Taking pictures is fun, frustrating and rewarding. But the right gear helps minimize the frustration and bump up the other two. This guide covers a range of photographers, from amateur mobile shooters to those with the best gear operating at or near the professional level, so there should be something for everyone. And remember: When in doubt, batteries.Fujifilm X100s ($1,299)
This is a camera lover’s camera, with an extremely pleasing outer design and functionality that will make the biggest rangefinder nerd sing with secret joy inside their heart. The X100s debuted at CES last year, but it’s not showing its age yet – and it improves autofocus greatly over the original X100, which was itself a strong performer save for that one failing. If it’s low light and candid you’re after, in a relatively portable package with extensive manual controls, the X100s is it.Sony NEX-5T ($599)
The Fujifilm camera listed above is great for advanced users, but the Sony NEX-5T is an affordable mirrorless interchangeable lens camera that fits the needs of much more novice and general photographers. The 5T offers Wi-Fi sharing over the lower cost 3N, which is why it gets my vote, since that’s becoming a much more important convenience factor with the increased mobile editing power built-in to many of today’s best smartphones and tablets.iPad Air ($499)
Speaking of those devices, Apple’s iPad Air takes the cake as the photographer’s best friend while on the road. That big, beautiful Retina display combined with the thin and light design of Apple’s latest 9.7-inch tablet make it the perfect blend of form and function for use in the field. And that A7 processor promises big improvements for image editing performance on the tablet, especially as software makers like Adobe capitalize on its newfound abilities.Glif ($30)
Also for the mobile photographer, the Glif from Studio Neat has just undergone a redesign that makes it compatible with virtually any smartphone device. The original was a single piece of ABS plastic, but this one introduces a single moving part to accommodate devices of different thicknesses. You might not think that tripod-mounting your iPhone or Galaxy S4 is going to make a huge difference to your pictures, but with apps that cater to long exposures and for surprisingly sharper results, traditional tools like a tripod can’t be beat.Incase DSLR Pro Pack ($149.95)
I am constantly rethinking my ideal camera bag, but the Incase DSLR Pro Pack has remained on top of the heap for the longest time now, and I don’t foresee ditching it anytime soon. It lugs everything I need with ease, including laptop, chargers and cables in addition to one or two bodies and a number of lenses. It’ll weigh a ton fully loaded, but the straps distribute the weight evenly to save your back, and it’s so sturdily constructed it’ll last for years even under the heaviest of loads.
The Internet did something strange last week. When a researcher named Skye Grey posted a detailed analysis of textual biases in the writing of shadowing Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto and a researcher named Nick Szabo at George Washington University, the interest was muted but optimistic. Did Grey, who declined to go into much personal detail, crack the code? Or was it, as always, just a matter of lucky conjecture.
Whether or not Satoshi is a real person, group of people, or some sort of government entity is important. It gives closure to the currency’s origin story and it can confirm or deny a whole host of rumors and innuendo bandied about in the fringier corners of the bitcoin market. If BTC were a way to get us out from under the government, why is Satoshi so secretive? While Grey’s analysis is still being proved or disproved, the process, in the end, is fascinating.
Given that Grey’s analysis was, on the surface, solid, I reached out for a short interview.
TC: Tell me about yourself. Why did you do this study?
SG: Originally it was simple curiosity that drew me to the question. I like mysteries. Then I decided to publish what I found for two reasons:
- so that other people could attack my method and findings, or validate them. I want certitudes, and keeping for me what I had found would not get me anywhere.
- so as to address people’s concerns that a “bad guy” might have created Bitcoin. I think this question is what could harm the mainstream adoption of Bitcoin in the near future.
TC: How sure are you it’s Nick Szabo?
SG: I am not certain it’s Nick Szabo, but I have quite a few independent pieces of evidence pointing in his direction, each one interesting in itself:
- text analysis (only 0.1% of cryptography researchers could have produced this writing style –again, please, attack my methods on this)
- fact that Nick was searching for technical collaborators on the bit gold project (a very similar cryptocurrency) a few months before the announcement of Bitcoin (and then the bit gold project became perfectly silent)
- lack of citation of Nick’s work by Satoshi, whereas he cited other, less related cryptocurrencies
- lack of reaction on Nick’s part about Bitcoin, whereas a decentralized currency like Bitcoin had been a major project of his for 10 years
- fact that Nick deliberately post-dated his bit gold articles to look posterior to Bitcoin, shortly after the announcement of Bitcoin
Currently I am in contact with two different persons who will be running their own independent textual analysis to confirm my own.
TC: Does it matter? What would it change if it did, in your opinion?
SG: I think it’s very important to identify Satoshi at this point in Bitcoin’s history. The “agenda” behind Bitcoin, if there is any, cannot stay in the shadow if Bitcoin is to become a mainstream alternative currency, a challenge to the world’s monetary status quo. There has been speculation that Bitcoin may have been created by a government agency (the main employers of cryptographers of mathematicians) in an attempt to make financial transactions easier to mine for interesting data patterns: we need to clear that up before we start relying heavily on Bitcoin in our lives.
I think it would be great news for Bitcoin if Nick Szabo turned out to be the mastermind behind it. Nick appears to be a remarkably brilliant, disinterested polymath academic. Who would you rather have at the origins of Bitcoin, a visionary professor and collaborators, or spooks?
TC: How has your digging gone over in the BTC community? It seems like an unpopular topic at best.
SG: It has not been received well, many people are telling me to “leave Satoshi alone”. But when one starts having a huge impact on the world, one loses his right to anonymity. Satoshi currently holds about BTC 1M, valued at USD $1B, and has the power to potentially crash the Bitcoin markets. We need to know who the people who have power over us are, and what their intentions are. This is why we require background checks on our elected leaders. In the same way we need a “background check” on the Bitcoin system before we start handing it our monetary exchanges. Next would be to know what has become of Satoshi’s BTC stash.
The anonymous figure of Satoshi probably played a role in the early adoption of Bitcoin (“we are all Satoshi”), because the mystery created a powerful story drawing in early enthusiasts. Now this anonymity has become an obstacle to mainstream adoption, because there is legitimate concern over the origins and purpose of Bitcoin.
TC: How easy is it to assess identity via written “tics?”
SG: It’s rather easy. We all use language in our own particular way: the probability distribution over rare expressions, sentence structures, and stop words in our writing constitute a “signature” of sorts. It is not nearly as uniquely discriminative as a fingerprint, or DNA, but it is discriminative enough to distinguish one person out of a few hundreds or even thousands. For some people who tend to have more particular tics, like authors or academics, it constitutes a solid identification process.
In the case of Satoshi, I identified a number of unusual content-neutral expressions used both in Satoshi’s whitepaper and in Nick’s papers. For 4 of these expressions, I was able to estimate (using Google Scholar) the proportion of researchers in the cryptography community susceptible of using these expressions in a paper. These proportions are respectively 15%, 10%, 15%, and 50%. Assuming the use of each one is independent of the use of the others, the joint probability of finding a researcher using all of them in their writing is on the order of 0.1%. So this particular combination of writing tics could identify one cryptographer out of 1000. Even if these approximations are off by a large factor, the joint probability will stay quite small.
TC: Are there any close runners-up for the Satoshi identity?
SG: Nick is by far the number one candidate. I have nothing else significant enough to be worth mentioning.
TC: How many bitcoin do you have?
SG: Let’s say I have between 1 and 10 BTC. I am not heavily invested in Bitcoin, but I am definitely bullish on its adoption prospects.
The most unproductive Congress in history is on a mini-roll: the House of Representative passed its second piece of tech legislation this week. The Google and White House-backed Innovation Act seeks to punish so-called “patent trolls” that make a living from intellectual property lawsuits.
“They don’t actually produce anything themselves. They’re just trying to essentially leverage and hijack someone else’s idea to see if they can extort some money out of them,” said President Barack Obama in a Google+ Hangout earlier this year.
There are a few key troll loopholes that the act from Representative Bob Goodlatte seeks to close.
Transparency: Patent trolls can often win money by threatening to sue innovators without much detail or by hiding behind shell corporations. The Innovation Act requires plaintiffs to detail their complaints and who they actually are. For instance, infamous patent troll Intellectual Ventures has 1,000 companies asserting patent rights.
Losers Pay: There’s not much financial risk for patent trolls to sue innovators en masse, so the Innovation Act makes it easier for defendants to recoup their loses should they win (an often easy) case. It also denies patent trolls the ability to hide behind smaller shell companies to avoid such losses.
Protect Users: Some patent trolls are brazen enough to claim they own key patents on Wi-Fi (yes, Wi-Fi), so they’ve been suing everyone from coffee shops to hotels. “The Innovation Act allows technology vendors to step into the shoes of their customers and fight lawsuits against trolls on their customers’ behalf,” says the Washington Post’s Timothy Lee.
While most of the tech scene supports it (including the major lobbies such as The Internet Association and the Consumer Electronics Agency), not everyone is thrilled. “The bill will have unintended consequences that the people who drafted it don’t yet see,” Kentucky Republican and holder of 29 patents, Thomas Massie, told Businessweek. He claims the bill will “weaken the patent system overall.”
In addition, TechDirt’s Mike Masnick argues the bill stripped out an important provision to expedite the removal of low-quality patents, often held by big players such as Microsoft and Apple.
The bill will head to the Senate to continue the fight, but it’s unlikely it’ll pass by the end of the year.
YC-Backed Bop.fm Links Together Music Silos Like Spotify, Radio And iTunes To Share Tracks Universally
Competition for listeners among digital music companies is tough – and getting tougher. But while each builds a business that it hopes will stand out enough from the rest of the pack, a new startup called Bop.fm, incubated at Y Combinator this past summer, is blurring those distinctions a bit, with a platform that meshes all the services together on a universal platform — a “canonical home for music on the internet,” as Bop.fm’s co-founder and CEO Shehzad Daredia puts it.
Bop works like this: You can search for and listen to any song on Bop.fm. The service detects what music subscriptions you may have and provides tracks from those services first — currently it catalogues streaming services Spotify and Rdio, as well as free services like YouTube and SoundCloud, and paid-for download services like iTunes, Amazon and Google Play; it plans to add more.
In cases where you do not subscribe to Spotify or Rdio, or the track is not available on either, a user is given a YouTube link, or a SoundCloud link. You also get options to buy and download tracks. In each case, what Bop.fm has done is use the digital “fingerprint” of each track effectively to map each of these services on top of each other so that you get just one option for listening to it, and one for purchasing.
Then, you can create a link to that song to share with others. That link comes back to Bop.fm, and as with your original listening experience, Bop.fm detects which services you use before serving a result.
This is a service that has been built with users in mind: it can be annoying when something is shared by someone you can’t access. Living in London but connected to a lot of people in the U.S., I know this frustration firsthand. (I’ve lost count of the number of times that Twitter links to interesting video clips have taken me to static screens with a “sorry, not accessible in your region” message.) As Daredia tells me, “You don’t have to use the same JPEG viewer when you look at a picture, so why should I have to use the same music service?” (Note to Bop.fm: please do this for video next.)
There is also a B2B2C relevance here. Publishers or site operators who want to make sure that links that they are publishing, or allowing others to publish, work for everyone who sees them, not just those in a particular region.
As Geoff Ralston of Y Combinator describes it, “The ongoing proliferation of music services such as these make a service like Bop a near inevitability.” Indeed, without any obvious promotion, Bop.fm, in private beta, is already streaming 100,000 songs per day from consumer traffic and sites like RapGenius.com, one of Bop’s first partners, where it powers music playback.
(And now, for a little music break to demonstrate the service, a hat-tip to music services working together harmoniously:)
When I first heard about Bop.fm, I was very intrigued. It reminds me a bit of another startup called Soundrop, which is also integrating track playback across different music services. The difference is that it does so in communal “listening rooms” while Bop.fm offers the experience on a single-track basis, with options to purchase tracks alongside listening.
Like Soundrop, Bop.fm has piqued the interest of music portals, as well as labels. For the former, it’s a way of potentially bringing in more users to their platforms longer-term (free links can lead to paid subscriptions or paid downloads). For the latter, it will be yet another way of making sure that the marketing effort expended on an artist gets the biggest bang. In a digital music world that seems to have had fragmentation built into it, Bop.fm is providing a consumer- and business-friendly way out of that.
Between them, the two co-founders, Daredia and Stefan Gomez, know a thing or two about how to leverage the concept of aggregation to build successful, consumer-focused businesses. Daredia tells me that collectively they have worked at 11 sites built on search, including the travel juggernaut Kayak (where Daredia led user acquisition), Billshrink (eventually sold to MasterCard) and Foodily.
Longer term, you can see a lot of potential for Bop.fm — the addition of playlists, more siloed music services, advertising, other merchandising and special pages dedicated to particular artists, as well as Bop being used to power music on platforms that, like Bop.fm itself, want to see less friction and more grooving.
Instagram has invited members of the media to an event in NYC on December 12 to “share a moment” with Kevin Systrom and the Instagram team.
It’s unclear what this event is in reference to, but considering that the invitation was sent in the mail, on paper, the photo-sharing app could be hinting at a future in print. Other invites were a block of wood with pictures printed on them, with a hanger on one side to hang on the wall. If that isn’t a hint toward printing, I don’t know what is.
It sounds ridiculous, considering the digital revolution is in full swing and paper is on its way out, but there is an entire ecosystem of applications, services, etc. that piggy backs off of Instagram’s success.
A number of services print Instagram photos on wood, canvas, glass, and even marshmallows so that users can enjoy the physical incarnation of their digital obsession.
With Christmas around the corner, the introduction of a photo printing business could mean big bucks for the photo-sharing app, which has just recently introduced a revenue stream in Instagram ads.
So far, the roll out is slow and small, while reaction is unclear. Printing could be a strong way to quickly bring in revenue with behemoth Facebook as a backup resource to cover printing, shipping costs. It’s an investment, but one that will generate revenue quickly.
On the other hand, Instagram could be trying to pull a fast one on us with these invites, and perhaps release a messaging feature to compete with the likes of Snapchat, as Om Malik reported.
After all, Facebook has seemed awfully jealous of all of the attention Snapchat’s been getting lately. Envy worth $3 billion. That’s mighty green.
In fact, messaging is probably inevitable on Instagram. Though much of the app centers around relatively public interactions, messaging is becoming ingrained in everything we do on the internet. Visit any updated ecommerce or services website and you’re auto-chatting with a service representative. Why do you think Layer, the Disrupt winner looking to bring messaging into any app, is doing so well lately?
Instagram will most likely get in on the messaging game at some point.
Of course, we’ll have to wait until December 12 to find out just what Instagram has in store.
Ottawa-based Shopify, which now has a growing office in Toronto thanks in large part to the company’s recent acquisition of Jet Cooper and Rocketr, is running a pop-up retail experience in Toronto’s Kensington Market over the next few days as part of a project called ‘Popify.’ It’s something the company has done once before in Ottawa, but this time there’s less emphasis on having retailers physically present, and more focus on how to bring bricks and clicks together for better customer acquisition.
The Popify store, which I had a chance to check out before their public opening at an event last night, features a number of stores contained within a relatively tight shop in an area of Toronto known for its trendy independent stores and restaurants. Within the single storefront are housed 12 individual stores, from Shopify customers Areaware, Au Lit Fine Linens, Best Made, Biko, Joulies, DODOcase, Grain Audio, Holstee, JM&Sons, Oru Kayak, Partouche, and Poler.
Each shop represented had physical product present, but not necessarily any staff. Near each demo product was an iPad, equipped with a Shopify dongle for accepting credit card payments, with a super simple version of their mobile storefront selling just the items available to check out at the shop. Some shops were offering special discounts for the event, including free shipping on items.
The idea, according to Shopify VP of Growth Craig Miller, is to help answer the question of how Shopify customers can grow their customer base. The issue, he says, is that a lot of people on the platform love setting up their stores and find it super easy, but then have trouble with the next step, which is making sure that the right people find and see their wares and then hopefully, become customers.
To help with that, something like the Popify stores is an idea Shopify is testing out. Andrew Peek, who came on with the acquisition of his company Rocketr, is heading up a sort of experimental skunkworks within Shopify, and this Popify concept shop is the first example of the kinds of projects he’s working on there. It brings together “URLs with IRL,” as Shopify Designer Chris Appleton put it.
The phenomenon of showcasing is well documented in our age of digital selling: The idea is that stores like Walmart and Best Buy provide physical showrooms for products that customers can use to try things out, and then those same buyers go online to complete the transaction with a competitor like Amazon where they can get a lower price. According to Peek and Miller, the theory is that giving people access to a showcasing environment that’s cost-efficient and run by Shopify itself will help give its clients the benefit of the showcasing effect while keeping the entire shopping cycle within Shopify’s control.
The acquisition of Jet Cooper earlier this year began a string of major announcements from Shopify, all of which point to a company that’s not resting on its laurels, but is instead seeking new ways to add value to the online storefront platform that started the company. Along with Hootsuite, this is one of Canada’s leading independent tech companies, and its growth of late has been very impressive. With projects like Popify, it’s also showing that it can still be nimble like a startup, despite enjoying the status of a more established player.
Photos courtesy Andrew Williamson.
Trifacta Raises $12M For Platform That Uses Human And Machine Interactions To Prepare Data For Analysis
In an email interview, CEO and Co-Founder Joe Hellerstein said the company’s platform is designed for business analysts and data scientists to explore, manipulate and cleanse data for the purpose of analysis. The technology is based on research at Berkeley and Stanford that focuses on the interactions between humans and machines to transform data into something useful and meaningful. The process of this human-computer interaction is meant for the analyst and the machine to both provide insights based on the patterns in the information.
On the Trifacta platform, users work with visual data and smart suggestions, while machine learning methods analyze data and user interactions, Hellerstein said. The interplay makes this process of data transformation more accessible to business data analysts, while increasing the productivity of quantitative data scientists who can use the human-machine interaction to get through various types of data in a faster manner.
Hellerstein said use cases are for just about any industry — a large computing device vendor, for example, that has products in the field that are shipped back to the manufacturer so the behavior data on the device can be analyzed. The data tend to be complex and particular to the revision and configuration of each device. Trifacta’s platform allows the product divisions to do their own data transformation on the raw data logs and transform them into data that can be loaded into business intelligence and predictive analytics tools. The process gives the manufacturer the ability to do maintenance prediction, feature usage assessment, quantitative product design revision, etc.
Human-machine interaction is an emerging field that is gaining in popularity as the methods for analyzing data become more accessible. The complexity is lessening as machine learning and other advanced analytics practices get filtered through visual tools.
A company like Trifacta represents two trends, said Ronnie Mitra, an API architect, who I interviewed at API Days, a conference now taking place in Paris. The utility for data is illustrated in the way companies are driving more decisions by analyzing mass troves of information.
“The other trend is leveraging the UX to provide niche experiences,” Mitra said. “For a long time there was a focus on function, the things that programs do. “The pioneers of interaction design have started moving things up,” to the application level.
Trifacta is part of a new generation of companies that provide data-driven analysis for customers to do business intelligence, risk analysis and a host of other matters. The challenge for Trifacta is building a service that competes with a variety of different tools from companies like Informatica, Revolution Analytics and Pentaho.
Clever launched about a year and a half ago to provide a standardized API for K-12 schools that allows them to unlock and share data with outside developers. It’s managed to get 10,000 schools signed up to use its tools since then. Now, according to our sources, the company has raised $10 million in funding led by Sequoia Capital.
The funding comes as Clever is finding ways to make schools more connected and accessible for developers. Most schools today use a variety of legacy Student Information Systems (SIS) as a way to store student data. But many of those systems tend to be outdated or custom-built, meaning that the information held within — which includes class lists, attendance, and grades — can’t be shared or accessed by outside developers.
For developers, that means integrating with individual schools on a one-to-one basis, and that just doesn’t scale. Clever, by contrast, provides a single, universal API that will allow developers and education companies to access all the data that has been locked up in legacy silos and use it in their apps.
To remove any friction in getting its system more widely deployed, Clever offers the API free to schools and districts. Instead, it sells to online learning companies and developers looking to integrate their software with and use data from all the various Student Information Systems. By doing so, it believes that software companies can use the data to build better learning tools and improve the overall quality of education.
That’s a value prop which seems to be resonating with school systems. When we checked in with Clever about a year ago, the company had signed up 2,000 schools to connect with its APIs. That number has ballooned over the past twelve months, with more than 10,000 schools integrated into its system.
And that, in turn, has attracted the attention of investors. A source with knowledge of the situation has confirmed that Sequoia led the company’s most recent round of funding. And Sequoia partner Bryan Schreier, who has taken a keen interest in the ed tech space with investments in companies like Inkling and MindSnacks, will be joining its board of directors.
Clever had previously raised $3 million in seed funding from a prominent list of angels that included SV Angel, Mike Maples of Floodgate, SoftTech VC’s Jeff Clavier, Google Ventures (Kevin Rose), Bessemer Venture Partners, Mitch Kapor, Ben Parr, and Ashton Kutcher. But it also had investment from multiple angels from well-known education companies, including the co-founder of The Princeton Review, 2tor and Noodle John Katzman, Inkling co-founder and CEO Matt MacInnis, Chegg co-founder Aayush Phumbhra, and GSV Advisors CEO Deborah Quazzo.
It’s been a rough day for Bitcoin. China slapped a ban on it, Bank of America said it is “at risk of running ahead of its fundamentals” claiming it has little short-term upside, and Alan Greenspan laughed at it. In response, investors in the cryptocurrency sent it under the $900 mark.
Bitcoin, buoyed by the endless optimism of its acolytes, bounced back over the $1,000 mark on the Mt.Gox exchange in short order. The market turbulence also hit rival coins, including Litecoin, which saw its trading range ease by up to 25 percent.
Adding somewhat to Bitcoin’s woes was Alan Greenspan, who recently mocked its value: ”You really have to stretch your imagination to infer what the intrinsic value of Bitcoin is. I haven’t been able to do it. But if you ask me, ‘Is this a bubble in Bitcoin?’ ‘Yeah, it’s a bubble.” The Independent notes that “[when] asked if Bitcoin is the new gold, Greenspan laughed out loud.”
So it’s not really a time of irrational exuberance among all sets.
The move by China to ban its banks from using Bitcoin in any sort of transaction could greatly hamper its ability to grow. As Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research reported recently (via Barron’s), Chinese Bitcoin volume has become the vast majority of total transactions:
If the move to ban Chinese banks from dealing in Bitcoin lowers its potential transaction quantity and inherent utility, its price could be cut.
For now, however, Bitcoin remains stubbornly over the $1,000 mark, where it appears to have found a comfortable floor. Here’s an hourly chart showing its recent dip and recovery:
What is the fair value of Bitcoin? You tell me.
Top Image Credit: Flickr
BlackBerry hardware may be languishing unloved on warehouse shelves but the company formerly known as RIM’s long-in-the-tooth mobile messaging client, BBM, ain’t dead yet. Indeed, it’s enjoying a bit of revival — firstly because the company (finally) released it on rivals’ platforms (Android and iOS) where many a former BlackBerry user ended up.
And secondly because, well, mobile messaging as a space is on fire — tipped by analysts for mass adoption next year and a doubling of its global user-base from 1BN to 2BN by year’s end.
That fire is clearly consuming a portion of the attention that used to be funnelled into traditional social networks — redirecting those eyeballs into messaging apps, as kids who previously Facebooked their buddies incessantly now spend their energy sending Snaps or WhatsApps instead (in October Facebook ‘fessed up to some declining usage among teens).
All of which is good news if you’re the app maker of a directory style app for BBM. Search4BBM is just that. When we last wrote about the app, just over a year ago, we described it as “a 411 / Yellow Pages” style system for BBM private users and BBM businesses.
It basically lets people locate others on the BBM network, which uses a pincode system to link chatters to each other (ergo, you need a BBM user’s Pin to send a connection request so you also need a Pincode directory to unlock potential new BBM buddies). Users of the service, which gets its Pin data solely from user submissions, can set their preferred “security level” so their Pin can be found by everyone, only social friends, or only people they personally approve.
Search4BBM has more than 3M BBM pincodes listed in its directory, and allows users to find friends’ BBM Pins by connecting it with their Facebook account, or find others’ Pins by searching by various other criteria — including gender, country, profession, location, GPS, age, city, state and BBM business pages.
At the time we last covered the app (November 2012) it had some 1M active global users who were apparently performing 6M searches per month. (It defines active users as people who have used the app at least once a month — while logged in users makes an average of 11 to 15 searches per log in, which may sound a lot but users in some countries use its service as a potential date directory too). Search4BBM launched its service in June 2011 and crossed the 1M active user mark by mid 2012.
After that point its fortunes dipped, as you’d expect — in step with declining usage of BlackBerry’s own platform. Founder Barak Hirchson tells TechCrunch it was getting about 50% less traffic in 2013 than it did in 2012. In 2011 and 2012 it had between 11M to 14M searches per month, but in 2013 this dropped down to a low of between 2M to 4.5M monthly searches.
However, Hirchson says things have picked up in the past two months — i.e. since BlackBerry liberated BBM from its own walled garden, and allowed it to roam across Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. It’s now seeing 5.5M to 7M searches per month, according to Search4BBM.
“After the BBM launch for iOS and Android we instantly saw the users coming back to use BBM,” he adds.
Search4BBM launched an Android version of its app about a week ago — giving this the practical name of BBM Pin Finder — and says it’s managed to pass 3,000 users (without any marketing/advertising) for this version of the app. It’s expecting to hit 2M new users on Android in the next three months.
iOS and BB10 versions of its apps are also due soon — within “weeks”, adds Hirchson.
If you’re wondering where in the world BBM remains most popular, as measured via searches of this single BBM directory service, the top 10 countries performing searches are as follows:
India – 11%
South Africa – 11%
Nigeria – 9%
Egypt – 8%
United Kingdom – 8%
Indonesia – 8%
United Arab Emirates – 5%
Malaysia – 5%
United States – 5%
Canada – 4%
“In India and Indonesia the users use us as ‘Tinder‘ for BBM,” adds Hirchson. “Most of the users search for friends and for new dating with strangers. They search by ‘location near to me’ sort the users by the gender and age and start meeting new users by BBM.”
Ding. Today investors unloaded Microsoft’s stock following indications that current Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally won’t be its next CEO. Ford board member Edsel Ford II stated that “Alan is staying through the end of 2014,” a timeframe that is past the 12-month range that departing Microsoft CEO set to find his replacement.
Investors, irked that Mulally will not therefore head up the software giant, knocked Microsoft down around 3.5 percent, or around $1.43 per share. At the time of writing, using a share count of 8.35 billion (via Google Finance), the decline in Microsoft’s share price, which can be correlated to the news more or less directly, leaves Microsoft worth around $12 billion less than before.
Yesterday, Microsoft closed at $38.94, a level that it had not seen since 2000. Today the company is trading around the $37.50-60 range, still up more than 40 percent on the year.
If Mulally truly is out of the running to be Microsoft’s next CEO, the chance that an outsider will take over the company to lead it forward is now far more remote. Recent indications noted that Mulally was among the top two candidates for the role, standing next to current executive vice president Satya Nadella. Nadella heads Microsoft’s cloud efforts, and is in my estimation a strong potential pick to run the company.
Still, some investors had hoped that Mulally, or perhaps another external candidate, would be selected. The drop in Microsoft’s value, while material, is hardly game changing. To his credit, Mulally has been clear that he intends to stay at Ford for some time.
Top Image Credit: Flickr
Startup AddVenture Summit is a new conference to hit the European circuit. Unusually, it’s run in Kiev, Ukraine, which turns out to be a rather good idea because Russians can easily travel there without a Visa, and so can Western Europeans, as can many people from Central and Eastern Europe and CIS countries. That said, most of the startups were from the CEE/CIS region, which is generating a lot of heat at the moment – a topic I’ll be returning to in due course. And like all tech conferences these days it features a tech startup pitch competition – in this case themed around a boxing match. TechCrunch was there to check the companies out and here’s what we found.
Cutting to the chase: the winner of the event was ￼￼Play Canvas (UK, AngelList). This is a “cloud-hosted game development platform” with is a collaborative editing tool with a rich community site. It’s a pretty spectacular site for creating an sharing games across any platform. Worth checking out. It has been incubated at TechStars London.
The runner up was ￼￼Lead Scanner (Russia/Ukraine, ￼￼￼￼AngelList). This is a lead generation tool which helps small and medium business (SMB) owners find prospective clients in social media and boost sales. Using proprietary algorithms, LeadScanner finds social media users who have an intent to buy specific products or services. It has been incubated at the Skolkovo IT Cluster in Moscow.
Applications to the competition were run through Angel List since April, which indicates that there was some decent filtering going on. The rules were that the companies had to have raised less than $2 million and be a European company.
They got over 500 applications, and after 35 semi finalists were interviewed, 10 finalists were selected. They then went to Kiev a week ago for three days of pitch training with event founder Vitaly Golomb.
Here are the rest of the finalists and how they describe themselves.
￼￼Priceless.ly (Italy – Russian/Ukrainian Team, AngelList)
“Pricelessly is an exposure-producing and fundraising platform that enables influential figures (celebrities) to mobilize their fans to raise funding and awareness for social causes, as well as widely engage and incentivize their fan-base with minimum effort.”
￼￼Jumpido (Bulgaria, AngelList)
“Jumpido is an educational software product that combines primary school maths, game-based learning and natural user interface. It is focused on transforming the way children learn mathematics in school and the approach teachers take to engage their classes with this interesting, but challenging subject.”
￼￼Limk (Turkey, AngelList)
“Limk is a content distribution and discovery platform that helps websites grow traffic while reaching highly engaged audiences. Websites can bring qualified new users—those most likely to engage—to their own sites by exposing their content on contextually similar sites at Limk Shuffle.”
￼￼Advice Wallet (Ukraine, AngelList)
“Advice Wallet is a mobile loyalty program to attract, keep and understand customers. It empowers any local business to create a customized acquisition and loyalty program online in minutes.”
Incubator: Happy Farm
￼￼InHiro (Slovakia, AngelList)
“Professionals don’t browse through job portals – get to them via social networks. With InHiro, you’re able to create an innovative job ad (template creator), share it through social neworks (gamification based mechanics) and manage candidates (funnel talents through each step of your hiring process).”
￼￼Moku (Italy, AngelList)
“Moku provides a common space to store and find documents, take rich notes (highlightings, text annotations, drawings) and collaborate with their classmates (while respecting their privacy, too), just with a browser. A “moku” is a collection of documents, where every document is securely stored on the cloud and available on any devices. It can be annotated on transparent layers (as if they were pieces of tracing paper) that don’t modify the original document. Annotations can stay private or can be shared with other users with read or write permission.”
Twitter just published a blog post announcing a new product for advertisers called “tailored audiences”. Basically, this confirms the report by TechCrunch’s Josh Constine yesterday saying that Twitter was about to officially launch its retargeting product.
Back in June, Twitter said that it was launching an experimental retargeting program. Now the company says it’s available globally. For now, the idea is for businesses to target ads on Twitter at users who have also visited their websites. Twitter writes that the program could be expanded: “We believe there are many other possibilities. Think of it as the way to define your own groups of existing and target customers, and connect with them on Twitter.”
Facebook has already had success with retargeting through its FBX program, but Twitter might be particularly compelling for advertising because it could bring retargeting to mobile. (The company blog post doesn’t specifically mention mobile, but as you can see the explanatory graphic that I’ve pasted below, that’s clearly something it has in mind.) As Josh wrote, retargeting is a challenge on mobile because of the absence of cookies, but people often use their Twitter account to both their computer and their smartphone, so the company can “tie the identity of a mobile user to what they do on the computer.”
Twitter’s blog post also includes some statistics about campaigns with early advertisers. For example, marketing software company HubSpot says it saw a 45 percent improvement in engagement over their historical averages, sports video analytics company Krossover says it saw a 74 percent in cost per customer acquisition, and app management company New Relic says it saw 195 percent improvement in conversion rates.
On the privacy side, Twitter says users can choose not to participate by unchecking the “promoted content” box in their settings. The company also says it won’t receive the browser-based cookie data used for this kind of retargeting if users have enabled Do Not Track in their browsers.
We’d previously suggested that Twitter would likely work directly with advertisers for retargeting, but actually, Twitter says advertisers should work with one of a number of partners, who include Adara, AdRoll, BlueKai, Chango, DataXu, Dstillery, Lotame, Quantcast, ValueClick, and [x+1].
As Cole Krumbholz, Brace’s co-founder, told me earlier this week, the service is mostly aimed at web designers who can use it to push their work onto a live site without the need to know about setting up and managing servers. With Brace, they simply upload their files to a designated Dropbox folder and Brace will then sync it with its Amazon-hosted servers.
One nifty feature here is that Brace distinguishes between production and development servers. By default, all new files are only synced to the development server. This way, developers and designers can just continue to work on a site without running the risk of taking the production site down. Then, once they are ready to push the updates live, they simply hit the “ship” button on Brace’s web interface and their new code goes live.
Brace offers its users the ability to select custom URLs, but otherwise, the service keeps things extremely simple for now. In the long run, though, Krumbholz said, the team wants to add more collaboration features.
The main advantage of using Dropbox – something Krumbholz also did with Backlift, his back-end-service for front-end developers – is that developers can just continue to use whatever editor they are comfortable with. Brace simply wants to give them an easier way to provide the basics of hosting their content. Krumbholz believes that there is still a lot of room to improve the usability of hosting in general. Hosting is still “stuck in the past,” he told me, and many tools for designers are still tied very closely to a developer workflow that many designers aren’t comfortable with.
Brace currently offers two hosting plans. A Prototype plan for $2.99 per month (or $19.99/year) that includes unlimited sites and custom domains, but has a limit of 1,000 views per month (so it’s really just meant to test sites or show them to clients). The Personal plan for $12.99 per month (or $59.99/year) includes unlimited sites, domains and views. These sites will also be distributed across Amazon’s CloudFront CDN network. Soon, the company will also launch Professional and Enterprise plans, but as Krumbholz tells me, “the features for those plans are still in flux.”
Google has been good about offering a number data portability options through its Google Takeout service, which has previously allowed users to download data for over a dozen products, including Contacts, Drive, Voice, and more. But today, the company is adding two of its flagship properties to Google Takeout, with the new ability to export your all your Gmail and Google Calendar data.
Starting today, Google is rolling out Gmail and Calendar data downloads in Google Takeout, where you can download each service’s data individually or as a part of a larger export including data from other services. Gmail’s data is in MBOX format, and Calendar data is available as an iCalendar export. Both are bundled into a .zip file when you start the export.
The inbox format works in most common email clients including Microsoft Outlook 2011, Mozilla Thunderbird, and Apple’s Mail. Google says that it has implemented some limits on how often the data can be exported, however - three times a day, and up to seven times total per week, which shouldn’t be a problem for most people.
Each message’s labels are preserved in a special X-Gmail-Labels header, in CSV format, explains the export FAQ. This is an interesting inclusion as no mail client currently recognizes this header, but some could in the future, if extensions were involved.
The Gmail data option is also handy for those who need to download only a portion of their inbox by allowing you to select specific labels to export. This could be useful if you are moving work-related email from a personal inbox over to your new company, for example, or perhaps just exporting a folder containing large attachments eating up space.
Gmail a year ago introduced options for finding your larger emails via search options, then shortly after encouraged users to send their biggest attachments (up to 10 GB) via Google Drive integration instead. But since Gmail has been publicly available since 2007, many of Gmail’s early adopters’ inboxes have already become overfilled with space hogging emails. (Sadly, the Gmail export option came too late for me. I had used a script, then hit delete.)
Similar to the Gmail export option, Google Calendar users can choose to include all their calendars or just specific ones.
The ability to download Gmail is being rolled out starting today and continuing over the next month, while Calendar export option is available immediately.
As Microsoft promised during its BUILD developer conference earlier this year, the company today launched a first preview of its new maps app for Windows 8.1. The highlight of this release is the addition of 3D imagery, something Microsoft tried a few years ago with Bing Maps online but then shelved after it moved away from its proprietary Silverlight technology. The new app is now available in the Windows Store.
Microsoft says to create these 3D imagery, it processed over 121 trillion pixels to date to build this 3D environment. And it shows. The imagery is extremely clear and detailed, and after a first look, it feels like it easily rivals and often bests Google’s efforts, especially when it comes to trees and smaller objects like cars and kiosks.Related Videos
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In total, Microsoft is making 3D maps of 70 cities available in this preview. These range from Canberra in Australia to Bremen, Germany and Portland, Maine. What’s missing, though, are most of the world’s larger cities. There’s no New York, San Francisco, Sydney, Berlin or London here so far, but Microsoft will likely add many of these before it releases the final version of the app.
As Microsoft is prone to do these days, the app is mostly optimized for touch. It works quite well with a mouse, but if you want to really enjoy it, it feels like you would need a Windows tablet or touch-enabled laptop because tilting and rotating by dragging buttons left or right just doesn’t feel all that natural with a mouse.
The app also makes Streetside, Microsoft’s version of Street View, available for those who want to take a closer look at a street from ground level. Microsoft experimented with different versions of this tool over the years. It is now essentially a Street View clone, though it does have one nice feature: you can optionally see a large map at the bottom of the screen, which makes navigating a bit easier than with the small map Google uses in the corner of its Street View images.
As expected, the app also features the usual search functionality, traffic info and other features. It’s integrated with Open Table and when that’s not enough, you can also start a Skype call by clicking on a phone number.
San Francisco-based startup and Y Combinator Winter 2013 class member Swapbox has raised $800,000 in seed funding, led by Tony Hsieh’s Vegas Tech Fund investment vehicle and including Fuel Capital, YC founder Trevor Blackwell, Base Ventures and Ace & Company. The startup is hoping to cash in on the rise of ecommerce and home delivery, with shared, centrally located delivery lockers so people never miss a package again.
Swapbox isn’t alone with that aim, and it’s pitting itself against some heavy hitters; both Google and Amazon already have delivery pick-up initiatives in place, Amazon via its Lockers programs in select cities, and Google through BufferBox, a Waterloo-based startup it acquired last year. BufferBox recently went live in San Francisco, where it has packages accepted by local businesses. Swapbox co-founder and CEO Neel Murthy thinks there’s still room for a startup in the space, however.
“We accept any packages from anywhere. Shop online, we give you a new address and you just ship to that address,” he said in an interview. “It’s an independent platform that works for all the other ecommerce players.”
The service is piloting in SF, where it has 15 locations currently. Each consists of heavily modified gym lockers located at businesses around the city, and Murthy says they’ve paid special attention to industrial design with their physical hardware, in order to help with branding. The plan is to expand to surrounding areas near SF within the next year, and then look further afield soon after. Swapbox has different arrangements with its location partners, but most involve some kind of rev share of the service fee paid for by its users.
The business as it stands looks like a prime target for some other online retailer hoping to keep up with Amazon and Google to gobble up, but Murthy says they’ve built Swapbox as a long-term play. There’s plenty they’re planning to add later on, and the intent is to hopefully move the burden of cost from the consumer to the ecommerce players once they get enough scale. There’s also a plan to use Swapbox’s capabilities to essentially build in a type of escro for small merchants and private sale deals, Murthy says.
That would work by allowing sellers, on Craigslist for example, to use the Swapbox locations to exchange goods, with a seller controlling access for a buyer based on when payment clears. It takes out any of the uncertainty around meeting a total stranger online with a wad of cash or expensive gadget in their pocket. The escrow play could extend beyond just the private exchange scenario in theory, too.
Swapbox chose its investors mostly for their value as strategic partners, according to Murthy, and Zappos founder Tony Hsieh is a very strategic one indeed for a company this tied to online commerce. Google and Amazon may have a head start on automated delivery, but there’s definitely room for an open platform to serve everyone else, and Swapbox could be the one to step up in that role.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…to build another social network around users’ recent shopping purchases. Trace is the latest startup to give social commerce a go, with a new iPhone app, launching now, which allows users to share what they’ve just bought with a network of friends.
Today, Instagram users will sometimes post their recent shopping purchases as an expression of joy over a new find (or bragging, if they’re rich kids). And Pinterest users like to collect items they plan to buy later. But Ryan Stevens, Trace founder and CEO, thinks photos of your favorite new things deserve their own, standalone destination.
It’s an idea that’s been tried before.
“Things get lost on social networks,” says Stevens of how Trace competes with existing social networks and photo-sharing sites. You may remember seeing a friend post a great new pair of shoes on Instagram, for example, but there’s a challenge in trying to retrieve that image weeks or months later when it comes to mind, he explains. “It’s very complicated. We’re trying to make Trace an aggregate of things that you buy.”
Sound familiar? If not, you must be new here.
The idea for a shopping-based social network of sorts has been tried in the past, most prominently with Blippy, a failed startup that dug into users’ credit card purchases to find their purchases and share them. Users were hesitant to provide their credit card details, though, and when dollar amounts are involved, sharing purchases feels a bit gauche. Then, more recently, a startup called Mine used an email importer to perform a similar task.
But Mine quickly closed up shop after launch, apparently the result of a small acquisition by Twitter for team and tech after it failed to grow as quickly as the company had hoped. (Mine raised $600K, and two of its co-founders are now Twitter engineers.)
Says Stevens, Trace is not auto-sharing purchases and dollar amounts, or trying to build a product database like Mine was, nor is it immediately focused on sending users directly to e-commerce sites to generate affiliate revenues (though that may come later on). Instead, he just wants Trace to serve as a “live feed of the cool things people are buying.”
Stevens, along with co-founder Sudhir Navalapakam, got started on the idea for Trace a little over a year ago, following their stint at now-shuttered mobile payments service ZipPay. At ZipPay, they noticed then that a number of users were already sharing their purchases out to other social networks, like Facebook and Twitter. “We started talking about ways to make that a better experience for them,” says Stevens.
For the past 14 weeks, the app has been in private beta testing with around 1,500 users. Predominantly, the crowd is young, professional women, generally post-college grads now with a little extra income to spend.
Trace: A Pleasant App, But Busy Space
As for the app itself, there’s a familiar user interface involving a way to post and tag a product photo, a feed, a favoriting option, a friend finder, some suggested users to get you started, and a way to browse and explore through various categories.
Photos can also be shared out more broadly to Facebook or Twitter, and they do have their own dedicated, though not fully fleshed out, web pages which could later become the basis for Trace’s web version.
The app itself is pleasant enough to use, but it’s going to be tough for it to truly differentiate itself from other social commerce applications already out there. Though it’s focused on a user’s own purchases (at least in theory), more people are drawn to services like this not for the content creation aspects, but the consumption – that is, to see what others have shared. They browse Pinterest looking for ideas, or check out what’s trending on Wanelo or Svpply. Meanwhile, they’re still connecting with friends on Instagram, and shopping on a number of modern e-commerce sites on web and mobile, which have “popular” feeds of their own.
But Stevens though thinks there’s still room for something that’s solely focused on purchased items, and the resulting conversations around them. His team is working with bloggers and video bloggers (especially those doing the “haul videos“) to establish Trace’s core user base, he says.
The company has a small amount of seed funding ($250K) from Kae Capital and Tandem Entrepreneurs. They’re currently working out of Tandem’s auxiliary offices in Burlingame, California, after a fire destroyed Tandem’s main offices over the holidays. Fortunately for Trace, nothing was lost as they were working out of Hacker Dojo just before, and hadn’t yet set up shop. (Other teams weren’t so lucky).
Trace is a free download, here on iTunes.
Google’s Android OS has many venerable traits, but the camera isn’t one of them. The software iterates with each release, but it doesn’t ever get all that much better, and the hardware on Android devices seems to disappoint pretty consistently. People had high hopes for the Nexus 5 making things better, but photos barely improved versus the dismal Nexus 4.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Google’s Nexus devices and the 5 is otherwise a great phone. The problem is that the camera falls completely flat, especially compared to those on iPhone devices. Luckily, Google has created an update to Android 4.4 KitKat (due out over the next few days), as reported by the Verge, that will improve camera performance on the Nexus 5, improving contrast, exposure, autofocus and more.
I’ll be somewhat skeptical until I actually get to try it out myself (it should be rolling out in the next few days, according to The Verge), but early examples show a pretty marked improvement.
Google’s inability to make a phone with a decent camera is somewhat mind-boggling, given all they’ve been able to accomplish with photos on other platforms. Their Google+ pictures update from June is actually remarkably impressive, delivering automatic adjustments and enhancements that take a lot of the standard busy work out of making small changes to photos that can result in big improvements to the final product.
It has the expertise, and with this update it also proves that it’s applying that know-how in intelligent ways. The missed target on the original Nexus 5 camera release might be ascribable to a rush to get the new OS out in time for the scheduled device launch, but at least shoring up this failing makes the Nexus 5 even more of a no-brainer for the budget conscious smartphone shopper than it was before.
Houzz, the popular online platform for home remodeling and design, is launching a completely redesigned iOS app for iPhone and iPad today. The new version features an updated look and feel in line with Apple’s iOS 7 design guidelines, but also improved navigation, support for AirDrop and an emphasis on full-screen photos.
As Alon Cohen, Houzz‘s president and co-founder, told me, the team considered quickly releasing a new version after the launch of iOS 7. In the end, however, Houzz decided to hold back and use the switch to the new flat design language on iOS to give the app more than just a facelift.
“iOS 7 came along and we had the option to either just do a quick update, or use this opportunity to overhaul the UI completely and support some of the iOS 7 specific features,” he told me. This means the app now features many of the new graphical effects iOS 7 introduced, for example, and makes use of dynamic type and the new, and relatively little utilized, AirDrop capability in the updated OS.
Cohen was especially excited about the AirDrop functionality. This now allows somebody in a tile showroom, for example, to quickly share an image (or anything else) from Houzz with a designer there, something that was previously a bit more cumbersome.
As he stressed, though, an app that’s as popular as Houzz, which has reached over 12 million downloads now and streams over 600 terabytes of data every month, always has to ensure that it doesn’t alienate its users with an update that’s too radical. “We’ve seen incredible adoption of our mobile apps with 55 percent of users remodeling their homes with Houzz from a mobile device,” Cohen said, and the team obviously doesn’t want to upset these users with a bad redesign. The new version definitely streamlines the navigation, though, and with the addition of full-screen images, it also often hides it almost completely when necessary.
The team made another major change, though. In the new app, Cohen told me, the focus of the navigation has changed. Now the team has tried to put the content before the navigation. This means you don’t have to select a room first when you are browsing the app, for example. Instead you see the images first and then narrow your selection by room, style and location.
Cohen also noted that finding reviews of contractors, designers, landscapers and other professionals is now easier in the new design. The service currently features over 300,000 professionals on the site and they have uploaded over 2.4 million photos. For Houzz, this is also a major source of income, as many of these pros sign up for its paid Pro+ service to highlight their work for users in a specific area.