How Digital Media is Attracting New Arts Audiences

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nea_logo_jun10.jpgIn the age of 1080p HDTVs, when almost every home has at least one computer and state-of-the-art mobile phones are seen in the hands of grade-schoolers, its hard to remember a time when viewing media required a trip to a theater. We’ve come a long way since those days, but theaters still put on plays and musicals, symphonies still perform, and musicians still entertain – but how can they compete with new media in hopes to attracting a younger audience? As the old saying goes: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.


Reaching Out with New Media

A study released this month by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that people who engage with the arts through various digital media are three times more likely (59% over 21%) to attend live arts performances, and do so twice as often (6 events per year over 3) as non-media participants. Titled Audience 2.0: How Technology Influences Arts Participation, the survey concluded that “media-based arts participation appears to encourage – rather than replace – live arts attendance.”

symphony_jun10.jpgThe report, which can be viewed in its entirety online for the first time this year, outlines several examples of how arts organizations are reaching out to audiences with online media initiatives. The New York Public Library, KQED Public Media and the Smithsonian Institution are just a few of the groups providing arts media online via services like YouTube and iTunes U.

St. Louis-based television network Higher Education Learning Channel takes its offerings to the next level, providing iPhone and iPad apps for new audiences to engage with videos and sound recordings of local performances.

“We are faced with the Internet, social media, and other new technologies, and I believe the arts field must embrace them and integrate them into our work,” said NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman.

Digital Performance

But the reach of new media in the arts doesn’t end once organizations attract audience members to their venues; many performing arts productions are integrating technology and interactive media into the actual performances. Last summer, the National Symphony introduced real-time program notes that were delivered to the audience via Twitter.

ytchoir_jun10.jpgComposers have even begun to write music that specifically calls for the use of computers and technology during performance. Computer programs that allow for the live processing of sounds created from the actions of the performer have widely expanded the possibilities of sound creation beyond the normal realm of instrumentation. Other programs can produce rich visualizations based on live sound inputs, creating unique artistic experiences with each performance.

Other music composers, like Eric Whitacre, have gone as far as to use social media to create virtual crowdsourced performances of their music. For his choir works “Sleep” and “Lux Aurumque,” Whitacre released a video of himself conducting each piece so that users could record the various tracks (soprano, alto, bass, etc) and submit them. Whitacre then synced them together to create “virtual choir” performances which were then published on YouTube.

It’s terrific for a music lover like myself to see social media and technology used in these unique ways to increase awareness for the arts among new audiences. These last several examples only focused on music, but there are many other ways new media is being used in theater, dance and other live arts.

Photo by Flickr user DeusXFlorida.


Embed Anything Blends Image Sharing With Ad Networks

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Embed Anything is a recently launched startup that blends image sharing with an ad network. The startup’s technology allows allows anyone to quickly grab a code to embed a publisher’s image directly from the image. The image, once embedded on another site, will be displayed with an overlay ad, a follow link back to the original image’s site and will be clickable back to the source.

Embed Anything shares ad inventory revenue the image owners, giving them complete control on what they want to display in the ad space, which can be sourced by the ad network of their choice, for 50 percent of the impressions. For the other 50 percent of impressions, Embed Anything can display an ad of their choice, which is powered by Google AdSense. Eventually Embed Anything will allow for an RSS feed or Twitter feed to be displayed within the ad space as well. An example of a sample publisher site can be found here.

The startup also provides an interface that gives publishers stats on where their images are being embedded, the number of impressions they’re receiving, as well as the ability to remove any unwanted image embeds. The technology is free and fairly simple, involving a single piece of code into a template or through a WordPress plug-in.

The idea is to help publishers profit off of image theft, which Embed Anything says happens often. While this may be ideal for publishers, some of the people who are embedding these images may not want an image with an ad in it on their sites.

The startup competes with GumGum and Image Space Media.

Amazon launches cheaper Kindle DX e-book reader with better display

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Amazon launched the latest generation of its Kindle DX e-book reader with a higher-contrast display than the last version and a lower price of $379.

The previous model of the Kindle DX, which has a 9.7-inch screen, cost $489. All Kindle DXs come with free 3G wireless access and no annual contracts or data plan costs. Amazon has targeted the Kindle DX at people who want to be able to see the clearest text and sharpest (black-and-white) images on its electronic ink display. The contrast for this DX model is 50 percent better than the previous model, which was launched a year ago.

The new Kindle DX is available for preorder now and ships July 7. The move to improve the Kindle DX shows that the Seattle-based company wants to be competitive in the e-book reader market, where Apple has made a big splash with its multipurpose iPad device.

Now the company says you’ll be able to read books wherever you want, whether it’s in high sunlight areas outdoors or in your living room. The Kindle Store now has 620,000 books, including 108 of 111 New York Times bestsellers at $9.99 or less. More than 200,000 books have been added in the last six months.

The Kindle DX has a graphite case. You can download new content via the 3G network in less than 60 seconds. The device lasts for a week on a battery charge with wireless turned on. It’s about a third of an inch thick and can carry 3,500 books. It also has Twitter and Facebook integration. You can zoom in on small print with the new DX.

The older Amazon Kindle with a six-inch screen sells for $189.



ApaceWave gets $7.8M for WiMAX hardware

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ApaceWave Technologies has raised $7.8 million of an expected $10 million in equity, according to a filing with the SEC. The startup makes hardware for the WiMAX industry. Venrock, DCM and Chinese fund WK Technology are investors in the Fremont, Calif.-based company. ApaceWave, which serves broadband service providers, previously raised $12 million in funding.

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Wedoist Introduces Real-Time Contemporary Project Management

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wedoist logo.pngAmir Salihefendic, the mastermind of Todoist and Plurk, has introduced another -ism with Wedoist.

Wedoist is a real-time project management tool – think along Basecamp lines. Amir has folded into the system a number of tech trends, hoping to point the product into the future.


Wedoist offers the following features.

  • Real-time updates on everything
  • Status updates
  • Task manager
  • Group chat

“I think one of the most interesting things about Wedoist is the technology stack, which uses Comet for all updates, said Wedoist’s developer Amir Salihefendic. “This means that each change gets broad-casted to everyone in a team instantly.”

wedoist_screenshot.pngIn tackling online project management, Amir and friends are entering a crowded field. Aside from Basecamp, there is the well-established Zoho, PBWorks, LiquidPlanner, Huddle, Clarizen and ActiveCollab.

Perhaps the real-time features will keep it in the field, but will they allow it to stand out?


Lookout hits a million users for its smartphone security app

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Mobile security firm Lookout is announcing today that it has gotten more than a million registered users in the past six months for its smartphone security app.

The San Francisco-based company says the rapid growth of the free app is due to rising concerns about mobile security threats. As smartphones become more popular and more like connected computers, malware creators are following the crowds and creating malicious software that can disable cell phones, steal personal information, or directly steal money from users.

Lookout is available across the BlackBerry, Android and Windows Mobile platforms (with more platforms to be added in the future). It provides antivirus, data backup, recovery, and lost phone protection for users. John Hering, chief executive of the company, said that it’s increasingly common for malware writers to embed malicious code in games and then upload them to free app web sites across the web. Users download them, play the games, and then find a day or two later that the code activates and makes a bunch of phone calls to Somalia. That malware, dubbed “From Russia With Love,” targeted a popular game called 3D Anti-Terrorist, and it resulted in huge mobile phone bills for the victims.

Who is responsible for those charges is an open question. If your credit card number is stolen, banks will reverse any charges made by the thief as long as you stop it within 30 days. No such guarantees are in place in the mobile world. Hering said that tens of thousands of variants of malware are being launched each year, and the numbers are growing at fast rates. By comparison, millions of attacks are launched at computers each year.

But computer-focused antivirus vendors Symantec and McAfee are waking up to the problem. In May, McAfee bought mobile security provider Trust Digital for an undisclosed price. Lookout focuses on protecting users without using too much battery life or processing power, Hering said.

“We found that the desktop antivirus approach does not map very well to smartphones because of battery life and processing power,” Hering said.

Lookout is a cloud-based service with a thin client that is optimized for battery life. It scans when you download an app and immediately tells you if there is something wrong with the app.

In the past six months, Lookout has seen the number of malware and spyware threats per 100 phones double to nine in 100 affected per year. Lookout has found more than 130,000 lost or stolen phones, backed up 87 million photos, and backed up 300 million contacts.

About 80 percent of the users are on Android and BlackBerry phones, while 70 percent are in the U.S. Lookout’s investors include Khosla Ventures, Trilogy Equity Partners and Accel Partners. The company’s researchers are giving talks at the Black Hat and Defcon security conferences later this month in Las Vegas. Mobile security is becoming a bigger part of the agenda at security conferences.

The company was founded in 2007 and has 20 employees. To date, Lookout has raised $16.5 million in two rounds. Hering said a premium version of the free app will come out in the third quarter.


Why iAd Won’t Meet Steve Jobs’ Expectations

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Apple’s much-hyped iAd is slated to debut tomorrow on iPhones and iPod touches, and there’s no shortage of advertisers willing to dig deep into their pockets to be a part of the platform. As I discuss in my new report over at GigaOM Pro on in-app advertising (sub. req’d), iAd will surely give the market a boost thanks to the emergence of the iPad, whose size and display quality make it an ideal device for using apps and viewing ads. But here’s why iAd won’t capture the 48 percent of the market that Steve Jobs is gunning for:

  • It’s expensive. Apple is charging advertisers $1 million just to be a part of iAd, which is five to 10 times more than what competing ad networks charge, according to the Wall Street Journal. Some are paying Apple as much as $10 million to be the exclusive advertiser in their respective industries. What’s more, Apple’s prices of $10 per thousand impressions for banners and $2 per-click on actionable ads are the highest in mobile. That’s a lot of money to spend to align yourself with Apple when other alternatives are available.
  • You don’t have to use iAd to advertise on the iPhone and iPad. While Apple’s initial developer agreement for iOS prevented rival ad networks from being able to track the performance of ads delivered through the operating system — essentially forcing advertisers to use iAd to advertise on iPhones — the company revised its terms earlier this month after getting pushback from the mobile ad industry. The new rules restrict the use of analytics data to independent companies “whose primary business is serving mobile ads,” which is a not-so-subtle swipe at Google and AdMob. Those terms drew a quick rebuke from AdMob CEO Omar Hamoui, who said they punish both developers and consumers, and they have justifiably drawn the attention of federal regulators. But the terms also give advertisers and publishers freedom to partner with any of the countless independent players in the mobile advertising space, including well-known companies like Millennial Media and Greystripe, instead of using iAd.
  • Big publishers want to sell their own inventory. In its role as an ad network, Apple will place ads on all sorts of inventory on the mobile web and in applications. But as Medialets CEO Eric Litman told me earlier this week, established publishers are already capable of dealing with advertisers directly. “Publishers that have meaningful sales capabilities want to own those relationships with brands,” Litman said. “They don’t want to be sold blind.” And while publishers usually like to package their inventory across platforms — including iPhone and Android apps and web sites for PC and mobile users — iAd forces them to invest time and money to deliver ads through only one platform.
  • Apple’s insistence on being involved is already slowing deployment times. As AdAge noted earlier this week, Apple is handling the technical production of iAds and telling agencies it may take two months to build an ad after creative is complete. We’re sure to see some knockout iAds with top-notch production values thanks to Apple’s input — especially once iAd extends to the iPad in November — but there are much quicker ways to bring your ads to the iPhone.
  • Android has arrived. Apple still dominates the mobile-app world and, with it, in-app advertising. But Google’s mobile operating system continues to close the gap on iOS, garnering 26 percent of all AdMob ad impressions in May. That gap will continue to close as manufacturers churn out a wide variety of supporting handsets and as Android-based tablets come to market.

The emergence of iAd will have some long-term repercussions — especially if ad businesses from Google, Microsoft, Nokia and others remain blocked from accessing analytics. It’s likely Apple will raise the bar for mobile advertising as a whole too. Indeed, iAd is luring some high-profile companies like Campbell Soup, DirecTV and Sears to invest heavily in mobile advertising for the first time, and Citi and Nissan are paying top dollar for exclusive deals on the platform. Apple’s efforts will surely help drive a U.S. mobile ad industry that will explode from $416 million last year to $1.56 billion by 2013, according to eMarketer. But there are far too many established, innovative players for Cupertino to capture nearly half the space by the end of the year.

Image courtesy Flickr user Daveness 98.

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

The In-App Advertising Landscape

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Smartphone Security Startup Lookout Tops One Million Users

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Lookout, a company that offers security data backup services for smartphones, has reached a significant milestone: the startup now has one million users for its security application after only six months in operation.

Lookout, which just raised $11 million from Accel, Khosla and others, says the growth in smartphone adoption, mobile app downloads and increased consumer awareness of mobile security threats have helped make the offering a popular and necessary option for users. While smartphone use is growing rapidly, there are security risks associated with the increased data and application usage on these devices. Similar to a PC, users need to protect their phones from malware, viruses, data loss and more. Lookout’s web-based, cloud-connected application indentifies and block threats on a consumer’s phone. Users simply download the software to a device, and it will act as a virus protector much like security software downloaded to a computer.

For now Lookout, which is on more than 400 mobile networks in 170 countries, is only available for BlackBerry, Android and Windows Mobile devices. Lookout has over 80% of its users on Android and BlackBerry with the remaining users on Windows Mobile. And 70% of users are in the US.

Over the past six months, Lookout has seen the number of malware and spyware threats per hundred devices double to nine in every 100 devices being affected annually. Lookout has helped find more than 130,000 lost or stolen phones, backed-up over 87 million photos, and backed-up over 300 million contacts.

Lookout’s CEO tells me that the next step for the company is to start looking at monetization angles with product development. While the application is free, Lookout sees potential in offering an enterprise version of its software.

Web Apps With Push Notifications: W3C Begins Work to Make it Happen

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w3cLogoReal-time alerts and notifications are a powerful feature being added to more applications every day; the addition of real-time notifications can make a big difference in user experience and peoples’ work performance when using apps.

Unfortunately, there’s not one standard way to easily code these notifications across platforms and there’s very little support for web apps seeking to send notifications to users. It’s been one of the advantages that desktop apps have had over the web. That could be about to change.


The web’s primary international standards organization, the W3C, has decided to tackle the issue with the formation of a new Web Notification Working Group this week. The Working Group is developing a standardized way for web developers to notify users of an event on a page when they aren’t looking at the page itself. This could be key in making web apps just as powerful as native apps on the desktop or mobile device.

The Group has published an Editor’s Draft for the specification and it’s a good read. The possible implementations accounted for today could be the foundation of vital new features the web apps we use and build tomorrow.

Want a web-based Twitter client with popup desktop messages? A web-based banking app with push alerts to mobile devices? There are a whole lot of possibilities when you imagine combining the advantages of the web with a cross-platform standard for notification APIs.

What’s Included

Want a web-based Twitter client with popup desktop messages? A web-based banking app with push alerts to mobile devices? There are a whole lot of possibilities when you imagine combining the advantages of the web with a cross-platform standard for notification APIs.

The document is scoped to define “APIs [Application Programming Interfaces] to generate notifications to alert users outside of the web page.” The types of notifications discussed include ambient, interactive and persistent notifications, deliverable cross-platform to a user’s screen ala Growl, to an application’s chrome or to a mobile device. If you’re an alert geek like me, that sounds pretty great.

Alerts like this are generally only possible for desktop apps. Michael Richardson, engineer at Urban Airship, a company that pushes rich media mobile notifications as a service for developers, put it like this:

“Anybody familiar with OS X and Growl has been using things like this for a while. One thing modern desktop notification systems are missing is a standard that allows better communication between web apps and users in front of their computer. Previously, the only method has been email, which sucks. This will be a good step towards promoting web applications as first class citizens.”

The W3C draft spec discusses a snooze button for alerts, external device notifications and “simultaneous execution contexts (like a multi-tab email application) to show notifications without creating duplicate notifications.” For web apps!

Behind the Scenes

The Working Group is slated to work until the end of January 2012 and is chaired by a 23 year old Dutch engineer from Opera named Anne van Kesteren (@annevk). The draft spec was edited by John Gregg, a Microsoft-turned-Google software engineer who led development of the Webkit desktop notifications API that Chrome recently made accessible to extension developers. Discussion of the web notifications standard will occur over a public email list that appears not to have been initiated yet.

This should be one to watch; this could be a key group in building a foundation for the real-time web user interfaces of the future.

Thanks to Palm’s Dion Almaer for being the first within our circle to mention this.


Investor Blogs Weigh in on Foursquare Funding

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With news breaking late yesterday afternoon about Foursquare’s closing a $20 million Series B round, it’s not surprising that many investor blogs from last night through this morning were updated with posts offering their individual takes the deal. Was it a good investment? Was it a wise move for Foursquare? What next?

Ben Horowitz wrote a post aptly titled “Why Andreessen Horowitz Invested in Foursquare.” Horowitz lists the following reasons behind his firm’s investment in the location-based network: a great founder, a killer product, a gigantic market.


Weigh Decisions Carefully

Fred Wilson took issue with some of the criticisms about what may have seemed like indecision or missteps on Foursquare’s part throughout what was a closely followed round of investment and acquisition inquiries. Wilson too praises the deliberation on the part of Foursquare founders.

The moral of the story, Wilson writes, “is don’t let conventional wisdom force you into making decisions you don’t need to make and you aren’t ready to make, particularly about very big decisions that you will be living with the rest of your life.

Develop Relationships with Investors Early

First Round Capital Entrepreneur in Residence Charlie O’Donnell wrote a longer piece, less about the specifics of the Foursquare investment and more about lessons entrepreneurs can learn from it. Titled “Multiple Passes at the Target,” O’Donnell points to the importance of entrepreneurs and investors building a relationship over time, noted in the case of Foursquare with some of the offers and and declines from Andreessen Horowitz before yesterday’s funding.

O’Donnell urges entrepreneurs to let go of the notion that they only get “one shot” to win over an investors. Instead of waiting to interact til it’s time to pitch, O’Donnell advises “never pass up an opportunity to have a ‘way too early’ conversation with an investor.”

Investors have an information advantage, says O’Donnell, and this knowledge on markets, competitors, lessons learned, and funding in general, can be invaluable. By establishing a relationship early, investors will see progress:

“It’s hard to show progress in one meeting, but if I meet with you when you have something super early that breaks all the time, and then 3 months later when you’ve sured up the product, struck a biz dev deal, and bolstered the feature set–after you told me that’s what you were going to do–that’s going to get a big check mark on execution. Of course, that’s different than trying to come in 3 weeks later with just one more customer if my initial concern was executing a sales plan in a market with hundreds of thousands of potential customers. That’s the same story all over again.”

O’Donnell does distinguish between meeting early and actually pitching early. Using the common dating analogy, he does admit it can be a “very fine line between what’s just being friendly and what is a clear pursuit.” Emailing wireframes for some casual feedback is one thing, sending a PowerPoint deck? “Pitchy.”

High praise came from many of the investor blogs about Foursquare’s founding team, and many of them remarked on the progress that the company had made. Being able to observe the company’s development over time and being able to testify with some certainly to the vision and follow-through of the founding team does support the argument that O’Donnell makes in his post: that it’s worth developing a relationship over time between entrepreneur and investor.


Video Walkthrough: Hulu Plus on the iPad

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We just received access to Hulu Plus for the iPad, and the first thing we did was grab some popcorn for an Arrested Development all-nighter check out how the service looks on the iPad.

The Hulu app is clearly inspired by the applications published by ABC and Netflix. However, it’s still missing some of the cross-platform features that Netflix is known for. For example, users of the desktop version of Hulu Plus can’t add episodes to the iPad’s Queue.

GigaOM staffer Kevin Tofel did a walkthrough for us of the Hulu Plus app, which has been available on the iTunes App Store since yesterday (please note: Kevin’s walk-through is based on the free version, which offers limited access to content). You can check out the walkthrough below:

In our experience with the paid service on the app, we found that it still has a ways to go before it’s ready for primetime. Hulu Plus displays all video in 720p, which can be nice — if you have the patience to wait for it. In our early tests, we noticed some serious latency issues when starting up episodes.

Oftentimes, it would take 10 seconds or longer before an episode would play, and more often than once, we’d just give up completely. We also had the app crash on us once or twice. Those may be issues Hulu can easily solve — but it could also explain why the service hasn’t been made more widely available.

Related content on GigaOm Pro: Report: The In-App Advertising Landscape (subscription required)

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Waze Adds iOS4, Juices Up Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare

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waze logo.pngCrowdsourced GPS app Waze has announced a further integration of its service with microblogging and location apps, as well as support for the iPhone’s new iOS4.

The iPhone version was approved by Apple this afternoon, according to Waze community cartographer Di-Ann Eisnor.

“This updated version is fully optimized for the iPhone’s new iOS 4, which allows apps to run in the background while giving users the ability to simultaneously conduct other important tasks, such as sending and receiving calls, all while still hearing turn-by-turn voice instructions. When Waze goes into the background, smart algorithms are applied to detect whether or not the device is in motion. Following a long standstill, Waze will automatically close itself when it determines that you are no longer using the app, avoiding needless data and battery consumption.”


waze.pngThe Twitter integration will now cull geo-located tweets from all of Twitter, not just Waze users, and post them directly to the Waze map. This means that even if a non-Waze user tweets that they’re stuck in traffic, it will appear with near-immediacy as a road report pin. Waze Twitterers can now hashtag a Tweet with #wazelive to ensure it shows up immediately.

The Facebook integration will now allow users to see friends – with an “f” icon and an audio alert – when they are nearby. The Foursquare integration will allow users to users check in to locations as they pull up and to unlock “Road Warrior” badges by checking into Foursquare locations three times using Waze.


Eucalyptus Raises $20 Million in New VC Funds

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Eucalyptus Systems, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based start-up that is developing a cloud-computing management platform based on open source, says that it has raised $20 million in a new round of funding. New Enterprise Associates (NEA) led the round with original investors Benchmark Capital and BV Capital also participating. With this new funding, Eucalyptus has raised a total of $25.5 million. The company is rumored to be valued north of $100 million and is spearheaded by Marten Mickos, former CEO of MySQL who joined the company in March 2010.

Mickos told me that the company will use the new funds to ramp up its engineering team as it tries to build a cloud-computing platform that can be utilized by corporations, especially for their internal (private) clouds. This is a big problem and Eucalyptus needs to focus on building a robust platform, Mickos said. Eucalyptus, which recently released the 2.0 version of its enterprise software, needs the money to compete in an increasingly crowded market place — from other open-source offerings such as Open Nebula to startups such as VMops (now and Nimbula, not to mention larger players such as VMware.

Related content from GigaOM Pro:

  1. For Open Cloud Computing, Look inside the Data Center.
  2. Infrastructure market in review, Q1 2010

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Making the Move to a "Premium" Service

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pricing_jun10.jpgAfter many months of rumor and speculation, Hulu announced yesterday that it will be launching a subscription service. Hulu Plus will give users access to more content on more platforms for a monthly fee of $9.99. And while it’s surely not the most reliable metric, early reviews from the App Store indicate that some folks aren’t too pleased with the change. The app (which is free) has a whopping one star rating, and the service itself has received mixed reviews.


Of course, some people are going to grumble about a switch from a free to a paid service, no matter what you do. And it does tend to be difficult to convince your customers to suddenly start paying for something if they’ve become long accustomed to receiving it for free.

Pricing your service is an crucial consideration for a startup. If you find yourself moving towards a “premium” service, here are a few things you can learn from Hulu and other companies who’ve tried just that:

1. Give your customers ample notice. Make sure you inform your customers ahead of time about any plans to change pricing. Better yet, provide customers an opportunity to give (real, meaningful) feedback. When Ning announced the end to its freemium pricing model in April, for example, many customers felt “thrown under the bus” with the end to free Nings without any notice or input.

2. Continue to offer something for free. Adding a premium service doesn’t mean that free service need necessarily be terminated. You can still watch Hulu for free on your laptop, for example. (Typically this free service is supported by ads that are then absent in the premium version. Hulu, it seems, did not get this memo.)

3. Be as transparent as possible. When online education marketplace TeachStreet started charging for its services, communications of the change were sent to users via email, and a blog post written by the CEO Dave Schappell spelled out the company’s rationale. There were some bitter comments on the blog, to be sure, but it provided an opportunity for the company to clearly and openly articulate its vision.

4. Launch the fee as you launch a new feature. Customers are less likely to be ruffled by fees when they believe they’re getting more for their money. True, there may be no perfect time to roll out price hikes, but a good time is in conjunction with a new feature or service. In the case of Hulu, that’s access to more TV shows and movies and access on mobile devices.

The rumors have circulated for quite some time about Hulu’s plans for a subscription model, so arguably the company succeeded in transitioning slowly. Whether their move to a premium service will be successful, however, remains to be seen.


Mozilla Submits Firefox Home iPhone App. Apple Should Approve It

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Earlier this afternoon, Mozilla submitted what would be its first iPhone application to the App Store. No, it’s not Firefox — well, not exactly.

Mozilla has submitted an app called Firefox Home for approval. While it’s not the native Firefox web browser, it is an app that lets you easily move your Firefox browsing history, bookmarks, and open tabs to the iPhone. You can then either open these within the app or with mobile Safari.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: no way Apple accepts a Firefox app. But actually, I’m pretty sure they will.

Again, this app is not a new web browser, it’s just a tool for moving your data from your desktop to the phone. The browser that is built-in to the app is a WebKit-based one built with the tools Apple includes in the SDK. On its FAQ page, Mozilla says the following about Firefox for the iPhone:

Does this mean Firefox will be available on the iPhone?
No. We do not have plans to ship the Firefox browser for the iPhone. Due to constraints with the OS environment and distribution, we cannot provide users Firefox for the iPhone.

Apple did allow Opera to put its browser on the iPhone to the surprise of some. But there’s some talk that the only reason Apple did that as a way to quiet critics — because they knew the app wasn’t that great. After an initial surge in downloads, you don’t hear too much about it anymore. Mozilla, which is the world second most popular browser (well ahead of Safari), might be a different story. And Mozilla apparently knows it.

This app also isn’t Firefox Sync. Sync is a two way syncing of information between Firefox browsers on different machines. Firefox Home is a one-way push to the iPhone. “We only sync changes since the last update for bookmarks and open tabs. And history is limited to about 2000 items. And there is no auto-sync. The median disk space used by Sync users is about 2-3 MB total for all of their Sync data and Home only has a subset of that.,” Mozilla says.

Mozilla’s Asa Dotzler seems worried that Apple may not approve the app. But as long as it’s not using any undocumented APIs, I can’t see a reason why Apple would reject it — at least not without a lot of outrage, once again. And the app looks good, it should be very useful to users of Firefox.

Foursquare Fixes, Responds To “Who’s Been Here” Privacy Hole

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Yesterday, Wired published a report detailing an issue with Foursquare privacy, whereby a program could effectively harvest Foursquare checkin data by constantly refreshing venue pages and looking to see which users were showing up in the “Who’s Been Here” section, which shows a grid of users who recently checked in at that venue. According to the article, white hat coder Jesper Andersen was able to log around 70% of all check-ins in San Francisco — or 875,000 checkins — over the last three weeks.

Today, Foursquare has addressed the report with a post on its official blog outlining the issue. As data breaches go I’m not sure this one was especially “sophisticated”, as Foursquare keeps calling it, but they apologize and explain what they’ve done to fix it.

From the Foursquare blog:

A little over a week ago (on Monday the 21st), our developers were alerted to a problem that enabled sophisticated users, by continuously scraping venue pages from our website through anonymous gateways, to capture private check-in information that users didn’t intend to share with the general public. Three days later, our team began rolling out a number of solutions to this problem. First, we ensured that any user that had opted out of appearing in the “Who’s Here” lists no longer appeared in the “Who’s Been Here” photo mosaics on our site (this fix went live last Thursday). Second, we updated the language on our “Settings” page to clarify what opting into the “Who’s Here” feature entails. Third, we randomized the order of the photos being posted under the ”Who’s Been Here” headings on our venue pages to prevent anyone from scraping this data to try to estimate check-in times of various users.

This won’t be the last time we hear about privacy issues with location-based services, where security and privacy are going to be key. That said, the privacy concerns for Foursquare, where users are explicitly checking into venues, are less worrisome than if this had happened with one that constantly monitors your location, like Google Latitude. And privacy hasn’t really been Foursquare’s big selling point, either — don’t expect to see much of an uproar from its users over this.

New Google News is More Personal and Spontaneous

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Google News today announced it is rolling out a new layout with new features designed to bring readers a more personalized, local and social news experience. While still highlighting top stories and adding a list of trending topics similar to Twitter‘s, Google is now giving the reader additional customization options and adding a section for local news and weather, among other features. As Megan Garber at The Neiman Journalism Lab puts it: “The new site is trying to balance two major, and often conflicting, goals of news consumption: personalization and serendipity.”


Google News redesign

The new “News for you” section is an enhanced version of the old “Recommended” section, giving readers the ability to rank both topics and sources up and down, and add additional topics to their news stream. By allowing users to exclude topics and sources they don’t want to read about, they’re free to create personal “info bubbles” of their own design.

Google News customization screenshot

In order to keep readers abreast of the world outside their custom bubble, Google has added the “trending topics” section (something that’s been showing up in the wild since February) and is keeping the “Top Stories” section at the top of the center column. Google is also giving its “Spotlight” section, dedicated to in-depth stories and longer lasting stories, a more prominent spot on the right column.

Local news and weather features are being added to the right column, rounding out the personalization of service.

Google News local

A new “sharing button” is being added to each story to enable easy sharing via Buzz, Reader, Facebook or Twitter, and presumably to mine more data to better personalize the “News for You” section.

News is a key part of Google’s ongoing strategy. Recently, rumor circulated that Google approaching news outlets about a micropayment system for content. In May, Atlantic Monthly ran an extensive article by James Fallows on Google’s ambitions towards saving the news industry.


Kleiner-backed Siluria turns natural gas into green chemicals

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Siluria Technologies, a young startup that engineers bugs to convert natural gas into organic chemicals, has just emerged from stealth. Sounds dull, but there are lots of dollar signs attached — including an investment from Silicon Valley’s cleantech kingmaker, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

More and more startups are chasing the biofuels bandwagon these days, spending millions in capital on refineries and plants to churn out gallons of automotive and jet fuels made from feedstocks like algae, switch grass, and even greenhouse gas emissions. Names like LS9, Mascoma, and Coskata all seem to be working toward the same goal but gaining little traction.

What doesn’t get much note is that most of these companies are using the same techniques — micro-organisms and catalysts — to convert feedstocks into green chemicals suited for cleaning, pharmaceutical creation and other industrial purposes. These market have proved to be much bigger, and are already growing rapidly, generating cash to support the pursuit of less lucrative biofuels.

Siluria, however, is focusing on the chemical business. Formerly part of a startup called Cambrios Technologies, its specialty is using genetically-modified microorganisms that digest natural gas and secrete ethylene — an ingredient in plastic films, lubricants, antifreeze, rubber tires, footwear, and more. Occasionally, it is used in the biotech world as a hormone and to accelerate the ripening of produce like tomatoes, bananas and apples.

Right now, about 140 million tons of ethylene are used every year, representing a $160 billion market. Siluria says its catalysts are capable of reducing the time, energy and money needed to produce the reactions that create the compound. But it’s also experimenting with the unknown.

The processes the company uses can create thousands of genetically distinct organisms every day by changing the texture of their surfaces, each of which secrete slightly different byproducts that could be used for yet undetermined applications. Some of the bugs being studied originated in a lab at MIT led by Angela Belcher, where they successfully produced materials for batteries and semiconductors.

The key here is that all of these reactions use natural gas as a feedstock. It’s plentiful, cheap, and needs to be funneled into more applications that don’t produce harmful emissions.

San Francisco-based Siluria previously raised $3.3 million in venture funding from Alloy Ventures, Arch Venture Partners, Lux Capital, Harris & Harris, and Altitude Life Sciences in addition to Kleiner Perkins.


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Is angel investing headed for a crash?

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Chris Yeh is an angel investor and the vice president of marketing at collaboration company PBworks. This column was originally published on his blog.

The investing socialsphere has been all a-Twitter ever since Paul Kedrosky predicted an upcoming super-seed crash.

The result has been a series of opinion pieces, both for and against, that tackle various aspects of the issue — whether super angels are a fad, if there is a seed bubble (I’m on record as saying that there is), what this means for entrepreneurs …

What’s missing is a guide to the underlying assumptions behind these various positions. That’s what I’m going to lay out in this blog post.

For the sake of argument, I’ll simplify both the two positions, which I’m calling Super Angel and VC Revenge.

Super Angel

  • Companies are much more capital efficient
  • As a result, you can make money on smaller exits
  • VCs funds don’t make good seed investors because of the signaling issue (e.g. if they pass on your Series A, why would anyone else fund you)
  • Besides which, angels can do more for early stage startups than VCs

VC Revenge

  • Because it’s so cheap to start companies, everyone is doing it
  • The success rate on these seed stage companies is going to be very low
  • Investors make money off home runs, not singles
  • When the going gets tough, you need an investor that can support you through the bad times

Let’s examine the assumptions required for each assertion to be true:

Super Angel Assumptions

Companies are much more capital efficient.
True, but …

It definitely costs less to start a company. Back in 1999, when I started my first company, I had to pay $20,000 per month for a datacenter. Now I could probably get 10X the capacity from Amazon for $20 per month. For those keeping track at home, that’s a four orders of magnitude reduction.

However, that efficiency only applies pre-salary; once you start to pay people, the costs really aren’t that much lower. And if you’re building a full-scale business, you’re going to need people. Craiglist is a remarkable exception, not the rule.

As a result, you can make money on smaller exits.”
True, if …

You can make money on smaller exits, provided you sell early, before you start to incur those major people costs. Think of all the successful small exists that have occurred, like MyBlogLog. They made money for investors because a $20 million exit is highly profitable if you’ve only invested $500,000.

But the number of companies that took in less than $1 million in funding and cashed out for more than $20 million is vanishingly small (anyone want to provide an example?). And a $20 million exit returns at most $4-5 million to investors. It takes a lot of $20 million sales to support an industry (more on that later).

VCs funds don’t make good seed investors because of the signaling issue (e.g. if they pass on your Series A, why would anyone else fund you)

Yep, chalk this one up for the angels. And if you’re an entrepreneur and you think $250,000 will get you to profitability, you probably deserve your fate for being naive.

Besides which, angels can do more for early stage startups than VCs.
Increasingly false

Individual angels can be very helpful, just as individual VCs can be very helpful. But the numbers are starting to tell a different story.

I’ve heard folks slam VCs because they sit on 10-12 boards, and are spread too thin to help their companies. So how can we turn around and ignore the fact that there are a number of angels who will do that many deals in a single quarter?

Even if angels are willing to work harder (and from my first-hand observation of friends like Jeff Clavier and Dave McClure, that assertion is 110% true), can they really be an order of magnitude more productive on a unit time basis than a VC?

Super Angel Summary:
The super angel arguments hold try if you start a capital-efficient company and sell out before you need to get too big or pay a bunch of salaries. And if you’re looking for a seed stage investment, angels are a better bet than VCs for signaling reasons. But don’t bet on those angels being appreciably more available to you than an equivalent VC.

VC Revenge Assumptions

Because it’s so cheap to start companies, everyone is doing it.”

So far today (June 30, 2010), 58 companies have been added to CrunchBase. And the day isn’t over yet.

The success rate on these seed stage companies is going to be very low.
Depends on how you define success …

If you define success as $100 million+ exits, this is absolutely true. As far as I know, the only such exit from the super angel world so far is Mint (covered in another post).

If you define success as making investors money and making entrepreneurs into millionaires, the list is far longer.

Investors make money off home runs, not singles.”
As an asset class, true

In 2009, VC investments exceeded $20 billion, with about 20% of that money going into early stage deals. Some of that was VC, but if we assume that only 25% of that early stage money came from angels, we’re still talking about $1 billion invested.

If you need to come up with $1 billion in returns, one $5 million exit at a time ($20 million exit, investors hold 25% of the equity), that requires 200 such exits per year. If you assume the need to generate $2 billion in returns to justify the risk, that jumps to 400 exits per year, or about 8 per week.

We’re not seeing anywhere close to that number of exits right now. And that’s just for angel deals.

Assuming that $1 billion is invested at a rate of $500,000 per company, that’s 2,000 investments. Can we realistically expect a 20% hit rate on seed stage investments?

The only way the math can possibly work as an asset class is if you have home runs as well as singles.

This doesn’t preclude there from being a magical angel investor who gets a 50% hit rate on investments, but I think I have a better chance of meeting the Easter Bunny.

When the going gets tough, you need an investor that can support you through the bad times.
True, but …

Good VCs will support their companies during bad times. I’ve witnessed it myself at nearly every company I’ve started or worked at because — guess what — pretty much every company goes through tough times, even Google.

I don’t think that super angels have a long enough track record in this area for a final judgment yet. On the other hand, seed stage deals do have an alternate backstop if they don’t raise too much money.

The rise of the HR acquisition (where Google or its ilk acquire a small founding team for $1-2 million per top-flight engineer) gives startups with hardcore technical founders a strong put option in the event that they can’t build a successful business.

VC Revenge Summary:
More companies are getting started than ever before. And unless their success rate (even at the $20 acquisition level) is freakishly high, simply hitting singles will not be enough to generate a good return for the asset class.

A lot of the super angel assertions hold true, provided you assume that you’ll be able to achieve early exits. But as an asset class, angel investing at the current elevated rate looks like a bad bet unless the number or size of exits improves dramatically.

Angel investors who really are gifted at picking winners should succeed, but those that are essentially index funds are unlikely to generate strong returns unless they have the wherewithal to maintain their position in follow-on rounds…which makes them start to look an awful lot like VCs.

But whether or not you agree with my conclusions, you shouldn’t lost sight of the fact that the super angel phenomenon is a good thing for the rest of the ecosystem. Entrepreneurs have more opportunities to get funding for their companies. VCs have the luxury of picking and choosing from a massive buffet of startups that have been able to operate and grow for 6-18 months on someone else’s money.

And even those entrepreneurs who raise money at “bloated” seed valuations of $3 million rather than $1.5 million won’t have much trouble raising a Series A at an increased valuation; whether you have a $2 million or $4 million post-valuation on your seed round has a major impact on angel returns, but not on your ability to raise a true Series A of $3-5 million.

I welcome further discussion on this topic, and hope that as a community, we can focus on examining the numbers and assumptions behind these arguments.