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August 03 2011

14:00
Lightbank Invests In Location-Based Mobile Social Network WhosHere
WhosHere
After backing Babbaco, Lightbank is making another investment today. The investment firm has funded myRete, the developers of WhosHere,a location-based mobile social network. This is the first outside investment for myRete. WhosHere is a location-based social networking application (an iOS app for now) that allows you to see who's in your near location and message people. The app introduces a user to others with whom they have something in common and when a user finds someone they are interested in engaging, they can message the individual. You can chat with people nearby, send free text and image messages, and make free VoIP calls without giving out any personal information. You can also send virtual gifts to other users.

August 02 2011

06:50

Broadcaster Or Blogger, Cent2Cent Helps Anyone Charge For Video

Generally speaking, video producers have a much easier time producing content than monetizing it. This is because the monetization side of the equation has two x-factors that are hard to get right. The first being the ‘with what to monetize’ factor–that is, the mechanism that facilitates the billing aspect of the user-flow. The second, being the ‘how to monetize’ factor– this being the model(s) under which the content is charged for.

Enter Cent2Cent, an Israeli company with a video monetization solution that is versatile enough for both high-end tv broadcasters (NBC is a client), and low-end bloggers. And with over 200,000 paid transactions to date, they might be on to something, too.

One immediate benefit with Cent2Cent is that choosing its monetization solution doesn’t require the content owner to bet the entire house on it. By this I mean that monetizing via Cent2Cent doesn’t require the content to be migrated to Cent2Cent’s hosting infrastructure. Content can be encased within a JavaScript wrapper, or for those that want more programmatic control, there are also a SOAP/REST APIs. For those however that do require hosting, Cent2Cent is integrated with Kaltura, so that’s solved as well. And to round off, there are also plugins for Drupal & WordPress.

The second key benefit with Cent2Cent’s solution is that monetization options are quite varied. These include: Daily/Weekly/Monthly/Recurring Subscription plans, Pay-per-View, Bundles and Packages, and Metered plans (by number of views, or time viewed).

On the face of it, all these options can be overwhelming, but this is where Cent2Cent’s built-in diagnostic tool can assist the content owner make monetization decisions. The module collects viewing data that it segments for insights to be deduced. For example, a content owner can discover that 2% of users viewed more than ten videos, while 5% viewed more than five. Both segments fit more of a subscription model, as opposed to the rest of the users which could be offered only a pay-per-view purchase model.

Cent2Cent began its commercial activity in October 2010 and has raised $500,000 from private investors to date.



01:17

CollegeBudget Brings Daily Deals And Group Buying To Campuses

I think it’s safe to say that Facebook is the leader when it comes to collegiate and high school social networking. I expect that won’t hurt anyone’s feelings. When it comes to meeting people at college, beer is always a good choice, or there’s Facebook, or some may now prefer LikeALittle.

While social networking is essential on any campus, there are also a few tools social networks can integrate to become a more useful resource for students. Take it from CampusBuddy, which offers college students a social platform where they can also access official grade records and view comprehensive reviews about professors, classes, departments, and campuses.

It’s a great resource for high school students looking for a deeper dive into colleges they’re considering, as they can tap into admissions data and real student feedback about prospective schools. Or, because CampusBuddy has official grade records for classes (the platform currently has over 80 million grades from hundreds of institutions), students that are looking to get more information on how difficult certain classes are can view grade trending data with a few clicks. You can read our initial coverage of CampusBuddy here and follow-up coverage here.

And since its launch in 2008, CampusBuddy has been seeing some good traction on campuses across the U.S. The startup’s founder and CEO Mike Moradian tells me that, between its website and Facebook app, CampusBuddy is at over 200K monthly active users, with over 1.5 million total, and revenue has quadrupled over the last year. Thanks to this growth, CampusBuddy is launching a new initiative called CollegeBudget, which aims to bring daily deals and group buying to campuses across the country. With the exploding popularity of daily deals, Moradian says, this wasn’t an opportunity to miss. But, more importantly, he thinks that it’s a great way for students to lower the cost of their college experience.

In addition to student deals, CollegeBudget is looking to bring social buying to every level of the campus experience, including textbooks and student loans — and one day in the future, potentially tuition. The company is kicking off its public launch with “Back-to-School Palooza”, which will feature over 100 merchants offering deals at 50 percent (and higher) discounts.

There are deals on admissions books, posters, iPhone cases, etc. But it’s only for college students; you have to have a working “.edu” email address to sign up.

Since launching in private beta in March, CollegeBudget has already signed up 600K college students from the CampusBuddy platform, and has already saved college students over $1 million collectively. Moradian tells me that he thinks CollegeBudget will be appealing to brands looking to tap into the highly-coveted college-age demographic. The platform also offers brands social media marketing campaigns at no cost, so that merchants signing up to offer student deals receive a YouTube testimonial video made by a college student, as well as social media blasts to CollegeBudget’s 130K-plus Facebook fans and Twitter followers.

CollegeBudget also distinctively delivers a complete social media marketing campaign to merchants,
with no upfront cost. Merchants who sign up to offer student deals through CollegeBudget receive a
YouTube testimonial video made by a real college student, and social media blasts to CollegeBudget’s
over 130,000 Facebook Fans and 3,000 Twitter Followers. Here’s an example of the type of YouTube marketing that’s included in the platform.

It’s a great resource for college students looking for targeted discounts on the stuff they need while at school, and for brands, they have a built-in access to students, and for CampusBuddy, which was primarily making money through textbook sales, subscriptions and advertising, it will provide another source of revenue. In terms of the cut CollegeBudget will be taking from deals, Moradian tells me that the site is trying to make the experience as easy as possible on merchants and will be flexible on their cut in an attempt to accommodating different industries. But, on average, it will be offering merchants 60 percent.

CampusBuddy is fully bootstrapped at this point, the founder says, and isn’t in any hurry to raise, as they’re “big believers” in the bootstrapping method. Which is a breath of fresh air. Oh, and as an addendum: CollegeBudget mobile apps are coming soon.

Merchants can sign up to offer student discounts here.



July 30 2011

02:03

360: TeliportMe Brings Its Killer Panorama App To Android (Oh, And It Works On Over 200 Phones)

Last November, TechCrunch’s own Sarah Lacy sat down with Vineet Devaiah from “social streetview” startup, Phototour.in, which, at the time, had just received term sheets from a number of high-profile U.S. investors and had recently been awarded the “Top Emerging Technology Company of 2010″ by Nvidia. The startup was the first international, non-funded, under-20-member company to win the award, according to Devaiah.

Since then, Phototour added Academy Award certificate-winner and entrepreneur Bala S. Manian as an advisor (who was honored for “technical achievement” for his contributions to optical technologies used in films, including Star Wars) and has gained more than 47,000 users for the alpha version of its image and panorama crowdsourcing app, “360″, on Android. Users have logged more than 75,000 panoramas in a relatively short period of time, so, considering the rumors that the iPhone 5 will have a native panorama app, sources tell us that 360 might be a candidate for a potential partnership with Android, so that it can remain neck-in-neck with Apple.

What’s more, Today the startup is officially announcing that it is rebranding as TeliportMe and is bringing 360 out of alpha and into the public sphere in ready-to-wear form. For free. Granted, 360-degree panorama apps for smartphones are nothing new. There are quite a few cool apps and gadgets that have these capabilities on the market, like “You Gotta See This!”, Occipital’s 360 Panorama, and Microsoft’s Photosynth, to name a few.

In light of this competition, TeliportMe wants to distinguish itself from the field by building a high quality Android app, that works across OEMs. According to Devaiah, panoramic apps tend to be very hardware centric because of their reliance on a smartphone’s camera, accelerometer, gyroscope, RAM, and so on. Because Android relies on so many different OEMs, it becomes a tricky proposition to build a good 360-degree app for Android and is the reason why most panorama apps are built on iOS (thanks to the vertical integration it has with its hardware).

Another obstacle for Android is that only about 20 percent of its smartphones have the processing capability of the iPhone, and as panoramic apps require a lot of image processing during photo stitching, many Android phones don’t have enough RAM to make this possible (at least at speed). Devaiah cited the example of a phone like the HTC wildfire, which has the processing capability lesser than that of an iPhone 2G.

This is where the technology that won the startup the “best emerging tech” award comes into play. TeliportMe brought its photo stitching technology to the Android phone, which to a large extent negates the issues caused due to multiple hardware configurations, allowing it to function smoothly over 200 models of android phones. (The startup has also built a version of its photostitching app that works on the browser, which it will be launching soon.)

So, 360 allows its users to quickly take high quality panoramas, which they can then view on the apps 3D viewer. Users can share panoramas via Facebook and Twitter, as well as view, comment, and “like” photos taken by people all over the world on 360′s public realtime feed. The app also taps into the phone’s location to allow users to discover other people using 360 in close proximity, using its “Around Me” option.

Check out 360 in the Android Marketplace here, and for the 360′s humorous take on “the Google+ guy” dissing other photo apps, check out this video. For more on 360, look out, video below:



July 29 2011

11:05

PressOK’s PlacePlay Lets Developers Integrate Location Features And Local Advertising Into Games

Seattle-based PressOK Entertainment, a game development company, launched an interesting new service this week in public beta called PlacePlay, which the startup describes as a “location enablement platform” for games. Location is something that hasn’t really been explored much in gaming as of yet, so simply put, PlacePlay aims to tackle the obstacles that prevent location from becoming a relevant facet of the games we play every day.

For starters, the platform is focused on giving game developers the ability to quickly add local tournaments into gameplay, so that a user can, for example, play a virtual game of Battleship with other players that live on the same block. Though tournaments are the primary feature of the platform at this point, PlacePlay also supports location-based virtual goods, objects, achievements, and more.

PlacePlay is targeting Apple iOS as its main platform, but it just so happens that Apple prevents mobile developers from displaying location-based advertising in apps if they don’t include location based features. Happily for developers, because PlacePlay gives them easy access to location-based features for gameplay, developers also have the ability to take advantage of integrated local advertising networks to not only drive more engagement via in-game activities like tournaments, but also gives them access to higher ad revenue from targeted local advertising.

PressOK CEO and Co-founder Ryan Morel says that the simple truth is that it’s much easier to drive consumer action as part of gameplay than to drive action outside of gameplay, i.e. implicit user behavior versus explicit. In other words, if game developers were to add no reward for a user to join, say, a game’s leaderboard (other than it being free), but added incentive for users to play in certain locations (like free level packs for completing location-based challenges) — engagement is still going to be much higher in leaderboards, which are implicitly part of gameplay, rather than actions that are not.

There’s less friction for a consumer to participate in a local tournament than there is to get them to take some specific action at a specific place or time. When it comes to appeal for advertisers, it’s hard to find location-based games that overcome these challenges and still have a large enough user base to be relevant, he says.

In allowing third party developers access to PlacePlay’s SDK, the startup hopes that it will be able to collect data from a large number of users, across a wide set of games, by integrating features gamers love (like leaderboards, tournaments, virtual goods, etc.) around location. In the short term, Morel says, PlacePlay will monetize through integrated local ad networks, and longterm the startup plans to monetize through direct deals with brands and sponsors. Widespread distribution of its SDK among game developers will obviously be key if this is to happen.

Thus, the value proposition for PlacePlay is that it allows developers to drive both engagement and revenue; based on early testing, PlacePlay increases end-user engagement by 1.6-times and offers eCPMs of up to $20 — which should be music to the ears of game developers.

The startup is bootstrapped at this point, but it has already begun working with developers like Joybits and Brisk Mobile, and is in the process of converting more.

For another gaming startup making some cool strides in location-based features, especially in regard to gaming check-ins, check out our recent coverage of Heyzap.

For more on PlacePlay, check out the video below:



00:03

Stocial Launches In Beta To Blend StockTwits With Yahoo Finance (Invites Herein)

With the recent success of StockTwits, the market seems to be showing that there’s ample demand for a social micro-blogging service that targets stocks, trading, and financial information. Or at least that’s what Stocial is hoping. The Seattle-based startup, which is launching today in public beta, wants to be, in conception, the love child of StockTwits and Yahoo! Finance — or, said another way, Bloomberg for the people, by the people.

Essentially, Stocial wants to give its users access to realtime market data and trending stock sentiment in a virtual and “game-ified” venue. Of course, most tickers are capable of the those first two, and StockTwits has certainly shown that Twitter can be a great resource for realtime financial information. But Stocial Founder and CEO Fahad Kamr says that, with its 140-character limit, Twitter doesn’t embody the full potential for sharing stock information.

Stocial wants to incorporate the Twitter feed, but go a couple of steps further, by giving users access to the top stories from Business Insider, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Bloomberg, etc., all curated in a live feed. So users not only have their Twitter feed but a social feed, where they can see information coming in from friends and followers, as well as a “Stock Pick” feed that tracks, you guessed it, which stocks people are picking and sharing on Stocial. More feeds equals more engagement.

Users can also customize their Stocial stock platform to view news and trends for the overall market, or for specific stocks, keep watch on those stocks, or create circles of experts and follow top investors on Twitter and Stocial, as well as experience news and tweets in realtime or by top items. And much of its infrastructure is powered by Echo, so it’s all scalable and realtime.

But, perhaps the best part is that Stocial offers “contests” in which its users can win cash and, eventually, even land a job. In these contests, users get to pick stocks, go long or short, and pick their price. Contests generally last for two days or a week, at which point the winner receives $50 in cash. And, eventually, $100 and more.

Stocial is thus incentivizing its users by offering a carrot at the end of the string. The startup is currently working with investment firms and banks to source top trading jobs. So, as the startup allows its users to collect badges and lift their reputation score on the platform by picking stocks, interacting, and sharing, when one reaches a high enough level of engagement, the user becomes eligible for a nifty prize: An interview at one of those top firms.

While startups like Zecco are taking new approaches to social stock trading by offering users the ability to trade in real markets — on Facebook in the Zecco’s case — Stocial is instead focusing on virtual trading. Rather than be a site where users can trade in real markets (and there are plenty of these), the Seattle startup wants to be a resource for personalized content, a training ground for users looking to jump into real markets.

To make trading stocks less scary, Stocial created a simple virtual stock trading platform. Stocial only focuses on making stock picks, or, in other words, make forecasts over where the stock may be headed, taking portfolios and the risk-laden aspect of speculation out of the equation. At its core, stock trading can really feel like a game, but of course, when you’re playing with real money, it’s anything but. Thus, with its virtual stock market, Stocial seems positioned to take advantage of the inherent game-ification in trading, yet without the risk and plus the rewards.

The Stocial value proposition, at least in comparison to StockTwits, is that the startup offers realtime, personalized financial news curation, and allows users not only participate in stock conversation via Twitter, but also via the platform in threaded comments (that look a lot like Facebook comments). Like StockTwits, Stocial is also going after social discovery, by allowing users to discover new friends and experts based on the stocks they’ve selected. It also incorporates your existing social circles, so that when a friend on Facebook joins Stocial, users will immediately be alerted.

Currently, Stocial’s team of four is in the process of testing the viability of its business in the space, and is fully bootstrapped at this point, though it is looking to begin raising its first round of investment in the coming months.

TechCrunch readers can grab early access to Stocial’s beta here.



July 28 2011

10:00

Totango Launches Public Beta, Raises $3.8 Million To Help SaaS Companies Drive Sales

Totango, a realtime platform that allows software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies to better understand their customers, announced today that it has closed a $3.8 million round of Series A funding, led by Pitango Venture Capital and Gemini Ventures. The Israeli startup will use its latest infusion of capital to ramp up hiring and marketing efforts.

The company is also officially announcing the launch of its public beta, which aims to enable sales teams to better understand how current customers or prospective customers are using their service in realtime in order to more effectively manage customer conversations and engagement. For now, the service is completely free. Down the road, Totango plans to scale its platform to address the entire customer lifecycle, and will add pricing tiers, but at this point is primarily focused on optimizing the way sales teams, specifically, are interacting with their customers.

To accomplish this, the startup allows SaaS companies to track the progress of a prospective customer, of new customers during their early interactions with the service, or of existing customers — in order to better understand each phase of user engagement. Sales teams can get the status of a customer at a glance, segment customers in the pipeline based on their usage profile, like, for example, which modules are being used, when and by how many people, and how much time is spent interacting with those modules.

Totango also offers a “personalized daily digest”, which gives teams a report on how on-track or off-track sales representatives are in onboarding new customers, and suggests actions that can be taken to improve the possibility of a sale. Teams can also view activity pages, which offers account history over the course of a customer’s lifecycle, notifications and alerts of customer status updates, as well as realtime tracking of customer usage during and after trials.

But perhaps the most notable feature in the startup’s new public beta is its integration with native Salesforce.com apps, which enables Salesforce customers to continue working within the same apps they’ve grown used to, with the added benefit of a broader set of tools to improve sales outcomes. In that way, Totango presents customer interaction data within the sales team’s existing CRM tools to enable them to more effectively increase free trial conversions, lower customer acquisition costs, and increase retention and renewals.

“Most SaaS pricing models are based on subscription or usage, which allows customers to stop using — and stop paying for — the service at any time”, said Guy Nirpaz, CEO and Co-Founder of Totango, via the Totango blog. “That, plus low switching costs, mandates that SaaS companies constantly monitor customer satisfaction and improve the value that is being delivered”.

Nirpaz continued on to say that engagement between customers and their SaaS companies remains fairly indirect, with a lack of customer visits, sales calls, and overall interaction. Without this kind of real human-to-human interaction, companies often fail to truly understand their customers, he said.

Yet, thanks to the ability SaaS companies have to track and analyze prospects and customers, cloud-based software companies have a leg-up over their traditional counterparts. Thus, the founders have built a series of tools they believe will allow sales teams to increase their effectiveness by improving conversion rates and keeping existing customers happy.

For more on Totango, check out the video below:



July 27 2011

21:28

Crowdtap Raises $7 Million To Help Brands Connect With Their Influential Customers

Crowdtap, a service that allows marketers to easily collaborate with and mobilize targeted crowds of influential consumers, announced today that it has raised $7 million in series A funding. The round was led by Foundry Group, with participation from GSA Venture Partners and social media agency Mr. Youth.

Mr. Youth invested $3 million of seed funding in Crowdtap back in 2009 (and served as an incubator for the company during its early stages), which brings the startup’s total current investment to $10 million. Crowdtap said that it will use its infusion of capital to ramp up hiring in both its sales and engineering teams.

With an ever-widening gulf between consumers and brands, Crowdtap is attempting to retool marketing to make it a more collaborative and participatory process. It’s certainly an ambitious goal, which the startup hopes to catalyze by allowing brands and marketing agencies to access its growing member base of 150,000 Crowdtappers. The startup wants to become a network “for Brand Influencer Communities”, or, in other words, a resource that aggregates groups of influential consumers that can be tapped for realtime research, collaboration, or word-of-mouth marketing.

Leveraging existing customer bases, along with locating potential new customers, is no easy feat for brands. Crowdtap hopes to enable brands to identify, centralize, and activate key consumers by more easily tapping into their Facebook, Twitter, and CRM channels. Crowdtap offers brands the ability to poll their top customers, view profiles of these customers, and receive breakdowns and analysis of the polls, which can then be retargeted based on answers provided. Brands can also form panels of consumer to quickly start discussions, posing questions to which consumers can then respond, comment on, and vote.

For its community of Crowdtappers, the startup attempts to increase brand engagement by offering a game-ified experience, allowing these members to level-up, gaining status among their favorite brands, earn perks, get access to the latest products, and make donations to charities of their choice.

Since launching its beta platform in August of 2010, Crowdtappers have completed 4.6 million brand actions, which include polling, online panels, social sampling, etc., and the startup’s communities are now averaging nearly 400,000 actions per week. Crowdtap launched officially at SxSW in March and has since added another 100,000 members in the U.S.

Brands currently working with Crowdtap include Old Navy, AMEX, Pinkberry, MSN, Diageo and Bing, and the startup has also forged partnerships with PR, creative, and digital agencies like Weber Shandwick, GolinHarris, Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal, and Mullen.

For more on Crowdtap, check out the video below:



16:56

YCharts Adds Dividend Tracking: Another Reason Never to Return to Yahoo Finance

For many years I loved Yahoo Finance. It was one of the only sites I used every single day, and the only Yahoo property I used with any regularity at all.

Back when it launched, it was revolutionary for a business reporter, since most engines of real-time financial data are premium, expensive products none of my employers would pay for. I loved it so much, I even used to host a show on Yahoo Finance called TechTicker, now broadened to the Daily Ticker.

But increasingly, I get angry when I go to the site. The information is less-than real time, there are frequent errors, there’s no currency translations or advanced tools for companies listed overseas. The latter wasn’t that big of a deal in 1998. Now that the third largest Internet company in the world is listed in Hong Kong, it’d be a nice new feature. But Yahoo Finance seems to have no interest in new features.

Even the news aggregation by ticker is increasingly useless. Because Yahoo Finance is such a powerful tool for driving traffic, business and financial sites take the Nascar approach– wallpapering stories with dozens of ticker symbols so those stories will show up when each of those stocks are searched. As a result, you can go to GOOG on the day of Google’s earnings and find stories with little-to-nothing to do with Google’s earnings. And like a lot of Web 1.0 portals, the comments and chartrooms make YouTube’s discussions look highbrow.

A lot of this isn’t Yahoo’s fault. The real time data has to come from other sources and those sources aren’t always cooperative or quick. And given all of Yahoo’s problems, why invest in a property whose users don’t demand it? Yahoo has a golden goose on its hands. They’ve rarely had to innovate, and they still dominate the category. TechTicker was run with a highly experienced but skeleton crew, making profitability a snap and within months we had four times the audience reach of CNBC. We should all have such “awful businesses.”

But Yahoo’s gain as a corporation is increasingly my loss as a user. So from now on I’m throwing my support (read: eyeballs) behind a lesser-known Chicago-based company called YCharts in Don Quixote-like hopes that one of two things happens: Yahoo eventually gets under fire enough it fixes its product or someone else (hopefully YCharts) finally builds a great alternative for free, detailed, reliable financial information.

YCharts’ newest feature shows how the company is trying to up the game. It tracks how much a stock appreciated once you take dividends into account. Consider a stock like Procter & Gamble. If you invested $1,000 in P&G in January 1996 those shares would be worth $2,092.90 today. Any stock chart can show you that. But missing is what you make from dividends, which over 50% of companies and 80% of companies listed in the S&P 500 pay. If you reinvested your dividends, P&G would have returned 326.80% over that period, or $1,175.10 more.

YCharts excels at digging into past long-tail data that’s publicly available from a variety of sources– things like P/E ratios, R&D spending, or cash flows graphed over time. The focus is on determining what works in the markets in the long run. This doesn’t just differentiate YCharts, it’s a cheaper way to build the company. Historical data is cheaper to aggregate than real time data, so the company is starting there and will bootstrap its way  into more of the real time fray once it builds and audience, says co-founder Shawn Carpenter.

YCharts has raised just $1.5 million to date, but will likely announce “something new” soon, Carpenter says. Usage is muted compared to other sites at just 350,000 monthly users, but it’s growing fast and those users not surprisingly skew towards desirable demographics like college degrees and higher incomes.

YCharts makes money from charging $40 a month for a premium service that takes their data and adds professional analysis to help investors make smarter decisions. Whether the freemium model will work remains to be seen. There are big established audiences for free financial information and for very solid financial information delivered over incredibly expensive devices like Bloomberg machines. Paying a decently high monthly amount for something in between is newer territory.

I hope it works, because YCharts– or somebody– needs to stay in business long enough to challenge Yahoo Finance. Getting anywhere close to its gargantuan user numbers is going to be tough, making building large, sustainable ad-based company a challenge. In the long run, YCharts may wind up being more powerful as part of a bigger portal than on its own.

Company:
YCHARTS
Launch Date:
1/2009

Fundamental research and empirical data drives all portfolio strategies and stock ratings for YCharts and YCharts Pro. Our team performs extensive studies of historical factors that tend to predict...

Learn more


01:12

Solve Media Is CAPTCHA-ing 620K Type-In Ads A Day

Ads are everywhere: They’re in our content, they’re online and offline, they’re on buses, billboards, and more. I’ve been told just to “get used to it” — that the advertising proliferation is only going to continue — so I’m thinking of selling some space on my forehead. Might as well take advantage. Of course, those who are successful in digital advertising are generally those who can find these to non-traditional areas to use as advertising space, especially if they prove more effective than typical display (or banner) advertising. Late last year, a young startup called Solve Media began taking ads into a new niche digital territory by reformulating … CAPTCHAs.

Yep. You heard that right. “Captcha” boxes, for those unfamiliar, are those prompts that require users to input an odd array of letters and numbers so that the ticket vendor from which they’re buying tickets (for example), can be sure that the user is not some kind of evil spam robot. Thus, Solve Media’s unique approach is to use its “TYPE-IN” platform to replace those fuzzy words and numbers often used in puzzle-based CAPTCHA systems with a simple logo, or a brand message in quotes — along with a simple input box. Users type in what brand they see, or answer the given question, for example, and then proceed on their merry way.

It’s an interesting approach and has actually tested quite well. For the most part, consumers are far less likely to struggle with Solve Media’s CAPTCHAs than they are with those annoying fuzzy puzzle CAPTCHAs. On the other hand, publishers get to employ a security buffer (when needed), and advertisers get guaranteed views and impressions for their brands. In fact, according to Solve Media CEO Ari Jacoby, consumers who saw a Solve Media type-in ad engaged 29 percent of the time during June of this year — far higher than traditional engagement in other forms of advertising.

Compared to banner ads, in particular, which are nearly universally disliked and rarely clicked on, Solve Media’s type-in model is seeing a much higher level of engagement. And, for the consumer, at least interacting with a Solve Media ad gets them somewhere.

Of course, the fact that a user is basically forced to interact with Solve’s ads would seem a deterrent, but according to Jacoby, so far there have been few complaints. Because, in short, typical CAPTCHAs really are a pain in the ass, and Solve’s type-ins save the user time in comparison. It’s much faster to type in Pepsi than it is to figure out what kind of devil-speak a traditional CAPTCHA is asking you to regurgitate.

Furthermore, in regard to its new approach testing well: Since launching in September of last year, Solve Media has attracted more than 2,000 publishers and more than 75 advertisers. Advertisers, including names like Toyota, Microsoft, Universal Pictures, AOL, and Tribune are now using the platform.

Solve Media saw nearly 15 million successful type-ins across its platform in June, which, according to Jacoby, would be the equivalent of serving 15 billion banner ads — assuming the industry average CTR of 0.1 percent. And considering the average for rich media is about 3 percent, that’s still a significant lift.

What’s more, Solve is also averaging 620,000 type-ins per day in July (up from just over 500K in June), and is growing 15 percent month-over-month, according to Jacoby. And the network has grown over 460 percent since launch. It seems they may be onto something.

In fact, IHG, which owns Holiday Inn, ran an advertising campaign in May and June on Solve’s platform (for its so-called “Vacation Pay”) that delivered a 122 percent lift in brand awareness and 15-times the average CTR, according to comScore.

Solve is growing like gangbusters, and the startup really seems to have hit on a valuable niche space that supports advertising and guarantees brand interaction in ways other solutions (and forms of advertising) can’t. For more, check out Solve’s video below, and tell us what you think.



July 26 2011

20:05

Nodeable, The Twitter For Machines, Raises $2 Million From True Ventures

Nodeable, a startup building a cloud-based social platform for systems data, announced today that it has raised $2 million in series A financing, led by True Ventures. The startup will use this infusion of capital to ramp up hiring efforts and continue building its platform, as it moves into private beta.

But what is it about this young startup that has True Ventures excited? Cloud computing and various sources of big data are becoming more and more popular as on-demand resources for businesses, but at the same time, the management of clouds on the back-end is becoming increasingly challenging and messy.

And though no one is asking the cloud to disappear, developers, IT staff, and admins are still largely compelled to interact with these systems on a case-per-case basis. Essentially, each problem requires an ad hoc solution, and really the way these cloud and data systems are managed, and interacted with, has not added the modern look, feel, or approach of newer communication media, like social networks, for example.

Thus, Nodeable is attempting to apply social mechanics to systems data in such a way as to enable developers, IT staffs, and more to interact with cloud infrastructure and data just as they would on social networks.

Put another way, Nodeable is Like a Twitter for machines, in that it aggregates systems data from a broad array of sources — co-founder and CEO Dave Rosenberg cites Amazon AMI as an example at the infrastructural level and Github at the data source level — then processes that data, adds metadata or defined messages, before presenting the data in a UI or via an API.

Users, he says, can interact with the platform itself by employing social networking mechanics, like tagging, both in messages sent to systems (like @webserver1 restart, for example) or to other users. Much in the same way communication tools like Yammer or Twitter function. Though this does not mean Nodeable is a “scripted automation tool like Rightscale or Opscode’s Chef“, he says, instead the approach is meant to provide a simple way for users to communicate with cloud services — to allow IT staffs to make better decisions, faster.

“Ultimately, we are building a platform that sits in the middle of data streams and allows the data to be manipulated”, the CEO told me. “We are trying to apply what Okta does for authentication to system data streams”.

Nodeable wants to combine big data analytics, systems management and social communications in such a way that a social layer is added to an analytics platform to give users an interface that feels like a social networking site, but still allows businesses to manage the complexities of data management.



July 22 2011

03:00

Nearbuy Nabs A Cool Million From Motorola Ventures, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, And More

Nearbuy Systems, the maker of indoor positioning solutions, announced today that it has raised $1 million in seed funding. The seed round was led by Motorola Ventures, Innovation Endeavors, and Metamorphic Ventures. The funding will be used to bring Nearbuy’s technology to retail stores across the U.S.

Just as startups like ZuluTime and Shopkick are finding different ways to innovate in the in-store loyalty and advertising space, Nearbuy, too is going after the “holy grail” of in-store marketing: In-store consumer location. Because GPS tends not to be able to locate you indoors — and the indoor systems that do exist tend not to be precise — Nearbuy has developed a refined WiFi technology that can locate a customer in the store within 3 feet.

With advanced positioning, retailers can offer consumers discounts, coupons, and deals in realtime as they wander through the aisles, making those tricky purchasing decisions. If a consumer is standing in the sporting goods section, the business can use Nearbuy’s technological conduit to serve them with a discount on kayaks, and so on. But, beyond targeted marketing, solutions like Nearbuy’s can offer consumers in-store navigation (which will be great for places like Ikea and Home Depot), a concierge “Help” button, etc. all through a simple opt-in WiFi setup.

And, for businesses, Nearbuy’s LocalEyes solution can integrate with existing infrastructures already in place, create enhanced mobile commerce apps, and using its micro-location data, can glean valuable shopping trends and behavior, and optimize time-consuming stuff like warehouse management and store set-ups.

While it may be slightly off-putting, the fact is that humans spend 87 percent of their time indoors, and, as mobile technology evolves, the devices in our pockets (along with complementary solutions) are becoming more and more adept at tracking our movements. It makes the security and privacy-conscious a little nervous, which is why it’s great to hear that these technologies are opt-in and come with advanced security mechanisms. That being said, these precise positioning systems have the potential to be a goldmine for retailers and advertisers, and can offer some nifty enhancements to the consumer’s shopping experience.

“We just want to make the shopping experience better for everyone”, says Nearbuy Founder and CEO Bryan Wargo. As long as they don’t sell my location data to the highest bidder, I’m buying.

For more on Nearbuy Systems, check out the video below:



July 19 2011

14:03

Get Taxi Launching in London. This Is Way Beyond Uber.

You wanna bitch about valuations and call this a bubble? Go ahead. I, for one, love that a flood of we-can-do-anything enthusiasm fueled by seemingly infinite cheap venture capital is disrupting all kinds of annoying, antiquated corners of the real world.

Groupon is changing local business in a fundamental way, Airbnb is disrupting hotels and of course in San Francisco and New York, Uber has given people willing to pay just a little more a superior taxi experience.

But– as much as I love Uber– a new Israeli-based startup called Get Taxi is so ambitious it makes math-based, complex Uber look like a lemonade stand.

I don’t mean this as a knock on Uber. Uber is building a company city-by-city in a sober rational way. Get Taxi is going huge, swinging for the fences. Obviously the bigger the initial ambition, the bigger risk it could fail big. (Just ask WebVan.) And a big advantage is that Get Taxi is skipping the US and launching in Europe, where the taxi industry is a lot easier to disrupt en masse because it’s mostly made up of non-union independent contractors. (Refresher: Uber invoked legal threats immediately and can’t even legally keep “cab” in its name.)

It launches in London in two weeks, Moscow in two months and cities in France and Germany soon after that. Forget proving a concept, it’s launching in the largest cab markets first. And instead of focusing on limos and premium cars, Get Taxi is trying to replace dispatch systems in all cabs in all major European cities.

Like Uber, it has a glitzy iphone app and user experience that streamlines the ordering, tracking and payment. But it’s also like OpenTable– providing hardware to cab drivers that coordinates pickups and payments. And to get inventory for those cabs it offers a concierge-like service for high-volume cab bookers like receptionists at law firms and concierges of hotels. More on all that in a bit.

Get Taxi is founded by serial entrepreneur Shahar Smirin who splits his time between Israel, Russia, Silicon Valley and now, the various capitals of Europe. He also splits his time between several companies. Of late, he’s been particularly consumed building Vigoda.ru, a daily deal site in Russia. Like a lot of daily deal sites, it’s growing fast; 100% every three months he says. It’s doing about $50 million in revenues and offering about 500 deals per week.

Talking about Vigoda and Get Taxi, Smirin kept referencing the importance of time-to-market. That’s something I haven’t heard much in Silicon Valley since the late 1990s. In fact, most of the big winners of late haven’t been the first to market, whether it’s Google in search or Facebook in social networking. The big winners have been the companies that took their time, and got the product exactly right.

But Smirin says the difference is those are pure Internet companies. What he– and others like Airbnb and Groupon– are building are not pure online companies. They’re part online, part offline logistics companies. You need physical inventory, sales forces, a brand name, and in the case of Get Taxi hardware in as many cabs as possible. In this category of companies, he says, you can’t afford to be number two.

Looking at the wild landgrab happening in the daily deals category world-wide, you can see a lot of people agree with him– including Groupon, which has been the most international acquisitive startup I’ve ever seen. Groupon’s money-bleeding international strategy has very much been “buy now before anyone in any market gets too much traction, no matter the cost and ask questions later.”

That’s one reason Smirin loves building these types of companies. It’s anathema in Silicon Valley to say this, but his job as an Web entrepreneur isn’t to just obsess about product all day long. He’s executing on business model from day one, since these types of companies are disrupting pre-existing juicy markets, not creating new ones from whole cloth that people may or may not pay for. He’s building sales teams and delivery models, as fast as he’s looking for great engineers.

“You have to be the first to market and run fast,” he said over lunch in San Francisco last week. Wow, did I just go back in time? That sounds a lot like a throwback to the early days of the Internet, and there’s a good reason why. Back then, Web businesses weren’t just about grabbing time as a billion people already came to this vast digital medium every day, they had to evangelize why you’d go online to solve certain needs; why skeptics should “go to the Internet.” People were so un-Web savvy that they had just enough confidence to go to the online travel site they knew, not explore around. That’s not too different from the barriers of building a real-world physical business.

Get Taxi relies even more heavily on building a real-world logistical infrastructure than Smirin’s Groupon clone. Like the daily deals sites and unlike the early Web 1.0 days, there’s real and immediate market opportunity.  “This is a $30 billion dollar per year market,” he says. “This is not about features and eyeballs.”

In Europe there are 600,000 taxis and most of them are independent contractors paying $5,000 per year for a dispatch service. In a classic Web play that uses the medium to disrupt a pricey middleman, Get Taxi promises to send cabs customers in a more efficient, more user friendly way for one-third of that price. Because there’s no unions or exclusivity contracts, taxi drivers can use it as a secondary system. They pay month-by-month; if it doesn’t bring them value, they can get rid of it. If it brings them value, the system quickly pays for itself. And if they’re skeptical, Smirin will even let them try it free for two months to see what it can do.

Get Taxi is trying to do more than just bring drivers more riders, it’s trying to solve pain points for drivers so they never go back to traditional dispatch services. For instance, not only does his five-inch hardware device sync with smart phones to handle the dispatch information in an Uber-like-way, it handles the payments. The service links the cab driver and the consumer by name, so the cab knows who it’s picking up, the consumer knows where that cab is and that dramatically cuts down on no-shows.

The service has been running a full 24/7 beta test service in Israel for several months, and Smirin is confident he’s ready for a London launch in August. It will be available on every smart phone from day one, and if you order a cab and Get Taxi doesn’t have a driver in its network, it will call a competitor and book one for you. “Our customer case philosophy is no excuses, no bullshit,” he says.

The bigger challenge, since Get Taxi only has a month to prove his value to cabbies, is to get a flood of riders quickly. This is where the concierge-like part of the business comes in. Smirin seeks out businesses that regularly need a large volume of cabs– places like hotels, restaurants, law firms and other large companies. He set up an OpenTable-like consumer end for receptionists to easily call and manage taxis for guests, and like OpenTable, they get points the more cabs they book. In the last two weeks he’s pre-signed 250 cabs in London and fifty businesses to send them traffic.

Get Taxi is obviously a big, gaudy, ambitiously crazy idea and fortunately Smirin has big pockets behind him. He’s already put in several million dollars of his own money behind it, and he raised $9 million more from Russian billionaire industrialist Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries Fund. Among other assets, Blavatnik recently bought Warner Music for $3.3 billion. Safe to say, there’s more cash where that $9 million came from. It’s also safe to say Get Taxi will need it.



10:30

With A Half Billion Pages Signed, DocuSign Launches Free Edition

Docusign, the cloud-based electronic signature platform, today announced that is has processed more than a half billion pages of “contracts, agreements and other legally binding documents”, all as part of its effort to enable businesses to go paperless in the document sharing and signing process. According to the company, this effort has saved more than 60,000 trees, and what would equate to $10 million in shipping costs. To commemorate the milestone, DocuSign has made a donation to the Arbor Day Foundation to preserve one million square feet of rain forest.

DocuSign also announced today the release of the latest edition of its eSignature solution, including the first appearance of a free version. This update to platform will bring DocuSign users the ability to “tag documents, auto-save, and make use of HTML5 enhancements”, the team said, like the ability to drag and drop files into DocuSign’s envelope to send, as well as pull documents from Box.net, Dropbox, Google Docs and Salesforce.

DocuSign’s new solution will also include interactive dashboards and reporting to let users know where documents stand in the review and signing process, and browser-aware localization, which will put documents in the user’s native language based on the user’s browser.

Most notably, DocuSign now includes integration with social networks, allowing users to sign in with Facebook, LinkedIn, Paypal, and Salesforce.

Lastly, DocuSign will be offering its users a free edition of its platform, in which they can sign up for a free account and receive 5-free “sends” (documents sent and signed) per month, with no credit card required.

Because the electronic signatures company now has over 8 million DocuSigners, when Adobe entered the eSignature space last year, DocuSign welcomed the addition “as market validation”. But, yesterday, Adobe announced the acquisition of EchoSign, an eSignature solution with over 3 million users, which it plans to integrate into its document software. This could symbolize some serious future competition for DocuSign, and it’s interesting to see DocuSign’s announcements today follow so closely on the heels of Adobe’s announcement.

However, Tim Gonser, DocuSign’s CEO, told TechFlash that the company still leads as a solution for enterprise customers, with “80 percent SaaS market share”. It also benefits from significant adoption resulting from a partnership and investment from the National Association of Realtors, according to TechFlash.

It also helps that DocuSign raised $27 million from Scale Venture Partners, Salesforce.com, Sigma Partners, Ignition Partners and Frazier Technology in December of last year, bringing total capital raised to just over $56 million.

Check out the additions here.



July 18 2011

23:13

Inbox Overload Begone: Taskforce Exits Beta, Goes Pro With Paid Version

Email is an essential part of our daily communication, but it can also be a real pain in the ass. Or, going one step further, as my colleague MG Siegler recently put it, “email is the absolute devil”. This fact even prompted him to channel Peter Gibbons and quit email altogether. I, personally, applaud this bold move but, instead of taking a vow of abstinence, am turning to other tools to help find a way to funnel the fire hose. Of course, this problem is not new, and many startups and products have tried to climb Mount Email, many with little success.

While it will take a near-divine intervention for me to declare a winner in this fight, Taskforce, a member of the Y Combinator Winter Class of 2011, is taking a better shot than most other tools I’ve used. (You can check out our February profile of the startup here.)

Taskforce offers an extension that integrates with Gmail to convert your emails into task lists and makes it simple to create reminders. Appearing out of your inbox like a tall Google toolbar, Taskforce, perhaps more importantly comes with collaboration and calendar tools, enabling you to add collaborators, set due dates, and comment on and hide tasks that don’t need to be completed immediately.

When you add a collaborator to a task, Taskforce alerts them to the shared task and if you make updates to the collaborated tasks, it sends further alerts — and your collaborators don’t have to be using Taskforce. (These collaborative functions are what sets it apart from GTasks.) And even though it adds buttons to your emails allowing you to convert them to tasks, Taskforce doesn’t actually access your inbox. Everything happens through the extension.

Since going into beta in February, Taskforce Founders Niccolo Pantucci and Courtland Allen have been poring over feedback from users and are today officially stepping out of beta to launch publicly. They’ve added a few more features to flesh out the extension’s usability.

Taskforce has introduced a mobile app and are now unveiling a paid version of the service, called Taskforce Pro, which includes a number of additions, including collaborative lists that enable light-weight project management to be carried out in teams, GTasks sync to enable tasks to be pushed from Taskforce into GTasks as well as GCal.

Pro will also allow users to reprioritize tasks that they can choose the order in which they work on their to-do lists, take advantage of keyboard shortcuts, as well as (and importantly) the ability to maximize and minimize the size and presentation of the Taskforce in-email app — a much requested feature according to Pantucci, including by yours truly.

Pantucci also told me that Taskforce has seen great early user adoption, with numbers in the “tens of thousands” of signups, including some by “some very well known tech companies”. Although the founders declined to share specific notable users this early in the game, we were able to find out that a particular company that just recently launched its music service in the U.S. has become an active Taskforce user.

In terms of funding, as part of YC’s class of 2011, Taskforce was included in Yuri Milner’s no-strings-attached convertible debt investment offer of $150K, which the startup accepted. And thanks to Taskforce’s incubation at Y Combinator, the founders were advised by Paul Buchheit, who is a Partner at YC and also happens to be the creator of Gmail.

Taskforce Pro provides the startup with a great opportunity to begin monetizing, and Pantucci said that, when the founders bounced the idea off of early adopters, many said that they would welcome a paid option. Pro will initially be priced at $5 a month, and all Taskforce users will have access to Pro’s features for the first 30 days of using the service, whereafter users will be asked to pay. Those who continue with the free version still have access to Taskforce’s core features — on Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.

Next stop: Taking Taskforce beyond task management, pushing integration with other tools, like Dropbox, for example. Document management is a possibility as well. To learn more, visit Taskforce at home here.



12:11

Ruxum: Wall Street Level Security Comes To Bitcoin With New Exchange

You’ve probably by now heard about Bitcoin, the peer-to-peer digital currency based on Satoshi Nakamoto’s infamous self-published essay, that is either a giant scam, a genius and innovative new frontier, or nothing new — depending on whom you ask.

For those unfamiliar, TechCrunch contributor Jon Evans best described it succinctly thus: “Bitcoin is an anonymous online currency whose transactions and monetary supply are verified by digital cryptography and maintained by an open-source peer-to-peer network”. You can read Evan’s post here and his follow up analysis here.

As Evans points out, Bitcoin has been around since 2009, but only recently has the hype engine caught wind of the currency, resulting in a flurry of media coverage, and reactions hot and cold, including U.S. Senator Charles Schumer’s public denouncement of the network as a “money laundering” scheme.

The digital currency has evolved in fits and starts, like any early currency and exchange, with the founder of Sweden’s Pirate Party throwing his entire life savings into Bitcoins, while one user had nearly $500K worth of Bitcoinage stolen, and last month we covered the collapse of Mt. Gox, the network’s most popular exchange. Tumult everywhere you turn.

Nonetheless, based on the public examples of Mt. Gox’s vulnerabilities, Chad Pankewitz and team have founded a new Bitcoin exchange, called Ruxum, that is dedicated to bringing a more secure alternative for Bitcoin traders. Simply put, Ruxum makes it easy to buy, sell, and trade Bitcoin and virtual currency. And for now it’s free. (Invites herein.)

While there is a debate over what exactly to call Bitcoin currency, as it does not fit into existing categories of assets, with some calling it currency, securities, virtual currency, and more, Pankewitz said that he firmly believes Bitcoin can be a disruptive force in currency markets across sovereign borders.

In the late ’90s, he says, Pankewitz was the head of eBusiness for Citigroup Private Bank and his team was among the first to build a digital banking solution for high net worth individuals in Europe and also worked on Forex trading systems at Citigroup.

He brought that experience (along with team members from Fortune 500 companies) to Ruxum, where they’ve been developing their competing exchange, designed to bring Wall Street-level security to Bitcoin’s network. What’s more, according to the Pankewitz, Ruxum is the only Bitcoin exchange that has a public security policy, which readers can see here.

Today, Ruxum is launching into private beta with a new exchange that will allow users to buy, sell and trade both Bitcoin and Namecoin. Namecoin, for those unfamiliar, is a fork of the Bitcoin project, which uses the P2P network to, instead, build a decentralized domain name system that is less vulnerable to downages. For more on Namecoin, click here.

Ruxum will accept real money deposits, with cash payments being made by bank or wire transfers from nearly anywhere in the world. Currently, USD, EUR, GBP and JPY are accepted currencies, with six more coming in the near future, according to the Ruxum founder. Payments to Bitcoin and Namecoin addresses can be made anytime via a user’s Ruxum account.

Trading fees will be turned off during the beta, and users can trade as much as they’d like for free.

Ruxum is offering TechCrunch readers 500 invites to its private beta program. Readers can click here, where you can click on the “sign-up” link in the top right. Enter the code “techcrunch” (without the quotes) to create an account.

For more, the Ruxum FAQ is here.

Check it out and let us know what you think.



July 16 2011

06:50

Applifier Hits 100 Million Installs, Brings Social Game Discovery Bar To Mobile

Applifier, the cross-promotional network of social game publishers, announced today that it has delivered over 100 million game installs for free on Facebook. Launched in 2010, Applifier set out on a mission to help game publishers find new users and get their games discovered on the social network, and has since grown like a weed. Now connecting over 800 games, Applifier gives publishers the tools to promote their games across their network of over 150 million monthly active users, via bookmarks and retargeting, and “featured spots”.

Of course, the best part about Applifier is that developers don’t pay anything to use the service, they can take advantage of the startup’s paid user acquisition campaigns simply by adding 5 lines of HTML to their Facebook pages or browser game.

Just as it is on the Web, the mobile game space is becoming crowded with games, and gamers are always looking for new games to whet their appetite, so today Applifier launched a cross-promotion solution for iOS. Android is set drop later this summer. Like its web version, Applifier Mobile is free. The mobile version will display recommended games on its bar, where users can click to get more information on the game or scroll to view other games.

It’s a great way for gamers to find new games and for publishers to have a way for their games to be discovered in the crowded sea of social games. It’s a similar model to the App Store’s “Featured Apps”, which is really one of the few options app developers have in the attempt to get their apps discovered on iOS, besides spending tons of cash on marketing and publicity. Smaller game makers don’t have access to those kinds of funds, and so Applifier’s free-to-use platform offers a great alternative.

As Apple recently banned the pay-per-install incentivized apps from the App Store, the fact that Applifier doesn’t pay its users to try out a new game is another leg up. While that may be disappointing for some gamers, it keeps things honest. After all, the company just wants gamers to have another way to find new games that they would enjoy playing. And help the people who make those games find them. “Our value proposition for the players is simple: Hey, you like games. How about some more?” said Applifier CEO Jussi Laakkonen.

Back in January, Applifier raised $2 million for its cross-promotional platform, which it has used to help launch its new mobile outfit and help independent game makers compete against Zynga and its cross-promotional tools. It’s been an uphill battle, but with over 150 monthly active users, 100 million installs, and 800 games, it seems to be working.

For more, check out Dean Takahashi’s early review of the service.



July 15 2011

21:30

Fighting Ticketmaster, The Edge Invests In Ticketing Startup

Ticket Text, the makers of Ticket ABC, a white label mobile ticketing solution, announced today that they have raised $350,000 in seed funding from The Edge, a.k.a. David Evans, or the guy who plays guitar for U2. Several other Dublin and London-based angels participated in the round, with Ticket Text’s total investment now at just over $1 million. The Irish startup will use this infusion of capital to expanding its service in Europe and eventually to the U.S.

Ticketmaster has long been a source of grief for consumers, with its high fees and charges, especially considering the ticket company has long had a nearly monopolistic grip on music ticketing. Today, venues, promoters, and artists are looking to bring their ticketing solutions back in-house — out of the reach of the ticket agencies that control pricing, customer data, etc. But existing choices really just consist of outsourcing to an agency or using a licensed ticketing solution.

Ticket Text wants to change all that by providing a low cost white label ticketing and venue management solution that attempts to put the control over ticketing back in the hands of the little guy. For starters, there are no upfront, annual or customization costs, and all the data is owned by the client.

The solution also offers an automated refund process, and Ticket ABC users can reissue their tickets, both pain points for a number of ticket solutions. Ticket ABC also offers an integrated wireless solution that enables clients to scan mobile and eTickets at multiple places within a venue.

Founder and CEO of Ticket Text Mark McLaughlin said that the team has made a point to architect mobile into the core of the Ticket ABC solution, because they believe that ticketing will become commoditized, so the key for venues and ticketing companies in the future will be to know where their customers are at the venue when they scan their ticket, so that they can communicate with them there and up-sell.

Ticket ABC has also been optimized for mobile so that consumers can purchase tickets from mobile browsers and apps.

Other great features include the ability to create seat maps, set zone prices, seat statuses, and seat rankings — and for the consumer the ability to choose seats when buying tickets — all baked into the solution’s UI. And because Ticket ABC recently added support for another payment service provider, if there are outages or problems, the solution has the ability to switch providers. Always good to have a “Plan B”.

Lastly, Ticket ABC comes with social features that allow its clients to promote their events on Twitter and Facebook, so that users can share what events they’re attending and when they plan to purchase their tickets. The solution also adds a “Buy Tickets” button to a venue or business’ Facebook page, which is a nifty little feature.

And because venues may not want to create a whole new separate site for ticketing, the solution provides an embeddable widgets to that ticket providers can add the solution to their own site.

As to the cost of the solution, there is a flat fee of 5 percent, plus a 99-cents per transaction, which includes payment service provider costs, credit card and hosting fees. Ticket Tex hopes that by charging transactional fees rather than charging upfront, annual or customization fees, the pricing will allow client revenue to be generated proportionally to the costs of using the solution.

Ticket ABC’s current clients include fabric, Pacha, and Bird On The Wire.

For an example of a Ticket ABC solution, check one out here.



15:11

The Death Spiral Continues: RIM At Work On A Home Media Streamer

The latest news from the RIM rumor mill is that a media streamer is in the works. Codename Cyclone will pack the standard equipment of HDMI, WiFi, Netflix and is scheduled for a fall 2011 release. Waterloo has yet to make this official, but most rumors concerning RIM pan out. I would be seriously surprised if it did not exist – it fits perfectly within the company’s BlackBerry-centric ecosystem — but it will still probably be the latest RIM product to publicly crash and burn.

I’m a fan of Research in Motion. They make good smartphones that admittedly tend to lag a bit behind Android and iOS. That’s fine in my book. It shouldn’t matter as much in RIM’s familiar turf of the enterprise market, but the company seems stuck on competing in the consumer market with budget handsets rather producing quality kits for the corporate crowd. That’s where RIM is most loved and respected anyway. But back to this RIM streamer.

RIM wants to be just like Apple and they are besides missing the mojo. RIM controls the BlackBerry user experience from hardware to software. They control everything and thus have every right to operate just like Apple. If they don’t build a BlackBerry tablet, no one will. The same goes for a media streamer. If RIM wants to expand their brand, and who doesn’t, a media streamer is a fine way to bring the BlackBerry user experience to another market.

But this is a media streamer. And RIM doesn’t have a media distribution channel.  And the Blackberry App World isn’t the same as the App Store. The Cyclone would be a disaster but one that probably wouldn’t affect RIM’s bottom line

RIM’s product strategy is like Apple’s. Their goal as of late seems to involve evangelistically taking the BlackBerry brand to different markets. The struggling PlayBook is its primary missionary. But it’s not working. RIM is in effect preaching to its own user base, which according to most reports, is rapidly shrinking unlike Apple’s. The Apple TV is a fun surprise, not a desperate attempt to stay relevant like the Cyclone.

Little is known about the RIM streamer right now. Nerdberry reports it will a have an HDMI output, WiFi and access to YouTube and Netflix. So, you know, just another streamer.

The good news for RIM’s investors is that such a device is relatively inexpensive to make. There are tens of thousands of media devices on Alibaba [link] ready to be branded and sold as the RIM Cyclone. It’s a generic field now. The device would probably have a $100 price tag and be the perfect accessory for the dozen or so remaining addicted BlackBerry users.

By all accounts it will probably be a fine device. The QNX interface on the PlayBook is beautiful and it would be in RIM’s best interest to show it off.

But who would buy it? Not anyone that owns or is thinking about getting an Android, iOS, or webOS device. Even some current BlackBerry users are no doubt looking to the end of their contract to ditch their device and jump to another platform. Plus low cost media streamers hit the big time last year and devices such as the Roku boxes, Boxee Box, WD TV, and Apple TV already have a spot in millions of homes.

It’s never too late to release a quality product. This doesn’t seem like a quality product, though. It lacks anything to set itself apart from the rest and will therefore follow the same path to obscurity by the PlayBook, Storm and Torch — if it exists.



July 14 2011

18:09

Can Rdio Withstand The Spotify Assault? A Feature-By-Feature Look

Spotify is finally here in the US. It offers on-demand music for a relatively low price — just like Rdio. There’s several service levels including mobile listening and offline support — just like Rdio. There’s even support for third-party hardware and platforms — just like Rdio.

Rdio has a head start in this race but it might not matter. Rdio left private beta last August and has since gained a good deal of traction here in the States. It’s our hometown hero, if you will. Even though it wasn’t available until today, Spotify’s hype built the service up to near legandary status. The two services are remarkably similar on the outside, but when you dive in, there are some distinct and fun differences.


Quick specs:

Spotify

  • Free account, limited playback, ad-supported
  • $5 for desktop streaming
  • $10 desktop, mobile and offline support
  • Launched in the US on July 14, 2011
  • Features the catalog of the 4 major record companies
  • “Over 15 million tracks”
  • Bitrate Quality: 160 kbps with some tracks at 320 kbps for premium users

Rdio

  • $5 for desktop streaming
  • $10 desktop, mobile and offline support
  • Launched in the US on August 3, 2010
  • Features the catalog of the 4 major record companies
  • “Over 8 million songs”
  • Update: Rdio dropped me a note stating they’re at 9 million songs now.
  • Bitrate Quality: 256kbps

Desktop apps

Both companies take a different approach to their desktop application. Spotify’s desktop app is designed to be a catch-all, a one stop solution for all your media needs. It allows users to steam music and playback local media. It can sync songs with connected media players (including iPods) and cache streaming songs for offline playback. It’s truly meant to be the only media player you need on your computer.

That’s not the case with Rdio, whose desktop app is really just a portal to its web service. Nearly everything is the same, including the navigation paths and user interface. Rdio’s app lacks any local media playback functions, which may be just fine for some users. The desktop app does play friendly with keyboard media functions (like the pause/play key you may have) where Rdio’s web service does not.

The different approaches result in a slightly different feel. Both services are designed around music discovery, but Rdio’s desktop application, since it’s really just a skinned web app, outclasses Spotify in this area. Nearly everything is a hyperlink to more content. The album cover, the song, the artist, every user element has a link that takes you to music. Spotify goes about it in a traditional desktop way by have simple navigation paths, but they’re not as easily identifiable.

Still, Spotify’s desktop app is far more versatile than Rdio’s. It seamlessly mixes online and offline content with social sharing tools. The music discovery paths could use some work but the other functions combine to beat Rdio’s.

Winner: Spotify

Web apps

Spotify doesn’t have a web app. This is a key difference between the two services. Rdio will work in nearly any browser on any computer and maintain user settings. At work? Just log in and all your music, friends and listening history is there. This isn’t available on Spotify.

In fact, Rdio was originally just a web service. The OS X desktop app came a few months after the service launched, and the Windows flavor just dropped a few weeks back. The whole service is designed to operate from within a browser and does so wonderfully.

I’ve found that Rdio’s web app allows it to work on web-connected devices such as the Boxee Box or Google TV. Rdio doesn’t have a dedicated app on either of these Internet appliances but the device’s web browser allows you to use the service anyway. You can’t do that with Spotify although the service is available on several hardware platforms (more on this farther down.)

Winner: Rdio (by default)

Mobile apps

Neither of these services would be as popular if they didn’t support mobile listening. Both Rdio and Spotify have functional mobile apps that ports most of the service’s functions to your smartphone. Once again, on the surface, the two sound very similar and feature the same functions including offline modes.

The two apps are very similar and there really isn’t a standout. It’s more a personal preference. Rdio’s UI is a bit more simple, but still maintains a lot of the elements found in the web app. Spotify’s on the other hand is sort of busy, but nicely integrates the socal media sharing functions. Both play music and that’s the most important function anyway.

One standout in this area is MOG’s app. Not only does it flow better than Spotify’s or Rdio’s, MOG’s smartphone app is simply beautiful. It feels like a smartphone media app rather than a web app crammed into a smartphone.

Winner: MOG

Social features

Everything has to be social now and so both media services are built tightly around this thought. Both make it easy enough to share playlists, albums and songs through Facebook and Twitter. However, Spotify takes it one step farther and gives users the ability to quickly share songs and albums through a sort of internal mail system. Glee bombing is quickly becoming a favorite pastime of mine.

However, while I’m of the opinion that none of this sharing nonsense is necessary, Spotify does, once again, outperform Rdio mainly as it allows subscribers to share songs with anyone; all that’s required to listen is a free Spotify account. Rdio allows for embedding of songs, but you have to a paying subscriber pay to listen.

Winner: Spotify

Music discovery

It has never been easier to discover new music and trends. Rdio and Spotify, along with several other streaming sites like MOG, Grooveshark, and Rhapsody, built their service around this core idea. With the exception of Grooveshark, these services tend to take the album approach by presenting users with a grid of album covers. Spotify uses the What’s New section as its homescreen where Rdio’s Heavy Rotation section (the service’s most popular music) is the first page displayed.

This is where Rdio tops Spotify. Nearly everything on Rdio, either on the web app or desktop app, guides you to music. The designers placed a hyperlink where ever someone might want to click. Best of all, following the rabbit down the hole of music discovery doesn’t interrupt the music playback — even on the website. A sidebar is off to the right on nearly every page with relative songs, artists, and info. Want to hear music of the same sort? Each page has a Play Radio Station button that cues up similar songs and artists.

Both services have similar sections in new releases, most popular, and top charts. Rdio also features a recommendations section that displays new artists based on your listening habits. This section alone allows Rdio to topple Spotify in the music discovery category.

Winner: Rdio


In the end, though, I doubt these differences will really matter. Rdio is an amazing tool to discover new music and Spotify is the media player from the future. There’s more than enough space in this huge market for several major players. Spotify might quickly outpace Rdio simply because of advertising and its slightly more recognizable brand. But the real winner are us consumers. As Louis C.K. wisely put, “The shittiest cell phone in the world is a miracle.” This also applies to streaming music services.



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