If You’ve Got the Money, KaChing’s Got the Investors [GigaOM]

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kaching logokaChing, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup backed by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen and Open Table CEO Jeff Jordan, launched a web site today that aims to be a marketplace where anyone can access talented investors. With kaChing, people can choose to invest their money according to the trades of investors featured on the site. It first started out as an application on Facebook, which attracted hundreds of thousands of users who managed mock portfolios.

The startup’s founder, Daniel Carroll, who’s traded stocks since he was 15 years old, said the site provides people with a cheaper and more transparent alternative to putting their money in mutual funds. For example, people can make a minimum investment of $3,000 on the site. Carroll said Fairview Capital, for instance, generally doesn’t take investments less than $1 million, but it does so on kaChing. kaChing investors, who range from amateurs to investment management firms, are assigned an “Investing IQ” score that’s based on similar factors used by Ivy League endowment managers, such as risk adjusted returns and the quality of the rationale behind their trades. Investors who receive a score of 140 or higher are classified as a “Genius,” of which there are currently 12 on the site.

People who want to invest according to the trades of their selected kaChing investors have to pay a management fee to them kaChing, which averages around 1 percent. kaChing takes a 25 percent cut of that fee and gives 75 percent of it back to the investor. Once people set up an account, they can follow their investments in real-time on a dashboard, and the site sends email updates if an investor makes any unexpected moves. The site faces competition from Covestor, which also lets people track investors.

kaChing is a 12-person team. Carroll said it has raised around $3 million from angel investors. And he has big plans for the company, setting his sights on an IPO. “Hopefully, you’ll see our ticker on the New York Stock Exchange” five to ten years down the road, he said.


Google Expands “Going Google” Ad Campaign Worldwide

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Google continues to hit milestones with Google Apps – 2 million businesses and 20 million users in over 100 countries and 40 languages (up from 1.75 million businesses in June). And they aren’t slowing down the advertising, either.

The Going Google campaign, first launched in August (and spoofed within a day) with billboards that changed messages daily, is expanding.

The target? Microsoft Office/Exchange/Sharepoint. The message? Give your employees shared documents, calendars, email, etc. without the hassles of managing email servers or rolling out software updates. Customers are pointed to google.com/gogoogle.

Tonight Google is announcing the expansion of the Going Google campaign into the U.K., France, Canada, Japan, Australia and Singapore (”train stations such as Paddington, La Défense and Shinagawa, and at airports in Singapore, Toronto, Dallas and beyond”). They’re also announcing new enterprise customers onica Minolta, Rentokil Initial and TOTO. Other recent customer wins include Recent wins include Motorola’s handset division (20K users), Konica Minolta (7K users), Rentokil Initial (business services company, 35K users), and MeadWestVaco (VA based global packaging company, 17K users).

They’ve also created a montage video of the campaign:

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Episodic Rolls Out Publishing And Management Suite For Online Video

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Video publishing platform Episodic is rolling out its publishing suite that lets users manage and measure video content, and use the platform’s monetization services which enable ad insertion and credit card transactions for both live and on-demand video streaming. Episodic is hoping to make its mark in the online video publishing space by offering additional features for easy monetization, distribution and customization.

The suite itself is made up of five functional areas, including the ability to create video libraries, customer metadata fields, and the ability to encode. The player itself works on both the web and mobile browsers. Currently, Episodic is formatted for the iPhone only but Android, Blackberry and Symbian device support are coming soon. Interestingly, Episodic also offers an ad server that is interoperable with all major ad serving platforms, letting users insert ads into videos via a fairly simple process.

Like YouTube, Episodic also offers an analytics engine that gives publishers real-time metrics and reporting around audience engagement, viewer performance, network quality and the quality of the overall viewing experience. And the platform offers users the ability to syndicate videos to other destinations like Hulu, iTunes and Amazon. With Episodic, content producers can also build custom branded iPhone applications around their media.

Episodic is trying to make a name in a crowded space chock full of popular platforms such as Brightcove, Ooyala and thePlatform. But the startup is offering a simple and easy way of monetizing, analyzing and syndicating videos, so it may have success in gaining a following.

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Mozilla to Weave a Flashy iPhone Presence? [jkOnTheRun]

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fennecIt’s no secret that the Mozilla team is looking to expand from desktops and laptops to handhelds. The Firefox browser is popular on the big screen, but Mozilla’s Fennec is poised to challenge on the small screen. And the company’s prototype synchronization service, known as Weave, will bind the web experience together. I looked at Weave in its early prototype and it has come a long way since then — the service syncs bookmarks, passwords and cookies between web clients. Theoretically, Weave will help your browsing experience be continuous whether you’re on your notebook or your handheld. Might that even include your browsing experience on the iPhone? John Lilly, the CEO of Mozilla, didn’t offer specifics, but he did tell Om that there’s a Mozilla app for the iPhone coming soon.

Apple did begin to approve third-party applications earlier this year, so a Mozilla browser does have a chance for approval. And that could open the door for the Weave service, as well. Apple’s Mobile Me service doesn’t sync bookmarks or web passwords over-the-air currently, although I suspect these functions could be added in the future. In light of that, I’m thinking we’re about to see Fennec on the iPhone. That’s the simplest explanation, and the simple ones are often right. And there’s a little — admittedly, very little — evidence that the iPhone could be in the mix for Fennec. Digging around the Mozilla wikis, I did find some UI and design bits that specifically show working mockups for the “large format screen (e.g. N810, android, iPhone).”

Mozilla says that these are examples of format and flow, not actual pixel perfect screen shots. But is is interesting that the iPhone is mentioned by name. Come to think of it, it’s equally interesting to see Google’s Android platform mentioned, but that’s another story for another day. And I don’t want to overlook something that Fennec offers over mobile Safari — native support for Flash. Lilly said that we’ll be surprised by what’s coming and I think Flash on a third-party iPhone browser would qualify as such.

The Mozilla wiki page I found hasn’t been updated since December of 2008, so it could well be that Fennec isn’t what’s coming. Mozilla has specifically said that Firefox wouldn’t be on the iPhone. But they never said anything about Fennec — or Weave, for that matter — did they? In any case, we know that something is coming from Mozilla for the iPhone. Got any guesses?

Adobe to Envato: Flash Is Ours, Change Your Name

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Adobe is a big company, with a lots of products, but one of its strongest brands is Flash. So when Adobe contacted Envato, an Australian startup that operates a set of popular marketplaces for digital creative goods to change one of their marketplaces names, Envato had no choice. Envato operates a property called FlashDen, which sells Adobe Flash and Flex files like preloaders, galleries, site templates and utilities. Files are created and sold by a huge community of authors from all over the world.

Last week Adobe contacted Envato and asked Envato to change the name and URL of FlashDen so that it would no longer contain the term ‘Flash’, which is a registered trademark of Adobe. With little time, Envato changed the name from FlashDen to ActiveDen.

Seeing this change, we reached out to Collis Ta’eed, the CEO of Envato, and he mentioned that Envato received a letter from a law firm representing Adobe asking to change FlashDen’s name. Envato followed through, not wanting more legal problems with Adobe. Ta’eed also mentioned that “FlashDen” was filed as a trademark in Australia in January 2008 and entered on the Australian trademark register in August 2008. Envato is based in Melbourne, Australia.

I guess the main takeaway here is that if you are trying to help Adobe build its ecosystem of apps around Flash, don’t try to communicate that by including the word Flash in the name of your site.

Envato currently operates five “marketplaces” including ThemeForest, GraphicRiver, AudioJungle, VideoHive and now ActiveDen.

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State Funding for Energy Efficiency Set to Boom: Report [Earth2Tech]

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LBNL imageThe federal stimulus bill is allocating billions for energy efficiency projects, but a new report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab predicts that state-level, ratepayer-funded efficiency programs already in the pipeline will be an even bigger recipient of funding in coming years. The study found that funding for these projects –- in the form of subsidies for energy-saving light bulbs, for example, or home energy audits or incentives for commercial building retrofits — will increase to anywhere from $5.4 billion to as much as $12.4 billion a year by 2020, from just $3.1 billion in 2008. The result will be a “fundamental re-drawing of the energy efficiency map,” according to the recently released report, entitled “The Shifting Landscape of Ratepayer-funded Energy Efficiency in the U.S.

There’s been a proliferation of new state-level policies enacted in recent years that promote energy efficiency, the report found. These policies include energy efficiency portfolio standards, requirements that utilities adopt cost-effective energy efficiency programs, and regulatory incentive mechanisms to better align utility financial interests with improvements in customer energy efficiency. These programs are funded through rate increases on the sale of electricity and gas (as opposed to federally funded initiatives like the Weatherization Assistance Program), hence the “ratepayer-funded” focus of the report. 

Support for energy efficiency has grown in recent years as a result of widespread recognition that it’s less expensive to save a kilowatt-hour than to build a plant to produce that same unit of energy. While the new funding described in the report will ultimately come from ratepayers, the alternative would have been to build more plants to meet growing demand for power, the cost of which would have also been passed to those same consumers.

State-level energy efficiency programs have so far been concentrated in a handful of regions, with the top 10 states accounting for about 80 percent of the total spending last year. Among the leaders, California is the heavyweight, having spent about $1 billion in 2008 on ratepayer-funded energy efficiency programs.

But much of the projected increase in spending will be centered in populous states that have historically been minor players on the energy efficiency stage, the report predicts. Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which together represented less than 4 percent of energy efficiency program spending in 2008, could account for more than 60 percent of the projected increase in total U.S. spending through 2020. The cumulative electricity savings from these programs is expected to be between 4.7 percent and 8.6 percent of total U.S. retail electricity sales by 2020.

chart 2 b


Companies offering services or products for the energy efficiency market will of course benefit from these trends, according to a research note by financial services firm Canaccord Adams. The firm breaks the sector into three segments: energy efficiency program administrators like ICF International, energy efficiency program implementers like Johnson Controls, and energy efficiency product suppliers like Baldor Electric. We’ll add to that list startups like hi-tech insulation maker Aspen Aerogels, home energy retrofitter Sustainable Spaces and green building products developer Serious Materials. There might also be opportunities for startups in the building energy management sector, such as Powerit Solutions.

Charts courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Verizon Attacks iPhone With “Droid” [TheAppleBlog]

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droid_does_adOver the weekend, Verizon launched its second attack against the iPhone, a condescending teaser for an upcoming Android-based phone, Droid. However, unlike the first ad, which rightfully attacked AT&T’s anemic network coverage and dependability, the Droid ad goes after the iPhone.

According to Verizon, the iPhone doesn’t:

  • have a real keyboard
  • run simultaneous apps
  • take 5-megapixel pictures
  • customize
  • run widgets
  • allow open development
  • take pictures in the dark
  • have interchangeable batteries

That’s it? It’s like this ad is from 2007, what with the keyboard and battery complaints. People don’t care. In fact, touchscreen is now a desired feature on smartphones according to research. Besides those tired bromides, Verizon nitpicks the camera and appeals to nerds over multi-tasking and philosophical differences concerning development.

The latter is especially hilarious, because until the success of Apple’s App Store, Verizon not only told developers what they could sell, but how much they could charge. The company is currently planning a new store that, while not technically excluding competitors, aggregates content under its own store. How open of them, but what about the Droid itself?

Besides the fact that it’s an Android 2.0 phone to be released sometime in November, we don’t know much. The ad cuts from the “iDon’t” list accompanied by cheery background music to static-laden cut scenes possibly suggesting some kind of techno-future in which “droids” rule the iWorld. Beyond that, there are a few vague adjectives like hi-res, hi-speed, video, tunes. As for concrete features, how about speech recognition and 10,000 plus apps. It’s actually kind of sad to see Verizon forced to advertise the comparative dearth of Android apps to the Apple App Store because the latter simply cannot be ignored when advertising smartphones anymore.

In fact, the whole “iDon’t” concept reminds me of an ad from the console wars during the last millennium. Back then, Sega launched a “Nintendon’t!” campaign highlighting the many perceived failures of the Super NES when compared to the Genesis. We all know how that turned out. Whether you call it an iPhone clone or a droid, I don’t expect this war to be any different.

Wolfram Alpha’s iPhone App Launches: Lots of Power, But Too Expensive

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wolfram_alpha_logo_may09.pngQuite a bit ahead of schedule, Wolfram Alpha’s iPhone app appeared in the iTunes App Store today. The app, which costs $49.99, gives users full access to Wolfram Alpha’s capabilities and greatly improves on the speed and ergonomics of Wolfram Alpha’s mobile site. The company is targeting this app at students and professionals and marketing it as a replacement for stand-alone graphing calculators, which is clearly reflected in the price.


Dual Keyboards

One of the most interesting feature of the app, besides the ability to quickly access all of the power that Wolfram Alpha now offers, is the fact that the company has found a way to make inputing queries very easy. Instead of a single keyboard at the bottom of the screen, the app actually displays two keyboards – one for numbers and symbols, and a regular QWERTY keyboard at the bottom of the screen. Given the nature of a typical query for Alpha, this makes perfect sense and we hope that others will follow Alpha’s lead here.

A Web-Connected Graphing Calculator, But With Some Limitations

alpha_keyboard.jpgIt’s important to note that the app only works when a user is connected to the Internet. This could be a deal-breaker for some, but then, the app store already offers plenty of basic graphing calculators for those times when you don’t have Internet access. Thanks to its vast database of chemical compounds, nutritional data, geographical information, financial data, and its ability to solve pretty much any math problem that a high school or college student will ever encounter, the app can do a lot more than any current graphing calculator can offer.

For some students, though, the problem could be that some teachers won’t allow them to bring a full-blown Internet-capable device like the iPhone or an iPod touch into an exam. In addition, it’s also important to note that the Wolfram Alpha doesn’t offer the ability to write programs inside the app, though maybe somebody else will build an app that can do this based on Alpha’s newly released API.

It’s also important to remember that Alpha isn’t as easy to use as Google. Alpha, and, by extension, the app, can be rather strict about how you structure a query, for example. If you don’t capitalize a chemical formula, the app won’t know what to do with these symbols. While Google has virtually no learning curve, Alpha works best if you invest some time into exploring the intricacies of how to structure queries. To help you along the way, the app features a demo video, lots of example queries, and an FAQ section.

Native App Offers a Bit More Than the Web Service, But Is That Enough to Justify the High Price?

In its press materials, the Wolfram Alpha team stresses that the app offers a number of features that the web app can’t currently offer. The app can now make assumptions based on your location, for example. Wolfram also has added quite a few features that make using the app easier than using the web service. You can easily bookmark queries and the app keeps a running list of recent searches available as well. In addition, you can easily email queries or share them on Twitter.


Is $50 Too Much?

At $49.99, there can be no doubt that Wolfram Research is pricing the app at the higher end of the spectrum. A spokesperson for Wolfram Alpha told us that the company wants to target the app at “serious users, and is priced as such.” The team is clearly aware that this price could be controversial, especially given that the mobile web site offers a similar interface, though without the ergonomic benefits of the native app. In addition, Wolfram tells us that the team wants to use this price to make a statement about the “non-trivial nature” of Wolfram Alpha’s capabilities.

alpha_app_diagram.jpgWhile the company plans to offer regular discounts and sales, we can’t help but wonder if the price isn’t a bit too high. At $9.99 or even $19.99, the app would be more of an impulse buy, while now, even though it obviously offers more features than a user would ever expect from a high-priced hardware graphing calculator which would generally retail for more than $100.


Wolfram Alpha launched to so much hype that a backlash was inevitable when it finally launched. As Schoeller Porter, the product manager for the iPhone app, notes, the company is also launching this app “as an opportunity to highlight how far the system has come since launch.” Indeed, the Wolfram Alpha team continues to add new data sources and new ways to query them, making the service more useful with every new dataset it adds.

The high price will probably keep quite a few potential users from downloading the app, however. While we understand the company’s rational behind this high price, users generally consider a $10 app to be a ‘premium’ product. $49.99 is a hefty price for this app, especially considering that the majority of features is available through the web service. If you are a student or engineer who really needs these features, though, the app is worth a look, but we recommend you try the web service and see how it works for the kinds of queries you would enter before you spend $50, especially given that the company will surely offer discounts or bring the base price down at some point.


Wolfram Alpha Miscalculates What Its iPhone App Should Cost

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IMG_0001Apple wasted little time approving Wolfram Alpha’s new iPhone app, which we hinted at last week. Just a few days after they submitted it to the store, Apple sailed it right through the approval process with such speed that it even surprised the Wolfram Alpha team, which had hoped to get some feedback from testers before the approval. I was one of those people, so rather than send them feedback, I’ll write it here.

There are two key points about Wolfram Alpha’s iPhone app: 1) It is pretty cool, and very nicely done. 2) They’re insane for trying to sell it for $50.

I’m going to mainly focus on second point here, because if you’ve used Wolfram Alpha, you don’t really need much explanation about this app, which is a slick interface for the service. And while I get Wolfram Alpha’s logic behind selling the app for $50, I think it’s faulty logic. Here’s what they’re telling us:

A note on price — it is listed at $49.99, which is basically less than 1/2 the price of a graphing calculator with inferior functionality in comparison, which is how the company came to that number. Or, as we’ve been saying, the price of 12 lattes from Starbucks…

Both of those points are true, but the App Store has created a different economic reality than say, walking into an Office Max and buying a graphing calculator. It’s no secret that most apps that sell well tend to be cheaper — as in, free or $0.99. Apple has recently tried to de-emphasize this by adding a “Top Grossing” section to the App Store. That’s fine, but with the exception of the $90 Navigon GPS turn-by-turn app, all of the top grossing apps are under $10. And most are under $3.

The reality is that you can probably count the number of iPhone apps over $10 that sell really well on your hands. Of those, the number over $20, you can probably count on one hand. And of those, if you remove the GPS turn-by-turn apps and maybe a few apps meant for doctors, you’re probably down to a couple fingers.

And I’m sorry, but Wolfram Alpha does not yet have the clout of Navigon, nor is it in the hot turn-by-turn GPS space that would warrant such a high price. “We do plan to offer regular discounts and sales,” the team tells us. But if they really want this app to sell, they’re going to have to knock off like 90% of its price. Actually, to be honest, even at $10, I’m not sure how many people would buy this app.

IMG_0003And that’s too bad for the team. As I said, the app is a solid one, but this is the reality of the App Store. Games that sell on systems like the Nintendo DS for $30, are $3 on the iPhone. Hell, there are even some games that sell on the bigger consoles for $60 that are less than $10 on the iPhone. They’re not quite as good graphics-wise, but I would argue that they’re every bit as fun. And don’t think for a second that studios like EA wouldn’t sell them for $30 if they could, but they realize that they can’t.

Wolfram Alpha may have to figure that reality out the hard way. It’s fine that it can replace your $100 graphing calculator, but it’s also limited because it requires WiFi or a 3G connection to do so. And the iPhone already comes with a calculator, which can turn into a more advanced one, and both of those are free. And there are dozens of graphing calculator apps in the App Store that sell for a whopping $0.99.

Okay, you might say, but Wolfram Alpha does offer a lot of interesting data far beyond graphing calculators. That’s also true, like giving you a detailed read out of how many calories are in a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke. But if you’re using this on your iPhone or iPod touch, you already have access to Google, and more to the point, the mobile web version of Wolfram Alpha, which is free.

Clearly, the service had some insight into how controversial the price will be. They go on to note:

The core WolframAlpha site will always be free. This is one of several “premium” experiences that the company will offer in addition. The app is targeted at the most serious users, and is priced as such. Likewise, we feel that the app’s egonomics and speed make it well worth the investment.

I can only assume they mean “ergonomics” there, but we’ll forgive them for that Freudian slip.

IMG_0007The app absolutely does offer a nice experience, one that yes, is better than the free website. But $50 better? No. $10 better? Maybe. $5 better? We’re getting closer. Again, right or wrong, this is just the reality of the App Store economy.

As we’ve noted previously, the iPhone app is the first example of Wolfram Alpha’s new APIs that they hope will extend their most valuable asset: Their data. But if you’re trying to get more people to use access your data, charging $50 is not a great play. A better one may be to get people hooked on your data, then charge down the road when they realize how valuable it is — if they ever do, which is still far from certain with Wolfram Alpha.

It’s also interesting to note that despite talk of a deal with Bing, the defautl web search in the Wolfram Alpha app is Google. Both Bing and Yahoo are options, but you have to change it in the settings.

You can find the Wolfram Alpha app here in the App Store.

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NaNoWriMo is Nearly Upon Us: Are You Participating? [WebWorkerDaily]

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nano_09_blk_support_120x90November is almost here, and that means it’s also nearly time for NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the abbreviated term. It’s an event run by Office of Letters and Light, a not-for-profit organization that takes as its primary focus encouraging young people to write through various education-based programs.

The goal is for participants to write an entire 50,000-word novel, from start to finish, within the space of a single month. Sound challenging? It should, unless you’re Stephen King, who seems able to match that kind of production without even meaning to. It’s free to enter, although donations are encouraged to help the organization pursue its charitable goals.

For the rest of us, that’s a tall order, hence the benefit of giving it a shot if you’re a writer working online, or even if you’re not and you just have some writerly tendencies. NaNoWriMo may seem like an immense distraction from work, and it is, but that’s part of what makes it such a unique and valuable opportunity for those for whom the written word is professionally relevant.

For one, it puts you under an extreme deadline, but one that’s distant enough from the project start point that you can actually create a workable, multi-parted plan in advance to tackle the task. Having a definite start and definite finish isn’t something that you’ll always have when you’re working for a client, but being able to work within those kinds of strict confines comes in very handy.

It also gets your creative juices flowing. If your job is to write about one thing day after day, it can be pretty easy to fall into a rut, and who could blame you? Participating in something fun like NaNoWriMo will not only help you escape from the monotony of the daily grind, but it should also have a positive effect on your writing as a whole, both personal and professional.

Have you participated in NaNoWriMo in the past? Do you think you’ll take part this year? Do you think creative writing is a valuable tool for professional writers?

App of the Day Rotates Highly-Voted iPhone Apps [IPhone Apps]

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There are too many iPhone apps to sift through, and iTunes nor the iPhone App Store interface don’t make it easy to find the best stuff. App of the Day blogs and Twitters one member-voted app per day

It’s a simple idea, but it’s a good start at sifting through the more than 85,000 applications available to iPhone and iPod touch users. Registered users of App of the Day can nominate one application per day, and the most nominated applications are showcased plainly on the site’s front page, with screenshots, short descriptions, a direct iTunes link, and comments from those nominating. The site supports Gravatars, so signing up shouldn’t be that tough if you’ve already commented on WordPress or other Gravatar-supporting blogs.

The site has only been around long enough to nominate one app-Tweetie, the Twitter client—but it seems like a nice, RSS-friendly solution to the loosely-threaded chaos of the App Store. Looking for a more thrifty feed of previously-paid-now-free apps? Check out the previously mentioned FreeAppAlert.

Automatically Open PDFs and PowerPoint Presentations with Google’s Doc Viewer [Downloads]

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Most web browsers: Google’s Doc Viewer allows you to view any PDF, PPT, and TIFF directly in your browser without downloading the file and launching another heavy desktop application, and this user script streamlines that process.

After installing the script (which works with Greasemonkey for Firefox and should in theory work with the dev build of Chrome, Opera, Safari with GreaseKit, and IE with IE7Pro), it will convert any link pointing directly to a download of PDF, PPT, and TIFF files to a link to view those files in the Google Doc Viewer. If the idea sounds familiar, we highlighted a bookmarklet that could do the same thing on a case-by-case basis, but this user script will do the trick every time.

TringMe’s App Lets You Make Calls From Facebook

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VoIP startup TringMe has launched a Facebook application that lets users make calls from the social network using its Flash-based web phone for browsers. The app also lets you embed widgets to your profile for your Facebook friends to call or SMS you.

The app has much of the functionality that a regular VoIP app like Skype has. TringMe’s app lets users set up caller-id, send SMS messages from Facebook, lets callers leave voicemails that the users can access and lets you add TringMe widgets to your profile that let friends and visitors call or SMS you from that page, which seems to be the most appealing feature of the app.

And if you have a TringMe account, you can integrate your account with Facebook. Of course, you have to buy credits to use the application, which range from $5 to $100 worth of credits, bought via PayPal. Facebook also has a similar Skype-based app called SkypeMe. that lets you Skype your friends.

TringMe also recently launched a demo of a widget that now allows a user the ability to make a VoIP call from Microsoft Silverlight applications. Silverlight doesn’t allow access to a microphone, thus restricting VoIP calls, so TringMe used a backdoor Flash widget to access the microphone.

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Firefox Now Auto-Blocks Microsoft .NET Extensions [Security]

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Firefox users on Windows probably have the .NET Framework Assistant extension installed, even if they don’t remember asking it to install (they didn’t). Now Mozilla is blocking the extension for all users to stop a security breach.

It is, yet again, a good lesson in open-source security. Microsoft discovered a vulnerability in Internet Explorer and .NET-connected browsers that allowed a site with malicious code to, well, “own” your browser and install some other terrible stuff.

Microsoft issued a high-priority security patch for Windows systems and through Internet Explorer’s update mechanism, but for Firefox users who haven’t applied the patch, Mozilla has added the Microsoft .Net Framework Assistant and Windows Presentation Foundation extensions to its blocklist, noting that users should see the extensions disabled upon their next log-in.

If you still see those extensions enabled on your Windows system, Mozilla’s security chief has written about the special means of removing them, as they often can’t be disabled by default. Better still, if you see extensions in your Firefox Add-Ons menu that you can’t quite remember installing, or question what purpose they serve, take this as a lesson in why uninstalling them might be a good idea.

The Polder Dual-Purpose Thermometer and Timer [Stuff We Like]

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A good cooking thermometer is a must-have tool for any kitchen, and the Polder all-in-one timer/thermometer looks like an excellent, inexpensive cooking companion for any budding chef or grill-master.

We’ve previously recommended the Taylor digital instant-read pocket thermomenter ($7), and while it’s highly rated and even cheaper than the Polder timer and thermometer, it doesn’t boast quite the depth of functionality that seem to go so well with its use. From smart buys weblog Cool Tools:

[I] prefer the Polder timer/thermometer because of the 43-inch cord that runs from the thermometer to the probe. It allows me to place the thermometer outside of the oven, magnetically attached to the oven’s side. I like being able to hold the thermometer in my hands and adjust the cook time, or reset the finish temperature while the dish I’m preparing is still in the oven and the thermometer is actively taking a reading. The Polder thermometer also allows me to preset a desired temperature (one high and one low, simultaneously), so when that temperature is reached, the unit’s beeping alarm sounds.

Meanwhile, the timer lets you keep an eye on the cook time while you’re also eying the temperature. The Polder all-in-one timer/thermometer will set you back $19 from Amazon, and with Thanksgiving around a month away, you could get some good use out of it very soon.

Google Figured Out Where New Zealand Is

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Last week we wrote about Google’s odd habit of putting the Google New Zealand web site as the top result for a ton of queries like Google Ireland and Google Egypt (and the commenters found many more).

I wondered how long it would take for them to make the change. If they did it right away it would be too obvious. They’d probably wait until the middle of the weekend to fix it.

Today, in the middle of the weekend, they fixed it. And now we can link to a clip from The Chaser’s War On Everything (which is even better than Flight of the Conchords):

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Launch48 Startups Present Their Ideas After 48 Hours Of Hacking

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The Launch48 event in London this weekend has seen six teams attempt to launch a startup in, you guessed it 48 hours. The event, which was basically created by some UK startup enthusiasts, is different to StartupWeekend in that separate teams come together to each work on their own project rather than one. After frantically coding for the last couple of days, the results were presented tonight at the event, so here they are in order of presentation. I liked Given and Grapeshots. As you can see some were more fully formed than others:

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Myth: Entrepreneurship Will Make You Rich [GigaOM]

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iStock_000004934135SmallThis year, I had the opportunity to serve as a mentor at Seedcamp. I hear pitches from wanna-be startups all the time in Silicon Valley, but the teams in London were different; the entrepreneurial dreamers that I met there typically had letters like PhD after their names. As a result, their ideas were especially innovative -– and complex. So a few pitches in, I started to ask the question: Why do you want to build a startup around this technology? Very few of them had an answer.

One of the unfortunate side effects of all the publicity and hype surrounding startups is the idea that entrepreneurship is a guaranteed path to fame and riches. It isn’t. Building a startup is incredibly hard, stressful, chaotic and –- more often than not –- results in failure. That doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile thing to do, just that it’s not a good way to make money.

A more rational career path for money-making is one that rewards effort, in the form of promotions, increased security, salary and status. Startups, unfortunately, punish effort that doesn’t yield results. In fact, the biggest source of waste in a startup is building something nobody wants. While in an academic R&D lab, creation for creation’s sake will often get you praise, in a startup, it will often put you out of business.

So why become an entrepreneur instead of developing technology in an R&D lab? Three reasons: change the world, make customers’ lives better and create an organization of lasting value. If you only want to do one of these things, there are better options. But only startups combine all three.

Take this fictional example of a Seedcamp attendee (actually a composite), which I will refer to as Hairbrush 2.0. At the helm of Hairbrush 2.0 are dreamers with deep AI background. Their dream is to use AI to solve some of humanity’s big problems. Originally, they thought they could make a learning engine that would accurately predict consumer preferences, and tell people what products to buy. Imagine a shopping engine that does your shopping for you. Brilliant. And also very, very hard. So like good entrepreneurs, they went searching for an easier problem to start with, namely helping people find just the right –- you guessed it — hairbrush. This idea took them right off the rails.

They were busy building their product as if they were still in a research laboratory. They hired hair-styling experts to feed their expert system. Their algorithms were world-class. And yet nobody was using it.

The worst part? They didn’t know why.

Hairbrush 2.0 didn’t have contact with customers. Not only that, nobody in the company actually had a use for the product they were building. Trust me, these guys did not brush their hair.

There’s nothing wrong with starting small on the way towards a larger or more mainstream product. But to become an entrepreneur, you have to serve customers, stay true to your vision and build an organization — all at the same time. Indeed, that constant balancing of short- and long-term priorities, vision and data, customers and employees is what makes it almost impossibly hard.

That’s not to say the Hairbrush 2.0 team is doomed. They can make up for their lack of domain expertise by putting a product out early, spending a lot of time with potential customers, and being rigorous about measuring how real-life customers interact with it. But in order to do that, they’re going to have to keep two seemingly contradictory ideas in mind at the same time: that their vision is going to change the world, and that their vision is also horribly flawed. Which parts of the vision are which? There’s no way to answer that in the lab.

Attempting to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously is known in psychology as cognitive dissonance. Most people go out of their way to avoid this sensation. That’s a perfectly normal reaction; our brains are supposed to experience pain when we try to do the possible and the impossible at the same time. Entrepreneurs are wired differently, however. It’s not that they don’t experience pain — trust me, creating a startup is extremely painful — but that they care more about realizing their vision. And there are much easier ways to get rich.

Eric Ries is a serial entrepreneur and author of the blog Startup Lessons Learned.

A Digital Magazine Without Links Is a CD-ROM

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When the next generation of touchscreen tablet computers hits the market, one of its highly anticipated uses will be as a full-color reader for books, newspapers, and magazines.  Of those three, the main beneficiary may very well be old-style magazines. The black-and-white Kindle doesn’t do magazines justice, and they never really quite translated to the Web. The magic of a magazine is all in the layout—the interplay of lush prose with stunning photography or standout illustrations.

A tablet computer holds forth the promise of a high-resolution color screen that is big enough so you won’t have to squint at it. Tablets will be portable and comfortable enough to hold in your hands while you are sitting in an easy chair.  And subscriptions can be delivered on an ongoing basis as quickly as an issue or an article can be published, without those pesky printing, paper, or shipping costs.

It’s not hard to understand why beleaguered magazine executives and editors can’t wait for these tablets to appear. They are already talking about creating a Hulu for magazines—kind of like a giant digital newsstand which delivers its digital editions to tablets and other devices from all of today’s major print magazines.

But what will a digital magazine look like exactly? My former editor Josh Quittner, who is now working on some prototypes for digital magazines at Time Inc. (among other things), recently offered the following perspective on re-imagining magazines for these devices:


Don’t overestimate the importance of the right device. With no imagination at all, we can envision a 10-inch iPod Touch, which would render beautifully packaged magazine-style content in a far more reader-friendly way than the Web. Even the “lean-back” experience of the Kindle, as primitive as it is, is far more conducive to long-form reading than trying to read on a desktop or laptop. I mean, it’s not coincidental that the killer app on the Web is the browser. The Web is built for browsing—not deep reading. Everything about reading on the Web is designed to shorten your attention span. Every link promises that whatever you’re currently reading isn’t nearly as interesting as the thing behind the link. Not that there’s anything wrong with that for some things. But it can’t possibly work for everything.

When I read that, I did a double-take and asked Quittner whether he was he actually suggesting removing the links from digital magazines. He responded, and even wrote another blog post, saying that is exactly what he meant:

Magazines don’t need links. They should be like wonderful applications, surprising and delightful and fluid to use. If you want to browse the Web, close the app.

What Quittner is evoking here is the iTunes model, where you download self-contained apps to your iPhone. Imagine magazines for sale on iTunes, but for a bigger device. And they are not just filled with words and pictures, but have interactive elements, perhaps video too, and operate more like an information app.

I think that’s a great idea, and would love to see magazine “apps” like that.  But not including links in the text would be a mistake.  And in fact, Quittner’s analogy only goes so far because many iPhone apps support links which then open a browser. That kind of hybrid design could work for digital publications as well.  Digital magazines should be immersive, self-contained experiences, Quittner argues.

I agree with the immersive part, but if it’s too self-contained you end up with a CD-ROM.  When was the last time you bought one of those?

But Quittner seems to want e-mags to be more like e-books, which don’t have any links at all. In his mind, every link “leaves the barn door open” and points “away from the product . . . to the wide-open Web,” where nobody wants to pay for anything.

Sorry old pal, but that horse left the barn a long time ago.  I can appreciate the challenge magazine companies have of transitioning from print to digital without losing paying subscribers, but they ignore the link structure of the Web at their peril. Those links are there whether they acknowledge them or not and people will seek them out.

If the Web has taught us anything it is that information does not exist in a vacuum.  An article without links is a dead story.  An interesting artifact perhaps, but not something that will engage and delight the modern reader, who finds information these days by following links or passing them around.  If you close the door to the Web, you’ll only be locking yourself in.

And that raises another question about these digital magazines.  Will each story have an associated link, and will people need a tablet reader to open up those links and read them?  While you can create a much richer experience in a dedicated app than in a browser, the gap between the two is quickly closing.  The latest Javascript rendering engines, HTML5, and  a whole slew of advancements are turning the browser into a rich application platform.

When Google launches its own electronic book store, the books will be delivered via the browser.  No special electronic reader will be required. The same should be true for digital magazines.  New browser technologies can make digital magazines more immersive than a standard HTML Website, and in fact a magazine’s Website can be programmed to unlock different features depending on the type of browser and device that is being used to view it.  If it detects a touchscreen tablet, maybe the UI changes to deliver the most compelling experience.

There will always be demand for information that is packaged in an informative and entertaining way.  But the most vibrant magazines (and newspapers) of tomorrow will live on the Web (not some jewel-encased app), and they most certainly will have links

CD-ROM image by Clinton Little; Tablet magazine image via Gizmodo.

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Does Direct-to-Fan Marketing Really Work? [GigaOM]

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topspin-logoThe knock on direct-to-fan music marketing toolkit developer Topspin Media has always been that its tools work better for major label refugees and other established acts than for developing artists seeking to build an audience. The company, which offers “CRM-for-bands” tools that help sell deluxe editions and unique digital releases for the likes of Eminem, David Byrne and the Beastie Boys, has signed up more than 250 acts since launching last year. But now Topspin can point to Britain’s Fanfarlo as a case study of how it helped a band win over new listeners, garner it a growing international fan base, and ultimately earn it a major label record release. It’s a compelling example of how a worthwhile artist can use technology to get new fans, but only time will tell whether Fanfarlo’s story is a fluke — or an example of a path that independent bands looking to catch a break need to follow.

Topspin revealed some numbers recently that show Fanfarlo’s growth over a short period last spring, when the band offered its new album “Reservoir” as a $1 download in exchange for an email address. Fanfarlo and its fans spread the word using Topspin’s widgets and related social media tools, and got a push from its admirers in Icelandic band Sigur Ros, which has a much larger audience. In a matter of a few weeks, the band’s digital sales jumped to 13,000 from less than 850, mostly at the ultra-cheap price point. Sold-out club dates in major American cities followed, and Fanfarlo inked a deal with Canvasback Records, whose new relationship with Warner Music Group-owned Atlantic Records resulted in a reissue of “Reservoir” this week.

Fanfarlo hasn’t sold a ton of records, but it has engaged an audience of early adopters. Topspin estimates that 30 percent of album buyers came via Sigur Ros’s introduction, and acknowledges that Fanfarlo’s publicity organization helped boost its popularity, too. But the unique campaign conducted with Topspin’s tools certainly deserves a large share of the credit for the multifold growth in its U.S. audience, creating the buzz that led to concert ticket and merchandise sales, and ultimately making labels interested enough to forge a deal with the band. Given the bleak album sales numbers floating around recently, Fanfarlo’s album could end up being among the top 1 percent bestsellers of 2009.

How repeatable is Fanfarlo’s story? Topspin says another band is already doing something similar with its toolbox, and the idea of pricing developing artists’ records well below the typical iTunes album rate is clearly catching on. What’s more, the things Fanfarlo did right are characteristic of what many growing startups do: create something good, establish relationships, make it easy to spread the word and stay in front of people so that they pay for something later. Innovative marketing aside, however, “Reservoir” is artistically worthwhile, which differentiates the band from most of what else is floating around out there. The sales model itself surely wouldn’t have worked without the record being good. (Topspin’s No. 1 rule remains “Don’t suck.”)

In the end, though, Topspin’s model still might be best-suited to the Eminems and Beasties of the world. The company’s planned self-serve product for artists was due awhile ago, but has been put off until next year, and there’s reason to doubt that it will have as much revenue impact as originally anticipated. And for Fanfarlo, the story has only just begun; a record contract can bring a handsome payday, but it can also create new expectations that few bands can fulfill. At the very least, they’ll get their shot.