder for celebrity weeklies. But under California’s community property laws, Justine Musk could gain stakes in Tesla and Elon Musk’s other companies, SolarCity and Space Exploration Technologies, Zolla said.

“Justine Musk is seeking to set aside the postnuptial agreement because of Elon Musk’s breach of his fiduciary duty to her,” said Zolla. “The interest in Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and SolarCity, she is contending are community property.”

Elon Musk’s personal shareholdings in Tesla are a matter of deep interest to potential shareholders. The company has a $465 million loan from the Department of Energy. One condition of the loan, according to the company’s most recent S-1 filing:

“[Our] DOE Loan Facility provides that we will be in default under the facility in the event Mr. Musk and certain of his affiliates fail to own, at any time prior to one year after we complete the project relating to the Model S, at least 65% of the capital stock held by Mr. Musk and such affiliates as of the date of the DOE Loan Facility.”

A default under the loan could affect development and production of the Model S and other parts of Tesla’s business, according to Tesla’s S-1 filing:

“Any failure to obtain the DOE funds or secure other alternative funding could materially and adversely affect our business and prospects. Such additional or alternative financing may not be available on attractive terms, if at all, and could be more costly for us to obtain. As a result, our plans for building our Model S and electric powertrain manufacturing plants could be significantly delayed which would adversely affect our business, prospects, financial condition and operating results.”

A diminution of Elon Musk’s stake in Tesla could also unsettle the balance of the board of directors, most of whom were appointed by him or his representatives. VantagePoint Venture Partners, an investor in Tesla Motors, had previously sought to reduce Elon Musk’s control over the board, according to a source close to the company. Any reduction in Elon Musk’s stake could open the company up to boardroom maneuvering, which could have an unpredictable impact on the company’s strategy, as well as Musk’s commitment to Tesla.

A representative for VantagePoint said no one was immediately available to comment on the firm’s relationship with Elon Musk. A lawyer for Elon Musk did not return calls requesting comment.

Ricardo Reyes, a spokesman for Tesla Motors, said, “We don’t expect the case to have an impact on the S-1 filing.”

Here’s the family court case file summary:

Case file: Elon and Justine Musk Divorce Trial

[Photo: OnInnovation]

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Lessons Learned: April Post Roundup for Startups

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Many of our posts here on ReadWriteStart offer tips on launching your startup and insights on how to become a successful entrepreneur.

But as the saying goes, hindsight is often 20/20, and in that spirit we offer a round up of lessons learned from the month of April.


Build Customers, Not Just Products: Devver co-founder Ben Brincherhoff describes the dangers of emphasizing product development at the expense of customer development.

Respond Promptly to a PR Crisis: Blippy‘s response to a leak of customers’ credit card information points to the importance of responding quickly and correctly to potential public relations disasters.

Pay Attention to the Technical and the Business Aspects: Startups need to balance both the technical and business sides, as WePay co-founder Rich Aberman advises.

Retain Customer Trust: Responding to ongoing allegations about improprieties, Yelp lifted the veil on its review system, demonstrating the importance in being transparent and open in order to maintain both customer trust and company reputation.

Know When to Veer Off-Course: As Spark Capital” partner Bijan Sabet argues, it’s important to be nimble and know when to divert from the project roadmap.

Hire the Right Execs: This post looks at Ben Horowitz’s thoughts on how startups can be sure to put the right executives in place.

Have an Exit Strategy: Although the speculation continues about whether or not Foursquare plans to sell, discussions between the popular location-based service and Yahoo serve as a reminder that having an exit strategy can help you shape the direction of your business.

Although these posts document realizations entrepreneurs have had in hindsight, hopefully other entrepreneurs can learn from these lessons and use them to be better equipped for the future.


The Short and Illustrious History of Twitter #Hashtags

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With Twitter having made its way to the mainstream, one early tweeting convention has brought a nerdy flavor along for the ride. It can be a bit jarring to come across Heidi Montag tweeting about her “#superficial_album,” using the pound sign to make her tweets more likely to appear in searches and become trending topics. Though we might forget where that # originated, the record shows where credit is due — and it’s to an individual Twitter user.

On August 23, 2007, the Twitter hashtag was born. Invented by Chris Messina (then with the consulting firm Citizen Agency, now an open web advocate for Google), the first tweet with a hashtag read as follows: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

Today, hashtags make tweets more meaningful and findable, traits that many users appreciate. No conference or speech is complete without a hashtag these days, binding together the ad-hoc community of observers and their pithy comments and memorable quotes. Another prominent use of hashtags is to generate memes — the sort of stuff you would see on a chain-letter quiz — for instance, #10yearsago was popular around Jan. 1 of this year, when people remembered how they welcomed Y2K, and #ff is popular every Friday, when users recommend other accounts they like to follow. Hashtags are also a prominent form of Twitter humor, offering the author the chance to contradict what they’re saying or poke fun — for instance, a friend of mine often uses the hashtag #mylifeissohard. There’s also, of course, plenty of hashtag spam, and plenty of Justin Bieber. (The site “What the Trend” is a trove for this stuff.)

According to Twitter, 11 percent of tweets now contain hashtags. This is on a platform that sees more than 50 million tweets per day. Depending on how geeky or meme-y your user base is, the hashtag count certainly goes up. Alessio Signorini, a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa, recently found 15 percent of 275 million randomly selected tweets contained hashtags. Messina said there are hashtags in probably 30 percent of the tweets from people he follows.

Back in the <strike>spring</strike> summer of 2007, Messina proposed the hashtag as a way to group conversations on Twitter, which was then an incredibly simple messaging service (of course, it still is, but a lot has changed). The inspiration for the convention came from channels on IRC and the Twitter competitor Jaiku. The # would denote metadata about a tweet, rather than the content of the tweet itself. Messina called them “channel tags.” He wrote via email today, “In the beginning people really hated them! People didn’t understand why we needed hashtags, and the biggest complaint was that people just didn’t like how they looked.”

Though hashtags might have been a little ugly and awkward, they were useful from the outset. Back then Twitter offered a push-based service called Track (since discontinued) where users could set up notifications on any term, and that worked particularly well with hashtags. What the company didn’t offer was search (it later bought Summize to fix this problem), and tracking hashtags was a sort of substitute, helping users find and organize tweets. Hashtags are also “folksonomic,” meaning they give organization that is ad hoc, with no rigid structure or approval system.

Messina's mockup of recent and popular channel tags for Twitter executives.

Messina pitched hashtags to Twitter’s execs back in the day, he said, and even mocked up a couple of pages that showed popular hashtags (still called channels) the exact same way Twitter treats trending topics today. But the Twitter team deemed them too nerdy, and said they’d prefer to use machine learning to filter tweet topics, according to Messina.

Adoption of the hashtag initially seemed to be mostly by Messina himself, who used them profusely to mark where he was tweeting from and what it was about, until around October of ’07. During the San Diego forest fires, when people tweeting about the emergency used the same hashtag at Messina’s urging and by following the example set by other citizen journalists.

Around the same time, Republicans seeking to keep Congress in session to vote on an energy bill started tweeting with the hashtag #dontgo. In Messina’s recollection, that was hashtag’s big break “out of the geekosphere.”

Messina said that in retrospect, he’s especially proud of inventing hashtags “because they’re a hack and they prove that simple solutions are often the best ways to solve a problem, rather than waiting for a technology solution.”

Ever the tinkerer, Messina now thinks hashtags are overused and that there should be different types of metadata markers, for instance /via, /cc and /by. Those have been christened “slashtags,” but they haven’t caught on quite as well.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

The Dos and Don’ts of Social Media Marketing

Google Checkout Web Element Simplifies E-Commerce

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In a simple Friday update, Google’s Web Elements team rolled out a number of new options for Web site owners to integrate the company’s tools in their content. Among the updates was a new offering for Google Checkout, which, when used in combination with Google Docs, presents a very easy way for people to create online stores – for everything from physical goods to eBooks and services, depending on what you offer.

While Google Checkout has not enjoyed the market awareness and penetration of its competition, PayPal, the new offering lets users create their own marketplace on their own Web site, instead of resorting to other common methods, such as Yahoo! Stores or the Amazon Marketplace.

To create a store, one needs to make a new spreadsheet in Google Docs, with corresponding SKUs for the products, enter a price, and the total number of products available. Other features, including graphics and varieties of products are optional.

Web Elements comes into play when you link this database to the new Checkout gadget. As you can see below, I made a quick one to offer eBooks, product reviews or even one-day consulting. Depending on the store, you could of course sell specific goods, and draw down from your inventory – including the option of presenting a standard price for shipping and handling.

Once the gadget is created, you can post it to your blog, add it as a sidebar for your Web site, or just grab the HTML and post it elsewhere. All told, it’s a solid way for individuals and small businesses to get into simple E-commerce without too many headaches.

Of note, while the offerings and prices for my demo are clearly examples only, if you hit the buy button and send cash my way, I am sure we can figure out something. So go for it.

My Demo Google Checkout Gadget from Web Elements:

Weekend Reading: Money Magnet, by Jacoline Loewen

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magnet_apr10.jpgHere on ReadWriteStart we are often providing resources and tips for young companies looking to raise funding from venture capitals and angel investors. This week’s recommendation for our Weekend Reading series, Money Magnet: How to Attract Investors to Your Business by Jacoline Loewen, is a book aimed at helping entrepreneurs learn how to deal with financing and how to make their businesses attractive to investors.


Author Jacoline Loewen is a Canadian business consultant and strategy writer who has aided companies seeking capital and private equity. In Money Magnet, Loewen provides valuable lessons she has learned from her career on raising capital in a style that is “informative, relaxed and easy to understand,” according to book’s description. Though the book was published in 2008, and most of Loewen’s work involves multi-million dollar businesses, there are still some lessons startups can likely take away from the book.

moneymagnet_apr10.jpgMoney Magnet is a bit like Fundraising 101. Loewen describes the various types of investors, how to meet and pitch to them, how to read term sheets and how to handle relationships with investors as companies grow. She also provides a run down of the important things investors look for from potential companies, as well as the “four brutal questions” they all ask. The first question most investors ask, she says, is “Are you the right people to make this happen?”

“The teams most likely to attract money will be those that demonstrate they will roll up their sleeves, get on with the unglamorous grunt work of operating plans and do things just a little bit better,” writes Loewen. “Anyone new to running a company who has a good idea and now wants funding, probably will not get the money, no matter how smooth they appear. No one, except your mom, is going to fund your learning curve.”

It’s interesting that she singles out all entrepreneurs with no experience and says they will most likely not get any funding for their idea. Depending on the VCs they seek out, this may be true, but there are plenty of opportunities for inexperienced entrepreneurs to get funding, though the odds are leaning against them. The other questions she says all investors will ask center around the investment opportunity, sustainability and return on investment – questions which will all essentially prove your readiness to get the company off the ground.

Loewen’s insider view into the investment process provides an unique perspective for startups looking to meet and woo potential investors. Most advice on the subject comes from either the entrepreneurs involved in the deals or the venture capitalists doling out the cash, so an angle from a consultant who has facilitated numbers of deals is certainly a fresh one.


When a Wine Loves a Robot

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winebot.jpgHow can you tell a 1973 Batard Montrachet from a bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill? Or a ’45 Mouton-Rothschild from a box of Franzia? Well, you could taste the difference, presumably. But what if you had to discern between the ’45 and one of the top years of the Eighties? Few could. And while the difference might be taste, it certainly is money.

People collect wines for a number of reasons, but one of the top ones is the fact that a good wine appreciates. If a counterfeiter is good at selling one similar wine as another it can make the difference between $2000 and $200,000. Now some wineries are using RFID to hold the counterfeiters at bay.


In the wake of junk bonds, the “irrational exuberance” of the Internet and the housing boom, all now nothing more than echoes of collapse, the wine bubble is appealing to the skeezy, of which the wine world has no paucity.

So some wineries, like Vinyard 29 in Napa, California, are using small RFID tags, distinct radio frequency signatures buried in the labels. With smart phones gaining more muscle, users can often select one with an RFID reader built in. With such a phone, a consumer can just “phone up” a bottle prior to buying to make sure it’s legitimate.

RFID tagging in wine started at least as early as 2004. In 2005, Italy’s Arnaldo Caprai wineries began using the SmartCorq system. Now, the transmitters can fit in labels and foil.

Security is not the only use for RFID in the wine business. winecellar.jpg

eProvenance uses RFID to keep a coherent track of wines as they travel, often globally, from vintner to buyer, ensuring the wine’s safety, but also ensuring it has been kept at ideal temperatures during its voyage.

Bàcaro, a high-end retailer, has installed an RFID reader in a table at their Zurich airport kiosk. The customer places a bottle on a table. Its RFID tag is scanned and the scanner instructs an adjacent screen to show information on the wine’s region, vinyard and taste.

Things that go for a dime a dozen rarely serve as the proving ground for experiments with technology. But anything as valuable, easily counterfeited and constantly mobile as wine is going to attract many such experiments. RFID seems one that has gained significant purchase in that community.

If robots ever do take over the world, you can look forward to an illustrated tour through the wine-making regions of the Mosel valley. Then, of course, well, it’s kill, crush, destroy time, isn’t it?

Top photo by Darin Barry
Bottom photo by jsgphoto


Got Linux? Red Hat Enterprise Licenses Now Portable to EC2

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red hat logoRedHat recently announced that premium enterprise subscription customers are now able to move their Red Hat Linux licenses to the Amazon cloud in the form of EC2 instance. Amazon EC2 is the first cloud provider that Red Hat is supporting for this service.

If you have a block of Red Hat Linux licenses, you can now enroll with the company to enable these to be authorized on an EC2 instance with your Amazon account. We took a few moments to sit down with the team from Red Hat to learn more about the details of the partnership.


Going Elastic

One of the big reasons motivations is the ability to support enterprise use cases, such as web hosting, that are increasingly including a part of their service in the cloud. Red Hat is committing to make the latest versions of Red Hat Linux available on Amazon EC2 at the same time as their normal release. This includes both 32 bit and 64 bit versions of Red Hat Linux.

Red Hat is already supported on virtualization platforms such as VMware and (of course) KVM, so this move is a natural extension in giving IT the ability to run a Red Hat image wherever and however they host their compute resources.

red Hat cloud

A Few Considerations

One nice thing about Red Hat in the Amazon cloud is that the company is proving updates to the OS to the Amazon customers as well.

Of course, this is available today in the normal subscription service, but in talking to the company we were able to envision a cloud future where your Red Hat instances on EC2 “report in” through a messaging service that they are ready to be updated. We can see a time where provisioning updates, including pulling servers out of the pool gracefully, reconnecting them, could be triggered by a Red Hat update and automated through the pool of services.

Red Hat emphasizes that when hosting your licenses on Amazon EC2 that you will be billed for what you use. Just like you can configure instances spin-up and down based on need, your license pool can extend as well. Like the core computing billing the license tally will follow this pattern. Something to consider when you are allocating licenses. We wonder if there will be an “elastic pool” someday, or if the company will offer deeper incentives for scaling.

Getting Started

The Red Hat Cloud Access subscription feature is available for Amazon EC2 now. To learn more about Cloud Access, visit

Here’s a few more resources we found that are a good starting point:

Red Hat Linux in Amazon’s cloud makes sense for enterprise customers. We like the fact that the company launched in a way that supports existing license holders and enables license portability.

Red Hat is also helping companies build clouds with its virtualization technology and large asset in Linux. The company is positioning itself to be a force in cloud computing by continuing its legacy of open software.

We wonder: Will all software platforms move to Amazon? Will there a be a time that the “cloud distribution” is the first priority at Red Hat and other operating system releases?


Carol Bartz Is Right: Google Does Need to Diversify

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Plenty of people have been having fun with some comments that Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz’s made in a BBC interview about the company’s competitive position vis-à-vis Google. The notoriously outspoken Bartz, who took over as CEO from co-founder Jerry Yang in 2009, told the British news service that Google was going to have “a problem” if it didn’t diversify its business, and that it was going to have to find a way to do “a lot more than search.” Mike Arrington at TechCrunch suggested that Bartz must have been smoking something in order to come to this conclusion, while Kara Swisher at All Things Digital said that the Yahoo CEO was “trash talking” its larger rival.

Let’s face it, it’s pretty easy to make fun of Yahoo — in fact, in some ways, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. For at least the last several years, it has been a perennial also-ran in virtually every category that matters online, whether it’s social networking or search or keyword advertising or content. After trying and failing to beat (or even match) Google at its own game, Yahoo was finally forced to accept a deal with Microsoft, which was also failing to have much success on its own. The two companies are now propping each other up and trying to do together what they couldn’t do separately, but are still so far from setting the industry on fire they might as well be in a different game.

But you know what? Carol Bartz, who has gained a reputation for calling a spade a shovel, also happens to be right. Yes, Yahoo is sucking wind in most departments, as most people writing about her comments have pointed out, and so the company is hardly in a position to tell Google what to do — especially when Google reported revenue growth of 23 percent in the last quarter, something Yahoo would kill to do. But she is still right: After years of trying to broaden its business, Google is still 99.9 percent search (OK, 95 percent).

Obviously, that business is doing just fine, and Google is expanding it through acquisitions such as AdMob, which does mobile advertising. And the company continues to come closer to generating meaningful revenues from YouTube and other properties. But the reality is that virtually all the company’s revenues still come from search-related keyword advertising. That may be a great business right now, but what if it stops being so great? What if social search and social advertising becomes a bigger threat to that business, as Liz argued in a recent GigaOM Pro report (sub req’d)?

Some analysts are becoming concerned about Google’s lack of ability to broaden its business even a tiny bit. After the latest earnings report, Barclays Capital analyst Douglas Anmuth dropped his price target for the stock to $650, citing a lack of growth momentum beyond search and advertising. “A significant revenue driver beyond core search has not materialized and it’s becoming tougher for the company to beat numbers,” Anmuth said in a research note.

Chris Baggini, an investment manager with Aberdeen Asset Management, also wants to start seeing some other revenue sources. “Google continues to gain share, but I’d be very disappointed if four years from now they were not getting revenue from other sources,” he said. And the way the company has rolled out new products such as Buzz and Wave and the Chrome OS, without any clear model for how they are going to contribute to the business, has some concerned as well. “Google has the problem of too much money and not enough control over what to do with it,” Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, said recently. “As a result, they are building complexity at an alarming rate, and that complexity should eventually choke them, much as it did Microsoft.”

Is Google in danger of imploding — or even slowing down substantially — any time soon? Hardly. But that doesn’t mean Carol Bartz is wrong, and we shouldn’t let ourselves be blinded to that just because her company isn’t doing very well.

Related GigaOM Pro Content:

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Yodel Anecdotal

Next challenge for location industry: mapping the great indoors

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micelloWe can already navigate the outside world using our cell phones or GPS devices to a high degree of accuracy, but what about indoor locations? Mapping the giant, labyrinthine shopping malls, airports and convention centers of the world is a daunting task, but something that presents a huge business opportunity for that very reason.

Accessing the indoors has its problems. First of all, there is no universal data source for indoor maps. With the outdoors, there are GPS satellites to rely on, and companies who have done your work for you (which is what Nokia figured when it bought Navteq.) Secondly, indoor maps tend to be quite dynamic. Think of a trade show floor, which only ever has a temporary layout with all the booths that come in and go out from one expo to another. All this makes indoor mapping very labor-intensive.

But the demand is there. Companies like Yelp and Geodelic, which provide reviews of restaurants and bars, or Milo, which points to the best deals, could do with more precise directions. Right now, the information can point consumers to the entrance of a shopping mall but won’t tell them how to find, say, the the specialty cosmetics store inside it.

Some companies are trying to provide maps of the indoors — Mall Maps, FastMall and Point Inside are all doing this in various ways (e.g. working from blueprints or measuring locations themselves). But these approaches are difficult to scale. How do you produce these maps not by the hundreds, but by the thousands (the United States alone likely has over 40,000 “places of interest”) quickly and cost-effectively, and then maintain them?

ankitagarwalMicello, a company based in Sunnyvale, Calif., claims to be doing just that. (Micello was a DEMO fall 2009 company.) It says it can provide a map of an indoor space quickly (the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto with its 1.4 million square feet and 140 retail stores took just four hours to complete) and scale the production to meet demand. According to founder and CEO Ankit Agarwal (pictured), producing a map with is “almost an assembly line operation, with 10 steps anyone can do.”

And the assembly line seems to be a fitting metaphor, as Agarwal refers to his 10-employee operation in Chennai, India as the “factory” that churns out the maps. At the time of our interview, Micello had over 500 live maps, with another 400 waiting to be published. A sample map of an IKEA store is pictured above.

Micello starts with a map the proprietor provides (public places usually have public maps, but they are not standardized, nor necessarily drawn to scale, which means they need lots of work) and builds its own from that. The end result is a map that can be superimposed on Google Maps. When users zoom in on the location, they get a map of the indoors showing where the individual stores are situated within the mall.

“We want to own the indoor maps, and we believe we can do it,” says Agarwal. As a “family and friends funded” company, with a total of 17 employees, Micello sure has its work cut out for it. But isn’t Agarwal worried that giants like Google and Microsoft will soon claim this market?

“The way we see it, Google and Microsoft are not content providers, they acquire things. Google Earth was an acquisition, and so was StreetView. A lot of the other providers’ data comes from Navteq and such places.”

This is not to say that Google and Microsoft are sitting idly by. Google has started a worldwide project (25 pilot locations in the U.S., 6 in Australia, 2 in Japan) to photograph business interiors to give customers more information when choosing from local businesses. Google is getting a “lot of interest” from business owners and consumers, and is working hard to develop useful tools for local businesses, according to a company spokeswoman. In other words, putting more information out there for the pundits, including photos of store interiors and products.

And Microsoft, which has demoed some very impressive stuff with PhotoSynth, the software that recreates exteriors and interiors from photographs (pictured below is a reconstruction of the Christmas indoor market in Zürich, Switzerland), is looking into giving users an immersive experience when visiting a location online. Indoor mapping is “absolutely crucial”, according to David Gedye, a Group Program Manager at Bing Maps and PhotoSynth.

“Vector maps [basic maps that show locations in a grid style] are a low-tech solution, and a number of small companies are trying to harvest those and make them available in an integrated way. This is a fine approach, but providing an immersive experience is a bigger challenge. Really, as commerce has taken to the Internet, the reason for physically visiting a place is to have an experience you can’t have online. Immersive representations of interiors can provide strong visual and emotional cues for customers,” says Gedye.

Another company in this space is Zerista. It is providing indoor maps for visitors to places like convention centers, but building ad-hoc social networks on top of those, so the map is only part of the service’s underlying infrastructure. Zerista, too, acknowledges a need and an opportunity for a middle-man company able to provide aggregated indoor maps and distribute them for other developers. If there was a place to get these maps in a uniform and consolidated way, we would absolutely take advantage of it and build value on top of that,” says Zerista president John Kanarowski.

[This story is part of a weekly series on location-based services, written by VentureBeat’s JP Manninen. If you have an idea for a story you would like to see in this series, drop a line at]

Don’t miss MobileBeat 2010, VentureBeat’s conference on the future of mobile. The theme: “The year of the superphone and who will profit.” Now expanded to two days, MobileBeat 2010 will take place on July 12-13 at The Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Early-bird pricing is available until May 15. For complete conference details, or to apply for the MobileBeat Startup Competition, click here.

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Create-your-own-chocolate-bar startup Chocri aims for US sweet tooths

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Retailers have been using the Web as a way to let shoppers customize their products for a while now, most notably in the jewelry industry with companies like Blue Nile. A German startup called Chocri is taking a similar approach in a less obvious market — chocolate. And now it’s looking to expand to the United States.

The interface is pretty straightforward. Users just go to, then choose from menus of chocolate types, fruits, nuts, and so on. Everything you add contributes to the price — for example I created a basic chocolate bar with almonds and gummy bears, and the price came out to $11, plus $6 for shipping. Once you’re done, Chocri builds the bar in its facility in Germany, then mails it to you. So you get a chocolate bar that hits your exact sweet spot — so to speak — and it’s probably fresher than what you’d buy in the supermarket.

Chocri launched in September 2008 and first launched for US consumers back in January. Carmen Magar, who’s leading the company’s US efforts, acknowledged that the product hasn’t taken off as quickly here as it did in the Germany. That’s because the customization market as a whole isn’t as far along here, she said.

Magar’s thinking of creative ways about how to change that. For one thing, she was at the South by Southwest conference last month in Austin, where she gave out promotional chocolate bars designed by tech celebrities like entrepreneur and former Facebook platform evangelist Dave Morin and social media expert Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV. (The Dave Morin bar is pictured above.) That’s definitely something I heard other conference attendees talking about. And to really ramp up its visibility, Magar said Chocri should partner with other other custom retailers, such as design-your-own-shirt site Blank Label.

Meanwhile, the company is still improving the product, mainly by offering even more customization possibilities. This week it began offering the ability to combine different layers of chocolate, starting with white and dark chocolate.

Chocri is self-funded, and Magar said there are no plans to raise venture capital.



Reminder: Austin VentureBeat/DEMO meetup next Thursday

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VentureBeat and DEMO, the twice-annual startup-launch event we co-produce, will be in Austin next Thursday, May 6, to throw a big cocktail bash at Terrace 59.

If you’re an entrepreneur, investor or some other kind of tech startup junkie, you’re invited to join us. We’ll be partying from 6:30 pm to 9:00 pm. Spread the word and let’s get the entire Austin tech scene there.

Make sure you register here. We’ll be buying drinks for the first 75 people to show up.

There’s always two or three Austin-area companies that eventually make it to DEMO each year, so we’re in Austin to find the best entrepreneurs for this Fall’s event. We’re hosting DEMO in Silicon Valley for the first time in its 20-year history and we’ll be making other announcements soon. The same $1 million DEMO media prize will be offered again for sure.

A reminder: If your company is interested in launching at DEMO either this fall or next year, apply to attend the open house at Austin Ventures we’re having earlier in the day Thursday. As I mentioned last week, we’ll be inviting up to 10 companies to present at AV’s offices, and even if you’re an applicant that doesn’t make the cut, you may be invited to an intimate cocktail reception at Austin Ventures from 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm. But get your applications in soon, because we’ll be making our final selections Monday at noon pst and sending out invitations first thing Tuesday morning.

See you next week!