Archive for July 31, 2011

YouTube’s Creator Playbook: Your Guide To Achieving Internet Fame*


Looking to turn yourself (or your show) into a YouTube star but don’t know where to begin? YouTube’s looking to help — the video portal has launched a comprehensive guide outlining how content producers should be approaching the platform and which features they can take advantage of. The 70 page guide has a fitting title: The Creator Playbook.

The new document was discussed today at the VidCon conference in Los Angeles, and is part of YouTube’s broader goal to help creators produce high quality content (YouTube’s recent acquisition Next New Networks is the driving force behind this mission).

Of course, YouTube is quick to clarify that while this should be a useful guide, there isn’t anything that’s guaranteed. It’s really just a well thought-out set of best practices — if your content isn’t any good, optimizing the first five seconds of your video isn’t going to be much help. From the first page:

The Creator Playbook is not a collection of rules or guaranteed ‘tricks’ to get more views. Instead, it presents best practices, optimization tips, and suggested strategies for building audience and engagement on YouTube.”

The document is a hefty 70 pages long but isn’t as daunting as you’d think. YouTube has broken each of its miniguides into three sections: Programming Producing, Publishing Optimization, Community Social Media. And each tip within a section gives an at-a-glance overview of how long it will take to implement (the easy ones are five minutes, the harder ones a day or more), which metrics the tip will impact, and how much of an effect content creators should expect.

Some of the topics will be obvious to TechCrunch readers (use Facebook and Twitter a lot!) but it’s unlikely that you’ll already know everything in there. The sections outlining how video metadata can impact your search result rankings is particularly useful — and there’s a checklist at the end you can run through each time you upload a video.

Note that while there’s an entire section dedicated to thumbnail optimization, there’s nothing in there about using a woman’s cleavage as your thumbnail photo, which seems to be a curiously popular strategy on the site.

Best Buy tests the connected TV market

Big box retailer Best Buy has been selling connected TVs for years now, but until recently it’s been reluctant to jump in with its own products in the fast-growing segment. That changes Monday, as the company is introducing two models of connected TVs from its Insignia brand of consumer electronics devices.

While other consumer electronics manufacturers are betting big on Internet-connected TVs, Best Buy is treading a little more cautiously. It will sell 32-inch and 42-inch models of the new Insignia-brand TVs, which will retail for $499 and $699, respectively. According to Patrick McGinnis, Best Buy VP of Product Management for its exclusive brands, the retailer decided to go with those model sizes, at least initially, because they were its best-selling TV models.

The new Insignia TVs are equipped with a TiVo-powered user interface (UI), the result of a partnership first announced a year ago. The look-and-feel will be familiar to anyone who’s ever used one of TiVo’s DVRs. And in addition to a simplified way to navigate a series of different types of streaming video, music and other apps, the TiVo UI also provides suggested content based on what a user has watched in the past. That said, it’s important to note that the TVs won’t have built-in DVR functionality, nor will they have the kind of universal search functionality that TiVo DVRs have.

Best Buy was clearly focused on building a TV first, with an impressive group of TV features. The LED screens feature 1080p video quality with a 120Hz refresh rate. They also come with enhanced SRS audio built-in and are ready to be integrated with its Rocketboost wireless digital audio system.

And according to McGinnis, Best Buy wanted to ensure that its Insignia models would be easy to use, and that they wouldn’t suffer from some of the same setbacks that other devices have seen as the market has grown up. It wanted to make sure that its apps wouldn’t crash, for instance, and that any firmware updates or new apps and content would be loaded seamlessly in the background, rather than asking users to download and reboot their TVs.

By doing so, Best Buy hopes to avoid some of the customer service calls or returns that other manufacturers have dealt with, while also providing a better customer experience. But by simplifying things, Best Buy is also taking away some of the actual reason to buy a connected TV. The Insignia products being released have pretty limited access to the types of online services that make such a purchase worthwhile.

On the video side, Insignia TVs only have access to Netflix, Best Buy’s CinemaNow, YouTube and Insignia On Demand (a Flingo-powered video service). It can also connect to Pandora and Napster for music streaming. That might be good for some entry-level TV buyers, but the lack of comparable services like Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant Videos (which CinemaNow replaces) could be a big disappointment to those looking for a more robust set of online services. While Best Buy hopes to add more video services, it’s not clear how soon they will appear.

Rather than introducing a whole new application development platform to the market or use a platform like Google TV for app developers, Best Buy’s TVs rely on Chumby apps for additional widgets and functionality. That might give users access to some additional widgets for social networking, news, traffic or weather, but there are very few additional video apps that are available on the nascent Chumby platform.

Relying on an open platform like Chumby could make it easier for developers to make apps for the devices. However, since these two Insignia models are some of the first to actually use the platform, developers could choose to hold out until other CE manufacturers also integrate it into their own devices.

For Best Buy, the introduction of connected TVs is clearly a big deal, especially since it spent so much time trying to make the end product foolproof and easy to use. For entry-level users, that could be a big selling point as they try to choose between connected TVs. But the dearth of streaming content and apps actually available through the new products could end up being a disappointment for users that are looking for a more advanced connected TV.

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BigCommerce Raises $15 Million To Help Retailers Manage E-Commerce


BigCommerce, a company that provides e-commerce software to online retailers and merchants, has raised $15 Million in Series A funding from General Catalyst Partners.

Launched in 2009, BigCommerce provides a comprehensive SaaS for retailers and merchants to manage e-commerce online. BigCommerce helps small businesses power anything and everything related to an online storefront from search to inventory to online payments to marketing and SEO. And the price for the software is affordable for small businesses, with basic plans starting at $25 per month.

Features include multi-channel retailing, automated email marketing, inventory control, an online storefront, and more. The company, which has 20,000 clients and is profitable, also launched an application for merchants to list inventory on Facebook.

The company has $200 million in total transactions via its SaaS and is adding 1,000 clients per month. The new funding would be used to expand the company’s headcount in Sydney and Austin, Texas operations, sales and marketing initiatives and more.

The web sharing economy & its biggest risk

The Airbnb horror stories that have emerged in recent days expose the biggest pain point for the economy that has built up around using the web to share “stuff,” whether that’s a house (Airbnb, Crashpadder), a car (RelayRides, GetAround), or an item like a tool (Zilok, NeighborGoods). Protecting the item that is being rented, as well as the person who owns the item, and maintaining the trust of the community of users, should be the largest investment that these “collaborative consumption” companies are making — Some of these companies have seemed to realize this early on, while others haven’t.

In case you haven’t heard about the at least two Airbnb nightmare stories, essentially renters used fake identities and trashed the apartments they had rented and stole items in the apartment. Both victims gave accounts to the media of Airbnb execs being both sympathetic and attentive, but also giving mixed messages about compensation for the damages. The story is still spinning out of control, mainstream publications have picked it up, and Airbnb have a major PR problem on their hands, which they seem ill equipped to deal with.

What is the right way?

Social Web and the Green Economy: Shelby Clark, RelayRides, and Joe Gebbia, AirBnB at Green:Net 2011If you look to the peer-to-peer car sharing companies, which include RelayRides, GetAround and Spride Share, they only were able to launch their companies after they figured out how to supply users enough insurance, which included some business model innovation and also lobbying to get a bill signed that maintained drivers’ insurance while participating in car sharing. RelayRides holds a $1 million supplemental insurance policy that goes into effect during each reservation period.

Because of the nature of cars being potentially dangerous, and because car drivers already have a model for insurance already set up, peer-to-peer car sharing companies have seemed to have taken a proactive stance for protecting car renters and owners in their networks. Some companies like RelayRides have gone even further to maintain security, and use technology like immobilizers, which keep the cars from being started without valid reservations.

Insure Success

It would seem natural that renting out something as valuable as an apartment would have similar significant insurance policies. Other collaborative consumption sites that have built an economy around less valuable goods (like CDs or tools) might not need as robust insurance, but every site needs some baseline security system.

Beyond security, and damage control, there are also privacy risks involved with renting out cars and apartments into peer-to-peer networks. One of the Airbnb victims was concerned about a birth certificate being taken and his identity being co-opted. This new breed of collaborative consumption sites need to be much more diligent for protecting privacy than their early peers like Craiglist.

The major concern for me is that this budding movement of using the web to share stuff — which is a disruptive and sustainable new trend compared to ownership — could be dampened by companies that don’t invest enough in security and privacy tools. As Craig Shapiro, a partner at the Collaborative Lab, told me “for pretty much anything related to sharing resources, thinking through trust and reputation is a critical first step - particularly as it relates to user acquisition.” If these companies don’t make their communities feel safe, they won’t have communities any more. And the new green web sharing economy could suffer.

Images courtesy of GigaOM, Collaborative Labs.

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Desktop Versus Web-Based Email: FIGHT!

There has been a war raging for over a decade now: desktop client or webmail? Like the Mac versus PC debate and so many others in the world of technology, they become full-fledged jihads over what is, at the end of the day, a matter of personal taste.

In the past week, our Editor-in-Chief Zee M Kane posed the question on Google+. The answers were varied, but showed a strong lean towards webmail — Gmail in particular. Let’s have a look at the arguments for and against both desktop and web-based email.

Desktop Mail Clients

We used clients for quite some time after the arrival of the first webmail interface because they gave us faster access to locally stored messages and allowed us to queue up emails in our outbox to go out the next time we were online.

Primarily, the ongoing popularity of the email client was supported by the fact that the Internet used to be a horrible thing that tied up your phone line and lost races to snails.

For a long time, webmail didn’t give heavy users the organizational power they needed. It wasn’t until Gmail came along that things really changed in that department.

It’s in that vein of productivity that I find one of the most appealing reasons to move back to the client. ”I’m just finding there’s something about the browser that instinctively makes me want to.. well… browse,” said The Next Web Editor-in-Chief Zee M Kane in his Google+ thread on the subject.

“I’m noticing that using a desktop email client rather than a browser keeps you focused,” says Kane. “I don’t find myself opening that new tab for no reason.”

In response, Adam Helweh said that “since using Gmail I have seen my eyes wander to other tabs far too much.”

It can’t be denied that this is a failing on our parts as human beings, not the software itself. But what really matters is how we’re best enabled to be productive with our email, and the distraction of the browser is a valid point.

Perhaps the biggest point in favor of clients is about managing multiple accounts. For the average user with one email account, this isn’t a big deal. For those with only a couple of Gmail or Google Apps accounts, Gmail’s fairly recent addition of an account switcher makes things easier.

But if you’ve got more than five, you’re in for a headache using webmail, even with the recent removal of Google’s strange three account simultaneous sign-in limit. The client gives you one place to quickly and easily look at every account of every kind.

It is technically possible to do this in Gmail, using forwarding and incoming POP3 as well as the ability to send from an address, but the implementation is fiddly and the interface is not designed for it. I tried it for a few years before ultimately settling for separate accounts.


One of the advantages of webmail is that it eliminates the need for extra apps. For much of the last decade, the dream of the cloud has been attached to the romanticization of doing anything and everything, from corporate spreadsheets to shopping lists, inside the browser.

The reality is that the cloud has increased our options. We can use the same information in a variety of apps and clients, including the browser, and across devices without worrying about conflicts and synchronization.

Even so, the computer resource-conscious love to consolidate, and accessing mail from the browser means one less app to access. But the benefits may not be all that desirable — I’ve seen both a single Gmail tab and OS X’s Mail sit at 200MB or more of memory usage.

“Google has made it so much easier to do everything via the browser,” says Andrew Pack. Sometimes it’s not about resources. It’s just convenient.

“I want to access my mail from anywhere,” was the sentiment among some users who stated an anti-desktop stance. But there’s no denying that clients are becoming less and less a place to store email and more of a way to access it instead as protocols such as IMAP slowly (too slowly) kill off POP3. Access from anywhere is only problem when the email server doesn’t have webmail access at all to begin with.

But that doesn’t mean it’s annoying to maintain accounts across apps and platforms, and for those with a view to the low maintenance, it doesn’t get easier than webmail.

Resurgence of the Client

Ever since it stopped being difficult to get a Gmail account when it was in invite-only beta, it seems like desktop clients died a sudden death. There were always webmail users — people I’ll never understand who were able to tolerate Hotmail’s interface — but it seemed to me that pre-Gmail the client was king.

In recent times we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the client. First we had Postbox, which promised to bring the dusty old email client into the modern era and improve productivity at the same time. More recently we’ve seen Sparrow, which has grabbed the attention of the Mac productivity in a way that surprised me for this class of software.

But perhaps this new wave of modern clients is moving a little too fast in an effort to look like a modern alternative to the ancient clients of myth and legend. Sparrow has no POP3 support. And despite what the typical reader of a blog like The Next Web might think, outside of our privileged bubble, POP3 is still widely used in some settings. I had a client give me POP3 details for an email account a couple of months ago and had to choose to forgo Sparrow for another client or run the account through a Gmail account — which are strangely more capable of connecting to POP3 server than this desktop mail client is.

Sparrow feels to me like it has promise, but in striving for minimalism has left features out that just aren’t ready for that treatment. Apple does this sort of thing all the time and there is inevitable complaining, but I just don’t see POP3 as being in the same place the floppy was when it was removed from Macs.

Now that Lion is out and Mail has been greatly improved, I’m opting to move back to the client for a trial run. Without the distraction of tabs and the addition of full-screen mode, there’ll be less gnawing at my attention when I need to focus on getting to Inbox Zero. I won’t have to switch between tabs to check on various email accounts or make sure they’re all signed in every morning or every time I re-open the browser. I won’t have to resort to strange workarounds to use POP3-only accounts. And there’ll be smoother integration with apps like Address Book and iCal.

The Bottom Line

This debate isn’t a winnable one. Today, webmail and desktop clients compete with each other toe-to-toe on feature set. There’s no performance reason to use one or the other. One could argue that using OS X Mail over webmail has strong benefits in operating system integration, but that’s not an argument for clients in general.

We’re left to settle the debate with subjective things like our own ability to focus in various computing environments. It’s interesting to me, though, that the technology itself plays less of a role. There’s a level of maturity where performance isn’t an issue, feature set isn’t an issue, suitability for one type of connection or another isn’t (unless you live on a farm) — it comes down to user experience.

That’s a good thing in my opinion. When developers have to focus on creating an optimal productive interface instead of just creating the most technically advanced products, the consumer wins.

The craziest, most ludicrous PCs on the market

As a professional Microsoft watcher, I am tasked with the taxing job of keeping an eye on the PC market. I mean that in two senses, the first that I have to look at the strength of the PC market and track total sales, but also that I observe what sort of PCs are being built, and what consumer reaction they receive.

Another symptom of my job is that I have the ability to request any laptop that I want to submit to a battery of tests, and more often than not, have it shipped to me for a week’s loan. My occupation is tough, I know. But there are certain computers in the market that even with my most concerted efforts, through any number of channels, I can’t seem to get my hot little hands on. Today’s post looks at three of the craziest computers in the world, each earning that distinction for differing reasons, only one of which I have managed to actually play with.

There is something to be said for going ‘over the top.’ Apple’s computers are brilliantly built machines, but they have an air of understatement and refinement that can get a bit dull over the years. Imagine the emotion that the driver of a Lotus Exige feels when he stops at a light only to find himself next to a guttural piece of American steel. That feeling, the call of muscle, is something that a fair number of PC manufacturers seek to target.

Usually, gaming machines are the most ridiculous computers on the market. Gamers have exacting requirements that are difficult to meet, and since gamers’ computers spend so much time with their owners, they tend to be more customized, as they are more personal. But there are other computers in the market that are, for lack of a better term, insane, or at least unreasonable.

And we mean that in the best possible way.

We wanted to find what was the most egregiously awesome machine on the market, and we found some top contenders. Today we are going to look at the Origin Big O, the Asus VX7, and the Spacebook. Oh yes, those are all real names. Each is crazy in its own way, and each awesome.

Let’s get into it, shall we? We’ll start with the Big O.

The Origin Big O

Imagine a gamer’s tower, and take it to eleven. We tried to land a Big O for testing, but were rebuffed. That in mind, we can only take the company’s word for it, but the O is nothing short of incredible. Let’s talk about its specifications. In fact, we’ll let its creators have the honors:

With the ASUS Rampage III Extreme and Intel’s Core i7 series processors tuned to precision by ORIGIN’s highly trained techs you can feel assured that your Big O will devour all that stands in its way. If that’s too tame for you let the Big O cream on the competition with our as-seen-in CPU magazine build. With EVGA’s SR2 motherboard and Intel’s Xeon X5680 processors there is nothing that will slow down your Big O. Each X5680 features six-cores, twelve threads and supports ECC memory and that is before we add a second CPU and overclock it to a lighting fast 4.3GHz or and up to 24GB’s of Corsair GT 2000Mhz memory.

Let’s put that in perspective. If you go all the way with the Big O, and get the Xeon X5680 processors, it will have three times the number of cores that each operate at twice the speed of the top end Macbook Pro (for a simple comparison). That makes for roughly six times the raw horsepower of the top Apple laptop.

Why compare the Big O to a Macbook Pro? Mostly because they are a benchmark that everyone is familiar with, that’s all. Oh, and the Big O can come with six times as much ram as you can fit into a Macbook Pro, again to give you a measuring stick.

In other words, the Big O is what every gamer wants. Not only is it hulking, and fast, it’s far and away over the top. I’m not sure there exists a game that could fully use every ounce of the Big O’s power.

But the machine has a trick up its sleeve, You see, not only is the Big O a PC, it also has a built-in Xbox. Oh yes, you little gamer you, it is one of the world’s fastest computers, and an Xbox 360, together in one case. We told you these machines were crazy. What does it cost? The base model is $7,500. The top end version is $17,000. Ouch.

But admit it, you want one.

The Asus VX7

Cars are cool. Laptops are cool. What would happen if you built a laptop that is inspired by a car? Well, it exists, and we got to test it. The Asus VX7, or the ‘Lamborghini Laptop,’ is an odd computer. Not only is it huge (and heavy), it’s delivered in special wooden box. Oh, and it comes with a monogrammed mouse (an external mouse with the Lambo logo on it) and has leather inserts for hand rests.

We have no idea what the target market for the VX7 is (people who own a Lamborghini?), but it certainly is a behemoth to behold:

When you start it up, it plays a sound effect of a car turning on and revving its engine. Yes, that means that you probably shouldn’t take the VX7 to Starbucks, it would annoy the other customers. That and the machine is nothing short of larger than life. This is what ours had inside: An Intel i7 2630QM, 16 gigabytes of RAM, and a GTX 460QM with 3GB of RAM. What made me mad is that if you added up my normal desktop and laptop, together combined they lost to this single laptop. I felt a bit small.

Whatever the case, the VX7 is a textbook example of egregious. It’s so bulky and wildly styled that you know that whomever you see typing on it knows that you watching them type. It attracts attention like plastic surgery. We did what all real computer testers do, and installed Starcraft 2 on the VX7 and maxed the settings. It didn’t care at all. Then we replayed the whole campaign in the name of science. Happily, unlike most laptops which sound tinny and sad, the VX7 has a powerful speaker set.

All told the VX7 will run you over $2,000, but not too far over. It’s surprisingly affordable.

The VX7 is so out there that it is almost a joke. Then you use it, and wonder if it didn’t weigh so damn much if you could take it to work with you, just to show it off to your boring coworkers. I mean, it has a monogrammed mouse. It’s ok to let your teenage self take the wheel sometimes, and the VX7 will let you do just that.

The Spacebook

The last of our three machines is so new that no one has had a chance to play with it. In fact, some thought that it was vaporware until it went up for pre-order. Ladies and gentlemen, please say hello to the Spacebook.

Before we show you a picture of it (no looking down!), we have to ask what could possibly be cooler than a laptop with one screen. What’s that? A laptop with two screens? Oh yes, that would be nice. And that is, by the way, just what the Spacebook has: two screens.

Needed? No. Awesome? Yes. Perhaps the best part is that the guts of the machine appear to be top-notch as well, so the screens should run without lag. Dual 17 inch screens on the go? You can’t so no to such a thing.

Feast your eyes upon it, and enjoy:

The Spacebook will run you between $2,300 and $2,600, for the i5 and i7 models, respectively.

Amazingly, the machine folds into a regular laptop shape, albeit a very thick one. Like the VX7, this machine is more of a luggable than a laptop. But that doesn’t stop it from being awesome.

We hope that you have been entertained, that was the goal of this post (and why it was written for the weekend). The PC market has enough fringe players, and fringe machines, that it is always interesting. We’ll be bringing you posts of this sort as often as we come across a handful of truly crazy PCs.

Look at your computer. Don’t you want to trade it in for something, I don’t know, more interesting?

Social Broadcast Network


Every day I try and do the media rounds to see what’s happening. The Journal, the Times, the Techcrunch, and the Twitter. Twitter is consumed via a number of aggregators that I rotate, mostly settling for News.Me and the Media something newsletter that the guy from MySpace produces.

Techmeme gets my votes about once a day, in the following order: upper right hand corner for the latest breaking, lower right hand corner to see what’s falling off the edge, then straight to the middle clump where two or three stories reside if anything’s really jumping. I’ve usually read the top in the other venues by then.

Google+ is not on this list, yet. Mostly because I haven’t got a handle on its core value as a news trigger. If you’re Scoble, the value is obvious as he is now demonstrating by turning it into his blog. But sooner or later the service will have to decide what it wants to be when it grows up — a conversation hub with no tools for rapid synthesis of knowledge, a social graph to challenge Twitter (it’s getting there fast), or some other thing perhaps more substantial than currently appreciated, like a stalking horse for YouTube live streaming aka the social broadcast network.

SBN we’ll call it has all the earmarks of a Gmail beta operation. Launching it on top of Hangouts with their limited reach even if daisy chained will not scare the networks until google flips the bits around and couples live streams with API access to embedded comment streams like the ones we use on Gillmor Gang sessions from the Friendfeed API. 10 Hangouters is more than enough in the context of a live chat of hundreds, and the API can be broadened to allow concentric groups to nominate or be given the microphone from a joint console.

This will put pressure on Google to provide a way in for the Tweet stream, since aggregators like Seesmic and others will have the same API access and an incentive to merge the multiple social networks. Facebook will be in the odd role of having little to offer here, what with YouTube’s huge clout in video marketshare. The Skype deal is a longer term strategy for climbing into a classic 3 or 4 network clump, with Apple/Twitter bargaining access to AirPlay all the more important.

G+ project manager Bradley Horowitz buttonholed me at the TechCrunch August Capital party to say he enjoyed this week’s Gillmor Gang live cast earlier that afternoon. The team’s proactive approach to interacting with field test users is good politics, but it also underlines the need to respond to criticisms such as Scoble’s laments about a buggy and crash prone iPhone client. If SBN is a not so hidden priority for Google (especially in the wake of Google TV’s Wave/Buzz like performance) then the kinds of viral crowds live streaming will invite will make fixing the Scoble-sized instability on iOS mandatory.

The last thing G+ needs is to go directly against Twitter (and Apple) in an Android/iOS shootout. For one, it blows a huge hole in the G+ social graph while it is still forming. For another, given Facebook’s Microsoft-induced stupidity about an iPad client, what part of 90% share of the tablet market do you want to lose. The only thing G+ HTML 5 on the iPad has going for it is that it sucks less that HTML 5 on the iPhone. SBN makes iPad native more likely.

The last few weeks in Washington make it clear that both parties have decided on waging the political campaign in realtime via social. Live casting blends just as well today with party fundraising if not more so than when Obama ran the table starting early with the Iowa caucuses. The Republicans have clearly understood the need to frame their agenda in a way that promotes realtime tracking of what is now a Twitter news cycle. The cable networks may offer round the clock coverage, but even political junkies like myself tune in once Twitter alerts hit the push notification bus.

CNN jumped out ahead last week with the ability to broadcast live to the iPad if users already subscribed to Comcast or several other cable or satellite services. Once iOS 5 hits with its notification hub, we should be able to move from a push notification directly into the cooperating video stream. SBN can take advantage of the same opportunity in September, but they need to convince Horowitz and Gundotra to put some engineering cycles into pulling Twitter alerts not only from iOS but from the other platforms.

Scoble doesn’t like the idea of a Friendfeed-like aggregation of the Twitter stream, but that speaks more to the lack of filtering tools in G+ than anything more fundamental. And the firestorm over businesses not having first class citizenship would be significantly neutralized while we wait if we could push brand stories into our G+ streams to seed the live cast model. Frankly, this is going to happen sooner than later, and I vote for sooner so that the resulting feedback loop will prompt Twitter to accelerate its live streaming and Tracking to feed the push notification network. I’ll call that PNN.

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Google provides search and advertising services, which together aim to organize and monetize the world’s information. In addition to its dominant search engine, it offers a plethora of…

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A Google project headed by Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz, Google+ is designed to be the social extension of Google.

Its features focus on making online sharing easy for…

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Twitter, founded by Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams in March 2006 (launched publicly in July 2006), is a social networking and micro-blogging service that allows users to…

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Twitter allows users to post text updates via SMS, instant messaging, email, Twitter’s website and third party applications. Users have their own profile page that displays their latest updates….

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Jailbreaking helped shape the iPhone’s past, but what about its future?

Since the earliest days of the iPhone, there have been a segment of users that are not content with running their phones by Apple’s rules. By and large, these users love the hardware and software of the iPhone for the obvious care and attention given over to their design.

What they’re not as pleased with is the closed ecosystem that Apple has created to block the installation and use of applications outside of its own App Store and the limited amount of control over settings and appearance given by iOS.

These users are collectively known as the jailbreak community and although they are a minority of iPhone users, they’re a vocal one. Many of the features that we now see on the iPhone and that are coming in iOS 5 first appeared on jailbroken iPhones because these users wanted to get the most out of Apple’s creation.

If you’ve been using an iPhone since the beginning, then you’ll remember just how limited that first offering in 2007 was. There were no apps, no copy and paste, no video recording, no MMS offering and no way to tether the iPhone’s data connection to a laptop. All of these features and more were first offered by apps that would only run on jailbroken iPhones. For better or worse, heavy adoption of an app or tweak by jailbroken users has been a precursor to seeing it show up in an official iPhone software release since the early days of the device.

While the initial efforts to jailbreak the iPhone were centered around gaining access to the file system and the ability to run unofficial apps, there was also another major driving force behind the movement, unlocking.

Escape from jail and the rise of the unlock

In basic terms, jailbreaking an iPhone allows users to run applications or code on the device that affect areas of the phone that are off limits to official apps. This access gives jailbroken apps the ability to do all sorts of things that push the iPhone beyond the boundaries set by Apple and give jailbroken users more freedom of choice.

iPhone hackers gained access to the file system of the iPhone only 12 days after the first iPhone was released on June 29, 2007. The breakthrough was accomplished by members of the premiere hacking group iPhone Dev Team, along with hardware hacker Geohot and reported in the #iPhone IRC channel, where the phrase ‘escape from jail’ led to the creation of the term ‘jailbreaking’. This allowed for some basic tweaking like adding custom ringtones, another feature that early software for the iPhone lacked.

This led to developers being able to run unsigned and unofficial code on the device, opening the door for third-party applications. One of the first of these was a simple game created by programmer Jason Merchant that allowed the iPhone to blast Microsoft Zunes with lasers.

By late August, the scene was exploding with customized icons and sounds as well as a few crude tweaks to the software. Then, on August 24th, George Hotz, AKA Geohot, split from the iPhone Dev team and publicly announced his success in unlocking the iPhone from ATT.

At the time ATT had a worldwide exclusive deal for distribution of the iPhone and the desire to use the iPhone on other GSM networks like T-Mobile was fever-hot. It was so intense, in fact, that Hotz famously traded his unlocked iPhone for a Nissan 350Z and 3 stock 8GB iPhones to Terry Daidone, the founder of Certicell.

Over the years since that first unlock was accomplished, the ability to use the iPhone on carriers other than those that has been officially sanctioned has been a huge driving force behind the jailbreak community. There are many, many users that jailbreak their iPhones only because that’s the only way that they can unlock them.

The continuing popularity of unlocking comes from a variety of factors including the fact that the iPhone is largely available on only one or two major carriers in most of its markets. While many countries in Europe and elsewhere have legislation in place to make it possible for people to have their phones unlocked, it’s virtually impossible in the US and there are still many regions where the iPhone isn’t available on a major carrier at all.

As carrier deals for the iPhone have continued being made it has alleviated some of the need for an unofficial unlock. To this end, Apple recently began making unlocked iPhones available for purchase in the US. This move is largely regarded as a way to service primarily overseas customers looking to import iPhones unlocked for use on other carriers. An unlocked iPhone has limited utility in the US where it cannot even use the 3G network of T-Mobile, the only major GSM competitor to ATT.

After that first unlock by Geohot, each subsequent jailbreak of a version of Apple’s mobile OS has been awaited anxiously by those that use iPhones only because they’re able to unlock them via unofficial software like Ultrasn0w.

But an expanding market was always an inevitability and as iPhones become available in unlocked or official form throughout the world, the need for a ‘back door’ unlock will wane. But there has always been another major driving force behind jailbreaking.

Apple, ATT and the mystery of the missing features

When the iPhone launched, it did so without support for many of the features that mobile phone users had become used to. The lack of MMS support, video recording, multitasking and data tethering were cited by many as major reasons not to buy the iPhone. These features were considered core or ‘must-have’ features by many smartphone users and even those that adopted the iPhone recognized that there was a lot of building yet to be done on Apple’s otherwise gorgeous platform.

Among those features was the concept of a native app store, first introduced by Installer, a bit of software that functioned much as the official App Store does today, in the summer of 2007. It was followed in March of 2008 by an open-source alternative called Cydia, from software developer Jay Freeman. When iPhone OS (now iOS) 2.0 was released Cydia surged in popularity and became the official, unofficial alternative to the App Store.

These app repositories gave jailbreakers a place to easily obtain apps that enhanced the iPhone’s functions beyond what Apple permitted at the time, including adding many of those missing features. The unofficial stores were followed by Apple’s official App Store in July of 2008, with the release of iOS 2.0.

For recent adopters of the iPhone it may seem silly that the original iPhone didn’t have features like tethering or MMS, because the technology had existed for years by that point and was present in many of the iPhone’s peers like the BlackBerry Curve and the HTC Tilt. But the reasons that they weren’t included had nothing to do with Apple and everything to do with ATT.

Unsure about its network capabilities and staggered by iPhone users’ voracious appetite for data, ATT dragged its feet on a tethering and MMS plan until two years after the iPhone was released, finally enabling MMS on September 25, 2009. Tethering took even longer, only arriving in June of last year.

All of those features and many more were introduced to the iPhone first by enterprising coders that produced unsanctioned applications for the iPhone. Tethering was solved by hacks that enabled the native tethering interface of the iPhone that was used globally on other networks and extended upon by polished successors like MyWi. Many users who don’t want to pay ATT for the privilege of tethering, on a metered data plan no less, still use these unofficial tethering options, although they are technically illegal.

Just as a minority of hardcore PC gamers has driven much of the advancements in graphics power and processing speeds in desktop and laptop computers, a minority of jailbreakers has contributed significantly to the advancement of iOS by crystalizing and popularizing the most-wanted features of iOS. That analogy breaks down a bit when you recognize that, while there are hundreds of manufacturers of PC hardware, there is only one manufacturer and sole gatekeeper of the iPhone.

But if you’re looking for evidence that the jailbreak community does indeed still have an impact on the development path of the iPhone, you have to look no further than iOS 5.

iOS 5: Homage or evolution

Apple is crushingly attentive about almost everything when it comes to their products, especially user interface design. That’s why many were so nonplussed about their unwillingness to fix simple UI issues like non-modal popups that block what you’re interacting with on the screen and offer no additional use, like the extremely rude SMS popup. What a drag that thing is, always interrupting you in the middle of stuff, making you switch to another app completely to reply to a message of ‘lol’.

This problem will be corrected by Apple with the release of iOS 5 but were solved long before with jailbreak apps like Notified Pro which modified the iPhone’s notifications system to be less obtrusive and more friendly to multitasking. One of those applications, MobileNotifier, was so similar to the way that Apple decided to implement notifications in iOS 5 that it actually hired its creator on shortly before the announcement of the update in June.

And notifications are just the tip of the iceberg as far as features of iOS 5 that appear to have had their genesis as jailbreak apps. A partial list, as collated by iDownloadblog, include the volume-button camera release shutter, camera access from the lock screen, private browsing in Safari, syncing to iTunes over Wi-Fi, system-wide dictionary, Emoji support outside Japan, multiple improvements to the Mail app, a ringtone store and custom vibration patterns.

If you take an honest look at the list of jailbreak apps that have had their functionality sewn into the fabric of iOS 5, you will see many that can be categorized as simply evolutionary steps in the improvement of Apple’s mobile OS. It is also likely that Apple has had many of the features of iOS 5 defined and working since well before many of the jailbreak tweaks that are apparently duplicated by them even appeared.

But even with the acknowledgement that many of these features can be considered to be ‘inevitable’, there are just as many that can be credited with at the very least setting a pattern of popularity.

In August of 2009, Freeman said that there were roughly 10% of all iPhones using the jailbreak app store Cydia. This equated to roughly 4 million iPhones at the time. Recently, 2 million people used the website to jailbreak their devices in the first 2 days. While the number of jailbreakers is unlikely to have grown linearly along with the now 221 million iOS device users, even at a conservative 5%, that is still upwards of 11 million users of jailbroken devices. That’s more than enough to use as a polling group of most requested features.

Apple keeps its own council as far as upcoming product direction and CEO Steve Jobs has been quoted saying that “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

But that doesn’t mean that the company doesn’t have its finger on the pulse of what its users, especially the ones that use the devices it produces the most, want for the present. This is why the set of features introduced with iOS 5 may seem eerily familiar to long-time jailbreak users.

In effect, a look at the wider palette of popular jailbreak apps and tweaks can give iPhone users a look at the future of the platform.

The future, now

So many of the tweaks and apps that jailbreakers have been using for years have eventually made their way to the official releases of iOS that it would be foolish to think that it will never happen again. There are current apps that are in heavy rotation on jailbreak devices that have yet to be implemented on iOS. Some of these are counter to the design philosophy of Apple and will most likely never show up, but there are many that could easily act as a window into the features we’ll be enjoying in iOS 6 and beyond.

One of the prime examples of a tweak that might rear its head is the timesaving app SBSettings, a pop-down settings panel that zips down from the top of your status bar with a swipe. It works system wide and allows you to toggle 3G, WiFi, adjust brightness and so much more. While Apple already added the volume control to the multitasking tray in iOS 4, many of the iPhone’s options are still buried three or four levels deep in the settings menu. The new notifications pane and the new widgets API makes the possibility of quick toggles appearing on iOS that much more likely.

Another one is QuickReply, a tweak that allows you to reply to SMS messages right from the lock screen or notification popup. This could easily be an optional feature that allows you to reply from the new, more informative, lock screen. Facetime for 3G, enabled by the jailbreak app 3G Unrestrictor, among others, is rumored to be on its way in the official release of iOS 5 already. In fact, many of the current popular jailbreak tweaks smack of unfulfilled official features of iOS.

Is this the end of jailbreaking?

Jailbreaking has given iPhone users a window that allows them to see features that will be as well as features that never were. It has also allowed them the freedom to choose exactly how they want to use their device, regardless of restriction.This window into the future features of iOS has been open since June of 2007 but it could soon be open to far fewer people as jailbreaking becomes more difficult and less useful.

The addition of over-the-air updates in iOS 5 could very well make jailbreaking a less pleasant prospect for those that want to keep their phones as up-to-date as possible, as new features and enhancements should come at a much quicker rate now. In addition, Apple may be able to use its iCloud service as leverage by preventing people from using jailbroken devices to access its features.

It’s highly unlikely that Apple will be able to secure its OS against any and all attempts to jailbreak it in the future. The software wizards like Geohot, the iPhone Dev Team and Chronic Dev that discover the exploits and turn out the tools that make jailbreaking possible are nothing if not persistent. But it is very possible that we may see a slowing of the release of these tools to reflect only major updates, as limited resources will probably prevent them from cracking every OTA update that comes down the pipe.

As unlocked iPhones become more readily available, more regions gain official carriers and more users are able to use the iPhone on the carrier of their choice, the need and desire for unlocking will continue to wane. This will remove the need for many to jailbreak if they were only doing so in order to unlock their devices.

Many developers that I’ve spoken to recently have commented on with what seems to be an invigorated and aggressively active iOS development department at Apple. With iOS 5 they seem to have gone on a wish-fulfillment spree that fixed many of the issues that users have had with the iPhone and its software. If they continue to deliver like this, the allure of the jailbreak may suffer.

In the end, it’s still far too early to call the ball on the death of jailbreaking. Barring any decisive preventative blow by Apple, it is likely to remain a part of iPhone culture for the foreseeable future. This should keep the window into the future of iOS open just a bit longer for those of us willing to look through it and, who knows, perhaps continue to help shape the features of iOS to come.

Another Airbnb Victim Tells His Story: “There Were Meth Pipes Everywhere”


This last week we’ve all watched in horror as the story unfolded about an Airbnb user who had her home ransacked a month ago.

Other than the sideshow of us getting dragged into the story, it seemed to be winding down yesterday. The company appears to be bending over backwards to compensate the victim and avoid another of her blog posts where she writes about how scared she is, still homeless and shaken after the ordeal.

Now another victim has come forward.

Troy Dayton first wrote about how his Oakland home was rented by a meth addict with a stolen identity in a comment to one of our posts about the company. I contacted Troy and we spoke by phone today about what happened. His situation is very similar to EJ’s.

Here’s Troy’s original comment:

Something very similar happened to me about 2 months ago.

In addition to valuables stolen, the thieves/addicts did thousands of dollars of bizarre damage to my rented home and left it littered with meth pipes. They were identity thieves, too and all my personal information was strewn about. Further investigation of my own led me to evidence that the people were not just thieves but were also dangerous. I too, feared for my own safety and would not stay at my house for some time.

I had a similar problem with haphazard communication from people at AirBnB. I gave them multiple opportunities to make me a happy customer to which they did but then retracted their offer after their was miscommunication among the team. Sometimes days went by without hearing from anyone, while I was fear-stricken, totally disoriented, and angry. It was almost the most absurd customer service crisis one could ever imagine. But I am one squeaky wheel, and we eventually found an agreeable solution that I was generally pleased with.

I have since both rented my place out and stayed in others’ homes from airbnb.

Here’s what I learned: if you rent out your home, there is a limit to how much AIrbnb can do to protect you. It’s not their fault, but it is their fault that they up-play how much they protect you and downplay what people should do to protect themselves. At the end of the day you are renting to a stranger. You should check there ID’s and phone numbers to make sure they match. I would ask for a link to a social networking site like linkedin, FB, or couchsurfing if there are not credible testimonials on AirBnb. I would chat with them on the phone prior to agreeing to rent to them. Had I done these things, the people that ruined my house would have never made it in.

Also, go with your gut. My gut said something wasn’t right about the people that rented my place, but I didn’t know how to handle that gut feeling and wasn’t sure how airbnb would have treated me or them had I told them I didn’t want them to stay even after they booked it.

Here’s a way Airb’nb can turn this into another revenue stream: Most rental insurance won’t cover this because you are essentially subletting. If major theft and damage is as rare as Air bnb says it is, which I believe is true, then they should be able to get a great insurance policy tailored just for their customers that they can sell for an additional fee to the renters.

Also, as short-term renting like a hotel becomes more common and other websites move in on Airbnb they are going to need more value to justify their very high fees, perhaps insurance and background checks would be a great addition. Of course, if I was the insurance company, I’d require the owners of the property being rented to double check the ID’s of the people checking in to be sure that the background checks are actually for the people checking in.

At the end of the day, I think AirBnb is well-intentioned but I think they are struggling with such fast growth and the management and communication systems have not scaled as fast as their business. Some PR and customer service nightmares are to be expected. My understanding is that they are hiring as fast as they can…but having been a part of teams of 20 somethings that multiply by orders of magnitude in a few months I can attest to the mayhem that surrounds this process. I hope they make dealing with catastrophic problems like the ones EJ and I experienced a top priority.

By phone today Troy told me about how the woman brought in friends to his home. They went through everything he owned, he said. “There were meth pipes everywhere,” he says, and damage to the bathroom and closet doors caused by, he guesses, a human foot or head, and probably an axe. They stole a computer from him as well as small amounts of cash that he left in the apartment. Any electronic device with a light they took apart (he guesses they were paranoid about being monitored). They unscrewed everything in his refrigerator and mixed things together. They stole his clothes, or shredded them. He found a sweater in the freezer.

They also stole his birth certificate, and left evidence behind that they were running a identity theft operation.

When they finally left the apartment, they left more than meth pipes behind. “They also left a cat” says Troy. He eventually got the cat back to the original owner

I then traded the cat for the return of my keys. The owner of the cat was a friend of the girl who rented the place’s boyfriend and had no idea about anything or how his cat wound up in a trashed apartment in Oakland.

A knife was left behind with a man’s name written on it in whiteout. The police said he was a known person, and dangerous.

Troy didn’t feel safe returning to his home. He contacted Airbnb as soon as he discovered what happened. There was one surreal moment, he said. He finally tracked down an emergency email address –, but when he emailed it autoresponded with a message to email the email address he just emailed.

From: Airbnb Community Support
Date: Fri, Apr 22, 2011 at 11:43 PM
Subject: Request received: Emergency Situation: tenants ruined my apartment and stole things
To: Troy Dayton

– Please respond above this line. –
Thanks for contacting Airbnb community support!

Your request (#124683) has been received, and is being reviewed by our support staff. Please note that, due to an overwhelming number of inquiries, our responses may be delayed. Thank you for your patience.

If this is an absolute emergency, please e-mail and we’ll get back to you as quickly as possible.

The Airbnb Team

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Troy Dayton
Subject: people ruined my apartment and stole stuff

please call me asap [phone number redacted]

He says “This freaked me out when I was frazzled. Hundreds of millions in venture financing, millions of dollars in fees, and no 24-hour help desk for emergencies? What am I paying them the exorbitant fees for?”

He did finally talk to someone at Airbnb. At first he asked for $1,000 and new birth certificates, which were stolen. They never responded to that:

“In the end, $1000 dollars and the return of my birth certificate would make me whole in this situation. Anything you can do to help that be the outcome would be greatly appreciated.” Interestingly no one from AIrBnb ever addressed that request.

He then asked for a month of free nights at Airbnb. They eventually said yes, as long as he kept it to studios and one bedroom places. But they gave him no instructions. He started booking places, but they then told him he could only book places at the same cost as his apartment. They eventually reimbursed him for the places he already stayed at but cancelled future bookings. In the end they allowed him 21 days, and up to $125/night.

They also said they’d cancel future bookings at Troy’s home, but failed to actually do that, he said, causing more confusion.

Remarkably, Troy was happy with that. He doesn’t think the company owed him money for damages because he thinks it’s his own fault for letting the woman in.

Troy also still uses Airbnb. He insists on seeing identification, though, and doesn’t rent to people with new profiles without pictures. He thinks Airbnb should post more suggestions on its site about how to avoid bad renters, and they shouldn’t promise so much. “The reason they’re able to charge these high fees is becuase they lull people into a sense of false security. If they disclosed that, people would just use Craigslist.”

In the last few days Airbnb has suggested that nothing like EJ’s situation has happened before. A typical quote:

With a single booking, one person’s malicious actions victimized our host and undermined what had been – for 2 million nights – a case study demonstrating that people are fundamentally good.

Most of us read that as saying that this is the first time something like this has happened. As I read it again, though I see how it doesn’t say that. It’s carefully worded to suggest these things never happen, but it doesn’t outright say it.

What’s really hurting Airbnb is all this massaging of statements to victims and the press. With both EJ and Troy the company seemed to express lots of empathy, but negotiated hard and delayed on any actual compensation.

I haven’t contacted Airbnb about this new story since they dispute what they told me on record for the last story. If they have anything to say, I’m happy to post it. Just send it to me in writing, please.

Here are pictures Troy sent me of some of the damage. I don’t know why, but what I really want to see is the sweater in the freezer, and the cat.

The first pic is the holes made to the closet doors.

Second pic is the axe slash that split a major portion of the bathroom door

third pic is the kitchen they trashed which show that they had started
packing up all my food, presumably to take with them. It also shows my
personal files strewn about.

4th pic is of a meth pipe

5 Brazilian startups that will get a boost in 2011

Ever heard of AcessoZero,  Anuncie.LaCrowdtestEuDecido or Vozis? Probably not yet, but this could change soon: Aceleradora just announced that these are the five Brazilian early-stage startups it will mentor during its 2011 cycle.

What is Aceleradora

We recently listed Aceleradora as one of the nine Latin American accelerators you need to know (see previous story). Founded by angel investor Yuri Gitahy, it has been around since 2008, well before the recent boom of accelerators in the country. Many local startups went through Yuri’s mentoring, which makes Aceleradora a reference for the Brazilian market.

2011 selection process

This is why it comes as no surprise that Aceleradora received 135 applications for its 2011 acceleration program. Out of these 135 early stage startups, 20 were shortlisted in March 2011 to participate in the second selection phase. So why did it take so long for Aceleradora to unveil its final list? According to its blog, there are two reasons for this delay:

  • Aceleradora decided to start a few acceleration activities with some of the teams to test them;
  • Based on the shortlist published in March, funds and angels started approaching some of these 20 projects; for confidentiality reasons, Aceleradora decided to wait to make its final list public.

During these months, Aceleradora listened to the feedback it got from mentors and investors on the startups’ business models and products. It also observed the teams and their capacity to raise awareness for their startups and engage customers, a new selection criteria it introduced this year.

The selected companies

Aceleradora’s selection was finally published this Friday; here are the winners:

  • AcessoZero, an online social city guide where users can read comments on local businesses and find deals;
  • Anuncie.La, a classified website which focuses on “knowing who you are buying from”, thanks to integration with social networks;
  • Crowdtest, a testing service that leverages crowdsourcing to improve software’s quality;
  • EuDecido, a reverse group buying system;
  • Vozis, a call routing platform which can unify different phone numbers (including Skype) into one unique number.

What’s next

As usual with acceleration, these companies will benefit from mentoring sessions to improve their business models, pitches and visibility. The process will also involve targeted help in each key area (legal, sales, marketing, planning…), as well as introductions to investors. It could also involve small capital investments if needed.

So, is any of these companies the next big thing? It’s still hard to tell; Aceleradora interestingly points out that it can’t guarantee that these startups will be successful, grow and receive investments. Neither can it be sure that they’ll perform better than the 16 shortlisted companies that didn’t make it to the final selection – Aceleradora is very honest about the uncertainties that go with early-stage investing. What it can guarantee, though, is that each of these early stage projects will receive all the support Aceleradora can give to help them succeed.

What’s your point of view on early stage investing? What criteria would you use?

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