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Archives for September 2010

Grabbing attention at Techcrunch Disrupt

Maggie Shiels | 10:12 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

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Groupon has become a darling of the internet world with its success at delivering discount coupons on products and services from bedsheets to facials.

During the technology conference Techcrunch Disrupt, the company's founder and chief executive officer Andrew Mason said that since starting a couple of years ago, the company has grown by leaps and bounds.

It is now in 29 countries and approaching 20 million subscribers and has mushroomed from a handful of employees to around 2,200 worldwide. Now Mr Mason has a distinctive approach to growing his customer base and encouraging brand loyalty.

It's called Grouspawn and is, he said, "part product and part social initiative". In essence, the idea is to "incentivise" love: that is, hook-ups and baby-making.

For couples that meet through Groupon and go on to have a child, the company pledges to put $60,000 into a trust fund so that by the time the child is 25, there will be a healthy wedge of cash in the bank to pay for college.

"People have been having babies for centuries," said Mr Mason. "The problem with the process is there is no incentive to find a partner and have a child. Now we are giving you a real reason because you can make all this money," quipped the 29-year-old.

Proof will be needed that a couple met using Groupon. Mr Mason suggests asking a waiter to take a photo of you with that day's newspaper and your Groupon discount coupon.

Mr Mason noted that he is not eligible for the scheme because he met his partner long before Groupon started. "Don't make the same mistake I made," he warned the audience.

So is this real or just a lark? People at the conference weren't too sure. But there is a real website and the first of the FAQs reads: "It's really real."

At Disrupt, the point is to shake things up; Groupon's efforts to promote its dating site did just that.

So did another start-up called Gamecrush. The aim of the 18-and-over social gaming service is to allow male gamers to make "playdates" with female gamers.

Presumably that's because these gaming nerds can't bear to put down their consoles and leave their bedrooms to meet women?

Founder Eric Strasser's take?

"If you can buy a girl a drink in a sports bar, why not buy her a game online?"

The future by Google's boss

Maggie Shiels | 08:55 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010

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Eric Schmidt's view of the world is one where we are never lonely, never forget anything, never get lost, never run out of ideas, are never bored and perhaps one where we never actually need to drive a car because it will drive itself.

Eric Schmidt

 

While that last one might sound like a joke, the Google chief executive noted: "It's amazing to me that we let humans drive cars. It's a bug that cars were invented before computers."

He said that having computers navigate the highways and byways would leave humans to do what they do best in the car, be it chat or snack.

At the heart of this brave new world is, of course, the computer.

"We are at one of those points in technology where something interesting is about to happen," Google chief executive Mr Schmidt told entrepreneurs, reporters, analysts and bloggers at a technology conference in San Francisco called TechCrunch Disrupt.

"There is a transition in the way people use computers."

Mr Schmidt said one way of describing this was to think about it as:

"[B]uilding an augmented version of humanity. Getting computers to help us do the things we are not very good at and have humans helping computers do the things they're not very good at."

That is everything from keeping lists for us to helping us navigate the world and from telling us about the world around us to entertaining us 24/7 and keeping us in touch with friends and colleagues online.

Mr Schmidt said the long term goal here is to ensure everyone lives a happier life. Central to this is information, which of course is where Google comes in as a company driven by organising all the world's data and making it accessible.

Mr Schmidt noted that search traffic tripled throughout the first half of 2010 and that Google had hit a new high with two billion searches a day while YouTube also hit the two billion views a day mark.

Making the information relevant is what counts said Mr Schmidt as more and more, computers filter and direct information that is personal to users based on how much they want to share.

In the future, he remarked, "We can suggest where you go next, who to meet, what to read...What's interesting about this future is that it's for the average person, not just the elites."

"In some respects Mr Schmidt is talking about the future but in some respects he's talking about today as well," said Brad McCarty, who follows Google for technology blog the Next Web.

Mr McCarty added:

"On a daily basis if we look at all the interactions we have with our electronic devices, at this point in my life at least, those things are already interconnected. My personal life is already an augmented reality of itself.
 
"Take for instance one example where I walked back to my hotel yesterday. I didn't pull out a paper map I pulled out Google maps. The phone's GPS knew where I was and so did Google because I gave it permission to know. That kind of behaviour illustrates quite simply this reality."

Not everyone however is quite so enamoured by Mr Schmidt's view of the near term future.

"It's not that Schmidt is wrong or misguided in making these predictions: the seeds for such a future were sown long ago," said Tom Krazit who writes for technology news site CNET.com:

"But Schmidt and Google never seem to understand how much they freak some people out when they evangelize a future that de-emphasizes the role of people in their day-to-day lives. And so you get two different opinions of Google: those who think the company is changing the world for the better with its focus on organizing information, and those who think Google really wants to run people's lives for them with computers; specifically, Google's computers. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between."

For Greg Tseng who is the co-founder of a social network called Tagged, Mr Schmidt's take is an interesting one:

"All these companies are enabling new things that previously weren't possible but at the end of the day the user has to be in control.
 
"There are times when I just want to turn off my phone and be disconnected from everything and get lost in the woods. Not be constantly connected to my Facebook stream and my Google maps."

Which brings me to an interesting fact. Mr Schmidt revealed that for 2009, the Oxford English dictionary noted the most popular word was "unfriend".

Tablet Wars: Blackberry's Playbook

Maggie Shiels | 09:27 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010

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The tablet wars just got a lot more interesting with the entry of Research In Motion, the makers of the Blackberry smartphone.

Plaything next to Blackberry

 

For the last six months, Apple's iPad has almost had the market to itself. The product has dominated headlines and projections by research company iSuppli claims iPad sales will hit 50.4 million by the end of 2012.

On the opening day of Blackberry's annual developers' conference, Devcon, RIM finally announced its play for a market some have estimated will grow to $40bn in the next year.

The much-rumoured device had been dubbed "Blackpad" by some; instead RIM is calling its new tablet computer Playbook.

A full list of specs has been published; in short, it has a 7-inch screen, two video cameras and will not use Blackberry's latest operating system. It will rely on that of QNX, a company RIM recently acquired.

It will have Bluetooth and wi-fi; for a 3G connection, BlackBerry users can tether their phone. RIM is pushing the line that it will be ideal for enterprise and that security will be at the heart of everything it does.

Blackberry Plaything

 

The Playbook isn't a phone and there was no word during the keynote address by RIM chief executive Mike Lazaridis about battery power. Rumours peg it at eight hours, not far behind the iPad's 10-hour battery life. Remember the iPad is bigger at 9.7 inches - though there have been plenty of rumours of a smaller device in the near future.

There was also no word on price. The iPad ranges from $499 to $829 for all the bells and whistles.

The Playbook will be on sale sometime early in 2011.

At a backstage event, reporters, bloggers, photographers and developers got a chance to get up close but not very personal with the device. It was encased in glass and all we could do was look and wonder and press our noses close to the shiny new thing.

While this is the first business-centric tablet computer to hit the market, RIM was keen to point out that it may also appeal to the everyday consumer. Mike Kirkup, director of developer relations told BBC News:

"We are creating one product that can be applicable across that whole base but, yeah, the expectation is that we can sell this very well into enterprise who are looking for a great tablet experience."

While reluctant to utter the word "iPad" or discuss how much of a dent the Playbook can make in its lead, Mr Kirkup acknowledged that "there is a lot more interest in the tablet market these days, but we plan on winning the whole thing and plan on absolutely selling well in the enterprise":

"We are more focused on our own product right now rather than talking about other peoples' product and what they are doing. We are building a base for what we think is going to be a sustainable competitive advantage."

Key to that sustainability, of course, is the developer community.

People with cameras pointing at the Blackberry Plaything in glass case

 

A number of those there were frustrated not to be able to hold the Playbook and have a play around with it. At the iPad press launch, there were plenty of devices available to mess about with. Daniel Schaller of 4PeopleSoftware said:

"This is a good idea and probably a good product but I am only going to believe in it when I have it in my hands. It is disappointing to see it behind glass, though it looks great.

 
"It would have been nice to see it in action and while it looked nice in the presentation, that is all show and marketing. I want to see if it is as smooth and fluid as it looks."

Alex Van Der Stam from Universal IT in the Netherlands thought focusing on the business market was smart for RIM.

"This makes total sense for business users whose main concern is security. This is where the Blackberry does well and where RIM does a good job. I also like the size because it is big enough to see your e-mail and spreadsheets but small enough to carry around. The iPad is too big."

A number of developers I spoke to wanted to know more about what it means for them in terms of applications they have already developed for the Blackberry.

"My focus is the platform and how it will integrate with existing platforms," said Stephan Leiroux of Polar Mobile:

"What does that mean for us as developers in terms of the work we need to do to port over apps we have already created and what do we need to do to make the interface compelling on this new landscape?"

His colleague Kelum Peiris had questions about battery life and how that would affect developers:

"One concern is that the Playbook has a dual-core processor. The more processor there is, the more the battery life is affected. My laptop has eight cores and the battery dies in 20 minutes.
 
"We haven't heard anything about battery life and I am worried about that, especially if you get an application that uses a lot of power. Maybe we will have to write for the platform differently to save on battery life. I am guessing that RIM will put limits on developers to ensure the integrity of the device."

For Richi Nayar of Sybase, which was recently acquired by SAP, one issue was the app store:

"Sure, it's great having all this technology - but will they be able to catch up on the apps front? That is what is going to make this a killer device and help it beat the iPad.
 
"The size looks good. The form factor really works for me because it is so portable but price will be key. I am not quite ready to spend 500 bucks on it."

A lot of the concerns and questions are likely to be answered in the coming days at the Devcon event because, just after the Playbook was launched, organisers unveiled a number of sessions to give developers the chance to drill down and probe on these issues.

'Angelgate': A tech conspiracy?

Maggie Shiels | 11:00 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010

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Silicon Valley has been dominated for the last 48 hours by a new game called Angelgate.

The object of the game is to guess who was involved and what was said at a recent meeting in a San Francisco restaurant. What took place has been the subject of great debate since respected blogger and founder of tech site Techcrunch published a post on Tuesday evening.

It starts off innocently enough, but as you read on it levels some serious accusations at the Valley's angel investors: "collusion and price fixing, that's what".

Mr Arrington says he later talked to some of the people there and was told that this was a regular meet-up which was originally for investors to let off steam and grumble about the ways of the investment world.

But it evolved into something else, he was told: investors colluding with each other over how to keep down deal valuations, among other problems. Mr Arrington says some attendees were unhappy about the turn in the conversation and spilled the beans.

His post claims that the ongoing agenda includes:

Complaints about Y Combinator's growing power, and how to counteract competitiveness in Y Combinator deals; Complaints about rising deal valuations and they can act as a group to reduce those valuations; How the group can act together to keep traditional venture capitalists out of deals entirely; How the group can act together to keep out new angel investors invading the market and driving up valuations; More mundane things, like agreeing as a group not to accept convertible notes in deals (an entrepreneur-friendly type of deal); One source has also said that there is a wiki of some sort that the group has that explicitly talks about how the group should act as one to keep deal valuations down

 

Mr Arrington, a former attorney, writes that:

"It is absolutely unlawful for competitors to act together to keep other competitors out of the market, or to discuss ways to keep prices under control. And that appears to be exactly what this group is doing.

"This isn't minor league stuff. We're talking about federal crimes and civil prosecutions if in fact that's what they're doing. I had a quick call with an attorney this morning, and he confirmed that these types of meetings are exactly what these laws were designed to prevent."

Mr Arrington doesn't name names except to say that the meeting represented "nearly 100% of early stage startup deals in Silicon Valley".

The question-and-answer website Quora, however, is trying to fill in the blanks. One of those named there told me he could not comment on the allegations because he wasn't at the restaurant. Another two did not return calls or e-mails.

A well-known angel who was there and has gone public about it is Dave McClure, a PayPal alumnus and founder of the 500 Startups angel fund. He fired back at Mr Arrington, all guns blazing, with his own riposte - be warned it is liberally peppered with profanities.

Using fewer expletives, Mr McClure told BBC News that Mr Arrington's allegations are inaccurate:

"I take exception to what Mike has said and the accusations he is throwing around. There are a lot of people working hard and to cast aspersions on what we do is... wrong. Most of these accusations might have fitted the industry 30 years ago but not today, not the last 12-24 months.

"Mike is an excellent writer and he throws an awesome conference and this will boost his numbers but I will be concentrating on working 120% to help make my entrepreneurs and the companies I have invested in successful."

Mr Arrington has a conference that starts on Monday called Techcrunch Disrupt; one of the panels is called "Super Angels to Super VCs" with Mr McClure taking part. He told me he will be there and that "there is likely to be standing room only at the session" as a result of the story.

Another angel who has gone public about the get-together is Bryce Roberts, co-founder of O'Reilly's AlphaTech Ventures group. In answer to a question on Quora, he said "apparently, I was at a very different investor dinner than the one Mike wrote about. The dinner I was at didn't have agreement on anything, let alone agreements and pacts as outlined in his article... the dinner I was at reflected a bunch of different styles, not consensus."

For his part, Mr Arrington is standing by his story. He told Private Equity Hub that he did not over-react or get it wrong: "No, the story is 100 percent accurate. Two different people called me [after the dinner] and I called one person".

Traditional venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, whose deals include Twitter, took in his stride the whole story of a cabal trying to lock the likes of him out of deals. In a post at his blog, he said:

"I applaud Mike for raising this issue. But I believe it is a bit of a red herring.

"The fear of VCs colluding is alive and well. But the act of collusion is pretty well dead in the venture business."

A number of angels and "super-angels" - wealthy individuals who invest their own money in very young start-ups, as opposed to venture capitalists, who invest other people's money in all stages of companies - have said the whole affair is distracting.

"The way you win is not at getting the lowest prices, but in being able to get in on the best companies," Paul Buchheit, a former Google engineer who has made angel investments in numerous companies including finance website Mint, told Reuters News.

Meanwhile "Angelgate" has of course spun off into some alternative universe that includes jokes galore as complied by Quora.

Commentator Henry Blodget of Business Insider has put together a lively report that has hints of the Godfather films.

The restaurant that was the setting for this intrigue, Bin 38, has surely never enjoyed so much publicity.

It has become the focus of another game in town, the "fakeplan" which people are posting at event-sharing service Plancast. Everyone is invited to the "Super Secret Angel Meet Up" - except Mr Arrington.

When I attend, I will naturally be wearing the must-have Silicon Valley t-shirt with the slogan "I was at Bin 38 and all I got was this lousy valuation".

An unhappy birthday for net neutrality

Maggie Shiels | 09:41 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

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A year ago yesterday, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Julius Genachowski made what was regarded as a seminal speech [149KB PDF] about net neutrality, the tenet where all web traffic is treated equally.

At the time, he said that without this fundamental protection "we could see the Internet's doors shut to entrepreneurs, the spirit of innovation stifled, a full and free flow of information compromised."

Time, he said, was of the essence, and "If we wait too long to preserve a free and open
Internet, it will be too late."

Well, those words have come back to haunt the chairman in the form of an advert that was taken out by the advocacy group Free Press [48KB PDF].

It was trying to give vent to its frustration that, in a year, the issue of net neutrality remains unresolved.

That is in no large part due to a court decision that questioned the FCC's authority on the matter. It followed legal action taken by Comcast after the commission sanctioned the company for throttling certain types of traffic. While the company stopped the practice, it decided to test the FCC's authority in court. It won.

In the aftermath, Mr Genachowski decided to change the rules governing broadband to a more stringent set of regulations. But in a bid to body-swerve lengthy court proceedings and win over internet service providers and cable companies, he came up with a third way whereby he would cherry pick aspects of the regulations to allow him to enforce net neutrality.

 

Back-door talks to come up with an agreement with ISP's and carriers were halted when the FCC failed to broker a consensus. In the midst of what was seen as a vacuum, search giant Google and telecom titan Verizon stepped in with a plan that would mean treating wireline or fixed line services differently from wireless. That set off a snowstorm of criticism and protests at Google's Mountain View HQ.

That all brings us back to one year on and Josh Silver of the Free Press proclaiming it is time to get the job done.

"A year ago, Julius Genachowski warned us about what would happen if we didn't act to preserve the free and open internet. A year later, we're still waiting.
 
"It's time for the FCC chairman to stop dithering. The threats to the open internet are real and we cannot wait much longer for him to act."

In an interview with the BBC, while attending an event in Silicon Valley, Mr Genachowski defended his stance to date.

"There is no question in the minds of the companies in this space that we are committed to preserving a free and open internet."

When challenged with his own words that "if we wait too long to preserve a free and open Internet, it will be too late," the chairman said, "I think that is right.

"The internet is open now. The companies that are providing internet services understand that the internet is open, should be open and that there will be repercussions if they take steps to close the internet.
 
"We are finding the right policies and the right legal framework to make sure we keep the internet free and open and also drive tremendous amounts, billions of dollars, into our network, so we can have fast, robust networks to all parts of our country."

Mr Genachowski is not the only one being lambasted here. A number of net neutrality supporters are spending "tens of thousands of dollars" on an advertising campaign targeting advert Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to live up to their motto of "don't be evil" and abandon its deal with Verizon.

"We're continuing to rally the public, including techies in Silicon Valley, against Google's decision to be evil and harm the free and open Internet," said Jason Rosenbaum, senior online campaigns director for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a left-leaning political interest group.

All this might be regarded as a sideline act as key congressmen in Washington try to put together a compromise over the issue, which could give the FCC limited authority to police Internet providers.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman and other committee members are in negotiations on limited net neutrality legislation designed to pass in the next two weeks.

It is still an open question whether or not these efforts will amount to much - details of the legislation are still being negotiated, including whether it would impose net neutrality rules on wireless networks.

Has Yahoo lost its way?

Maggie Shiels | 09:19 UK time, Friday, 17 September 2010

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Yahoo is over 15 years old. While it was regarded as an internet pioneer, it has had the whiff of a has been for some time.

Rather than go over when and why things changed, it is worth considering the company's future in light of a press event it held to unveil a product strategy that it clearly hopes will put the company back in the running.

There is little doubt Yahoo has taken a beating in the press, in the markets and in how it is perceived.

One of a slew of recent hires brought in to turn things around under the rule of boss Carol Bartz is Blake Irving. He previously worked at Microsoft and is now Yahoo's chief products officer.

At the company's product runway, Mr Irving told reporters he wants to put the "cool" back into Yahoo and make it a company that counts.

Yahoo presentation

 

Mr Irving has been at Yahoo for over 100 days. When he first arrived, he said, he discovered that one of the big problems was that no-one was singing from the same hymn sheet.

"When I arrived, I found there were some very excellent strategies. Labs had a great strategy, the mobile guys had a great strategy, the applications people had a strategy," Mr Irving told BBC News:

"But they weren't going in the same direction. So one of the things I did was identify some folks that could help us get on the right track with a single direction, but build a series of strategic elements that lift the overall vision and give us a single arrowhead that allows us to get behind one vision, one Yahoo strategy."

That strategy is about iterating faster, changing the feel of things, making Yahoo properties from news to sport to mail feel seamless and easier to navigate and adding common features like comments or being able to interact with friends. And doing all of this and more on connected devices like TVs, phones and tablet computers is a big part of that forward approach.

Mr Irving said he also wants to make the web - and, by that token, Yahoo - more personal:

"The vision is to deliver personal meaning whether that is on the Yahoo network or off the Yahoo network. And that notion of personal meaning is about providing an experience that you find interesting."

Mr Irving put an emphasis on social, but not the Facebook approach: in this, when you broadcast, you broadcast to everyone in your network. He talked about a Venn-diagram approach where you speak to small circles of people, the way you do in real life. Mr Irving's examples included having one type of conversation with a group of people about technology and another type of conversation with another set on golf.

As well as redefining the company to the outside world, Mr Irving wants to redefine it to people who work there. It is a technology company, he said, not a media company.

He agreed that Yahoo has to some degree lost its way and that in part has been down to the company's own identity crisis.

"A lot of losing its way is feeling like you are not a technology company any more. Part of losing your way is having folks that are deep technologists in the company read that Yahoo is a media company and reading about the departure of employees in the press. "There is this weird self-fulfilling prophecy that when you start reading all this information in the press and start hearing from your friends, you start believing it. My observation as an outsider walking in is: 'Wow, what amazing technology assets and how much swagger this company ought to have based on what they have built and are still building'."
Yahoo presentation

 

He also hinted that in the past Yahoo shot itself in the foot by making great things but then sitting on its hands because the legacy processes and product turnaround times were all over the map:

"A huge part of my effort is to say we are working on amazing things. Let's start delivering them quickly and getting this stuff out of the door. It is letting people know that Yahoo can do this, that they are about great iterations, great customer value and great advertising value."

Mr Irving did not cringe too much at the assertion that his product runway event was a fightback for the company:

"That is a fair way to say it. All these people want to win and want to be part of a momentum to make that happen."

The $64,000 question is: Can they win?

Greg Sterling of Opus Research told the BBC "they have a little bit of the AOL disease. They are a company whose strongest days are behind them."

But, he added, they are far from down and out.

"Have they lost their mojo? Certainly, that is the perception and I think I would say they have not but things have slowed down and they need to show up with some great products."

New improved Twitter.com

Maggie Shiels | 09:16 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

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The aim of the new Twitter is engagement - keeping users within the Twitter fold and stopping them from wandering all over their web to get their Twitter fix. All good in the chase for those advertising dollars, but perhaps less so for the third party eco-system that builds apps around Twitter.

At first blush, the revamped site is easy to use and more compelling when you get there.

Twitter split screen

 

The new set-up offers a split-screen with two panels. On the left side are tweets, mentions, retweets, lists and a search option and on the right your profile is laid out very clearly along with trends, lists and favourites. It is easier to check out video and photos and engage with the community.

In an interview with Twitter chief executive and co-founder, Evan Williams, he explains the thinking behind this first major overhaul of the site since its inception four years ago. He called it "transformative".

"We like the old Twitter but we thought we could make it better. We are so excited about the new one because it has everything the old one had but it is faster, easier to get more information and we think it is just an overall better experience."

The site was tested over a number of weeks with employees and users. Twitter didn't reveal numbers.

"At first it wasn't obvious how to incorporate the features we wanted to incorporate so we did a lot of testing to make sure that people understood it, understood what they were seeing and could navigate around and eventually that helped us get to the right design."

Evan Williams

 

Of course the original design of Twitter was a very simple one with little clutter, so what was the approach aesthetically speaking?

"We hope to maintain the simplicity and the ease. We think this (new version) makes it a lot easier because, even though there is a lot more functionality now, its clear what is going on. So you can take a simple short tweet and now get more context - get more information in less time. You can see the embedded video, the embedded picture. You can see what a tweet is about and other information much more easily than you could ever see before. There was a lot buried underneath Twitter before and now we are bringing that to the surface.

"We thought it was very important to keep the simplicity and so we didn't want to lose that. All the new stuff on Twitter is something you can opt into and drill down into the tweets and get more details, and jump around and discover and explore. Or you can not do that. You can use Twitter pretty much as before. Things load faster. There are more short cuts to do more things but it doesn't take away from that simplicity and we wanted to maintain that simplicity and really support what people were doing before."

It is all about engagement but Twitter said it doesn't know how long people spend on Twitter because "it has never been a goal to increase or maximise that. The goal of this really has always been to give people the maximum value for the time spent.

"We would actually like people to not spend much time on Twitter at all. We would just like them to get as much valuable information while they are there. So if this decreases the time, that's fine as long as they are getting more for that time."

So is this about aping what Facebook does?

"I just don't see that at all. This is about supporting what people are already doing on Twitter and Twitter is fundamentally an information network. It is about finding out what is happening in the world that is important to you and this makes that experience much better and I don't think there is anything like it."

Naturally I picked up on that reference to being an "information network" and "not a social hub".

Badges with Every Twitter Counts written on them

 

"We have never called Twitter a social network and from the beginning we designed it with this model of you follow information sources that you care about. These might be your friends, business leaders, experts, politicians, celebrities, media. That is the model that there is nothing else like and it came from a lot of experience in publishing and helping to get more information flowing in the world. That has always been our goal. There are social aspects to it, but it has never been a social network."

At Chirp, Twitter's developer conference earlier in the year, Mr Williams said that Twitter was hard to use. Adding all these layers with more functionality, surely adds to that complexity.

"You don't get simplicity by being cryptic. A lot of the most popular products have tons and tons of features because features make things easier. That is the whole point of the features we built in here. Hiding information doesn't make things easier. We are exposing more information. We are making things more obvious. If you see a username you can now see that person's real name and their bio and you can follow them right there. That is easier. That is the goal of all these features - make it easier, faster, reduce the number of steps required to do your things, see conversations, see media. I think it is going to be pretty intuitive for people."

More promoted tweets. Will that get in the way of the experience?

"No because they were always designed to be context relevant and what I mean by more promoted tweets is that there is going to be more discovery of tweets in general. There is more searches linked throughout the product and with promoted tweets we always measure engagement with them and if people are ignoring them, then they drop away. So that's a good safeguard about them being in the way."

Twitter said it hadn't shown the re-engineered Twitter.com to advertisers, even though advertising revenue is important to help pay the bills. So what opportunities will they see here?

"We've definitely think it is going to be a good thing for advertisers. The fact that it increases engagement, we think it will increase engagement with tweets, allow you to embed media. You know that's powerful for a lot of advertisers if they want to attach a photo, a video. They want to expose more of the conversation. Advertisers come to Twitter because they want engagement and conversation and this exposes more of that. So I am pretty confident they will be excited. This will improve that out of the box."

Twitter has helped create a healthy third party eco-system where a number of businesses have successfully created apps to make the Twitter experience easier for users. Doesn't this sound the death knell for the likes of Seesmic, TweetDeck etc.

"I don't think it sounds the death knell. We have made it pretty clear that third party clients are important, they add a lot of value to Twitter. That doesn't mean we are not going to improve the interfaces we own and control. That's something we have been doing for at least the last couple of years. This is the biggest change we have ever made and there are lots of other opportunities still. Our goal is to deliver the best experience to the most people possible, to make people more happy and engaged Twitter users."

What does this revamp say about Twitter's evolution?

"This is definitely a transformative moment for Twitter and it reflects a lot of things. It reflects a big leap in what the user experience is obviously, and I talked a lot about how we want to make Twitter a great experience for consuming and understanding what is happening around the world. Not just creating information and not just sharing. And it also reflects a big leap in the maturity and evolution of the company. So infrastructure and scalability is still a number one priority for us. But we have the capabilities to design such a great new product because we are a better functioning and bigger organisation."

You could have left things are they were because you weren't being deluged by complaints.

"You can never leave things as they are in this world. We started Twitter almost four years now and most of our time has gone into being able to handle the load and the demand for it. It is such a simple product but it got a lot of people engaged. We have just scratched the surface of what is possible. Our whole point of delivering Twitter is bringing value to people's lives and if we can do more of that, we will do it.

"It's evolve or die and not only that it is exciting and fun to create more and better products. We create this because we like it, we think it is a great product and we think it is going to be valuable for people. We're still just getting started. There is so much more that this lays the foundation for that we just can't wait to do the next stuff."

So what about that next step?

"We will see how this goes, but there is definitely a bunch more stuff in the works."

No, I didn't seriously think he was going to answer that question either.

The growing influence of apps

Maggie Shiels | 08:56 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010

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It is hard to believe that when the first iPhone came out in 2007, the App store did not exist. In fact it was near enough a full year before the App store opened.

On day one it had 500 apps available for download. Today it has over 250,000 and has had more than 6.5 billion downloads.

Asymco, a market intelligence company, earlier this week estimated that with the current download rate at around 17 million apps per day, they are set to outpace music downloads in the very near future:

"As can be seen, the App store has reached the same total downloads in 2.2 years as the Itunes Music Store reached after five years. The two curves are likely to be the same height (around 13 billion each) before the year is over."
Graph showing music and apps downloads

Source: Asymco

While Apple's app store represents quite a big part of the overall picture there are other competitors that are also experiencing healthy growth from Android to Windows marketplace to Nokia's Ovi store.

The second biggest app store is that operated by Getjar. To date it has had over 1.05 billion downloads and supports over 2,000 devices.

Take all of these apps together and it's not hard to see the impact they have had on our lives from keeping us entertained to keeping us informed and from helping us navigate to helping us connect.

Ilja Laurs

The World Economic Forum (WEF), has also recognised that fact and will honour the founder of Getjar, Ilja Laurs as one of 31 technology pioneers at an event in China next week.


Mr Laurs told the BBC that despite being a young and growing sector:

"The Forum recognises that apps have become an important part of our lives. Interestingly the importance of apps is more relevant to the developing world than the developed world. It is here that the proliferation of mobile phones and their importance underlines that part of the story.
 
"They don't have the luxury in many cases to access a desktop computer and the phone is how people access the wired world. The ratio of internet users is nine mobile users to one desktop user. In places like India, the app is the world, is the internet. They don't have anything else."

But Mr Laurs predicts apps will play an even more significant part in our lives as the types of devices change and the number of touchscreens proliferate.

As everything from our fridge to utilities and from coffee machines to the TV becomes connected as part of the internet of things, apps will become even more important and so will the way we interact with them. Mr Laurs reckons that means the traditional search box could one day go the way of the dodo, as least as far as the majority of devices are concerned.

Mr Laurs said:

"This type and menu based experience for phones is not working. People don't like typing on their phones, they like touching and clicking and that is driven by apps. The mobile phone is the beginning and many, many more touch devices are coming. Soon every human will be surrounded by a dozen screens at least and each screen will be a touch screen because it is an interactive screen and the best concept model of how humans have communicated this way to date is the app experience."

Mr Laurs' view of the future is bad news for Google which this week launched Google Instant as a way to take the search experience from the fast lane to the turbo charged lane by offering answers to search queries before users even finish typing.

Mr Laurs added:

"The new paradigm of using online service and offline services is the icon based, touch based apps experience as opposed to this dotcom search based internet experience that requires a keyboard.
 
"The icon for the app, which is a representation of the icon-to-service model, is really starting to replace the dotcom experience or the typing experience where type and search was appropriate for desk tops. That model doesn't work for all these new touch based devices and the app becomes the new model that replaces the dotcom model and in many cases enhances them."

Whatever your view of the future, there is no doubt that clicking on an icon to access a service is a quick and easy way to get to where you want to go to. If Mr Laurs' vision comes to pass, Google and other search engines will have a major job on their hand to ensure the search box maintains its dominance and relevancy.

Other WEF technology pioneers in the IT and new media space include foursquare, Scribd, Reputation Defender and Spotify.

The need for speed with Google Instant

Maggie Shiels | 09:03 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010

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Google Instant is a product that has speed at the very heart of everything it does and where every second counts.

Marissa Mayer in front of Google presentation screen

During its launch at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, the company threw a slew of figures at journalists, analysts and bloggers that showed the average user takes nine seconds to type in a search query and another 15 seconds to choose which result to open.

Google Instant aims to put a rocket under those figures by dishing up results as you type.

In a quick one-letter experiment, when I typed in the letter "A" I was offered a choice of "Amazon, AOL or Apple" on a drop-down list. For "B" I got "Bart (Bay Area Rapid Transport) and Best Buy". "C" was Craisglist and "D" it was DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles).

All very random and quick but Google's head of search Marissa Mayer told me one-letter queries are not the greatest way to yield the best results.

"Typing one letter doesn't give the greatest signal of what is intended so popular companies may well pop up as the offering," said Ms Mayer.

"The first letter game is fun. We call it the alphabet according to Google Instant. It is
actually probably better in terms of an experience if you give us two or three letters. We are able to predict that much better what you are likely to be looking for."

Screengrab of Google search screen

When Ms Mayer typed in "SFM" she got San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is what she was looking for.

Instead of hitting return/enter or clicking the search button, Ms Mayer hit the tab button.

Using Google Instant can shave as little as two seconds and as much as five off a search query. All those seconds add up.

"With Google Instant, we estimate that we'll save our users 11 hours with each passing second!" said Ms Mayer.

If you are interested that is 3.5 billion seconds a day and 350 million hours a year.

Naturally Google wants you to spend all that saved time searching using its search engine and not wandering off to Facebook to get answers through your social graph or going to the likes of Twitter and using its search function.

But seriously, will a second or two here and there really change user behaviour?

Believe it or not, every second really does matter, said Ms Mayer, who told me about a failed experiment back in 1999/2000 that Google conducted into the number of blue links or search results that it delivered.

"We did the experiment and it was disastrous. People who got 20 results by default searched a lot less and people who were getting 30 results were searching 25% less in six weeks."

Ms Mayer said they scratched their heads trying to work out the root of the problem because users had said they actually wanted more links to show up on the page. They poured over the results and the answer was soon revealed in the data.

"We took the logs and tried to understand how the experiment group was different from the control and the answer was time. It took us about 500 milliseconds more to do 30 results instead of 10.
 
"But if you can imagine 500 miliseconds of increased latency is about 25% of Google search traffic over 6 weeks. They probably weren't able to articulate that 500 millisecond difference yet it made a big difference in their overall behaviour. We think speed really matters."

The hyperbole surrounding the launch of Google Instant was impressive. Ms Mayer referred to it as a "fundamental shift" and a "quantum leap" in search.

"There have been other large changes in search. Google PageRank for example, that ability to get first results right in a lot of cases. Our launch of universal search in May 2007 was another such change - this idea we would have mixed media result pages and when we launched we were probably only triggering universal search on 3 to 5 % of queries and today we serve about 40% of our queries with universal results.
 
"When we look at the future of search there are generally three axis these things progress along. Interactions. Comprehensiveness. Understanding.
 
"For a lot of the features and a lot of the changes we make, they really only move forward on one axis at a time. Google Instant is interesting because it actually moves the ball forward on all three of those areas. It is a totally new way of interacting with the search engine."

A number of the analysts and bloggers I spoke to at the event were pretty positive about Google Instant but one or two voiced concern about what it will mean to search engine optimisation - the art or science of choosing the right keywords so a site or link floats to the top of the results page.

Industry watcher Steve Rubel reckons Google Instant is an SEO killer.

"No two people will see the same web. Once a single search would do the trick - and everyone saw the same results. That's what made search engine optimization work. Now, with this, everyone is going to start tweaking their searches in real-time. The reason this is a game changer is feedback. When you get feedback, you change your behaviours."

This means if results for your site are on page two, users who might have previously scrolled through to get the answer they are looking for are unlikely to go past that first page as they alter their search query on the fly.

Matt Cutts at Google who blogs about SEO said Google Instant does not sound the death knell for SEO but it will have an impact.

"I think over time it might. The search results will remain the same for a query, but it's possible that people will learn to search differently over time. For example, I was recently researching a congressperson. With Google Instant, it was more visible to me that this congressperson had proposed an energy plan, so I refined my search to learn more, and quickly found myself reading a post on the congressperson's blog that had been on page 2 of the search results.
 
" But that doesn't mean that SEO will die. I've said it before, but SEO is in many ways about change. The best SEOs recognize, adapt, and even flourish when changes happen."

Of course if you don't like Google Instant, you can always turn it off.

Craigslist's stand over adult services

Maggie Shiels | 12:10 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

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The online marketplace Craigslist surprised everyone when it pulled the plug on its "adult services" listings a few days ago.

Screenshot of Craigslist

For months the site has been in the crosshairs of attorneys general and advocacy groups for operating what has been derided as a virtual bazaar for pimps and human traffickers exploiting women and children.

Last year the San Francisco-based company removed its "erotic services" section and replaced it with a fee-based adult category in response to pressure from 40 state attorneys general.

Now it has removed all of its adult content in an effort to pacify its critics.

It also adopted a policy of manually screening every advert, and in just over a year rejected some 700,000 for failing to meet its standards.

The firm's chief executive Jim Buckmaster has never swayed from the company's reasons for hosting these adverts.

In a May blog post, Mr Buckmaster wrote:

"[W]e are convinced Craigslist is a vital part of the solution to this age old scourge. We've been told as much by experts on the front lines of this fight, many of whom we have met with in person, and many of whom have shared very helpful suggestions that we have incorporated in our approach.
 
"Even politicians looking to make their careers at the expense of Craigslist's good name grudgingly admit (when pressed) that we have made huge strides."

Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft and also a victim of abuse wrote in the Huffington Post that the belief that Craigslist is operating like a digital pimp and should be prosecuted is "faulty logic".

"The problem with this logic is that it fails to account for three important differences: 1) most ISPs have a fundamental business - if not moral - interest in helping protect people; 2) the visibility of illicit activities online makes it much easier to get at, and help, those who are being victimized; and 3) a one-stop-shop is more helpful for law enforcement than for criminals. In short, Craigslist is not a pimp, but a public perch from which law enforcement can watch without being seen."

Craigslist has long maintained that its standards exceeded those set by the rest of the industry, including the back pages of newspapers where "erotic" adverts are commonplace and even on eBay which has endured some unwanted attention for the listings on its Spanish subsidiary LOQUO.

Now the company's decision to pull the ads here in the US, and replace the section with the word "censored" has everyone double-guessing the reasons behind the move.

In truth no-one really knows because Craigslist is a company that does not rush to the nearest TV studio to press its case. Even now, given the months of controversy and intense criticism, the executives at Craigslist have kept their own counsel.

But as they stay mum, everyone else is filling the vacuum - from supporters of the change to detractors and from those that applauded Craigslist's stand in the first place to those that derided it.

Depending on what side of the fence you stand in this debate, the basic consensus is that the company took this action as a protest over first amendment rights, it had had enough of the criticism and haranguing, it wavered under pressure from attorneys general and fear of expensive lawsuits and/or it wanted to protect its bottom line.

According to the Advanced Interactive Media Group, Craigslist's "adult services" section accounts for 30% of the site's estimated $122m 2010 revenue.

The Wall Street Journal maintained that lawsuits were not the issue here. Geoffrey A Fowler wrote:

"In a number of legal challenges, Craigslist and other sites including Yelp have shielded themselves against lawsuits involving content by citing the Communications Decency Act. That federal law has been interpreted to provide sites with blanket immunity for content created by users."

One young woman who had in the past sold her body for sex using the then "erotic services" section of the site has lambasted the company's founder Craig Newmark for its move. Melissa Petro in the Huffington Post wrote:

"I hope to never again make the choice to trade sex for cash even as I risk my current job and social standing to speak out for an individuals' right to do so. The simple fact is that people do have sex for money - many different kinds of people for many different reasons, people as varied as those looking to buy concert tickets, sell a collectible or adopt a pet - and these people will continue to.
 
"Whether the choice to do so is being dignified and protected with its own forum or whether what was once that safe space remains appropriately labelled 'censored', that choice, without a court order one way or another, remains up to Newmark."

Ryan Radia of the Technology Liberation Front said the repercussions are clear:

"Criminals will simply migrate to even shadier websites, further hindering efforts by law enforcement to put child sex traffickers behind bars.
 
"It's 2010, and nearly 5 billion devices worldwide are now connected to the internet - a freely accessible, unfiltered, unauthenticated worldwide network. As long as such a network exists, it's all but inevitable that it will have a seedy underbelly. Law enforcement officials should investigate sex crimes against children committed using the internet and aggressively prosecute suspected child sex traffickers. Trying to intimidate interactive websites like Craigslist, however, is the wrong approach."

Craigslist has in the past asserted that by not having a special area for these adverts to be posted means they will migrate to other parts of the site. That is exactly what seems to be happening.

A cursory glance in the casual encounters section has adverts from a people asking "let's have fun in your van" to "looking for erotic fun and adventure".

Whatever the real reasons for the censorship decision, others are now looking to write the next chapter of this tale.

The Rebecca Project and the Polaris Project, two organisations that have campaigned against sex trafficking of women and children, wants Craigslist to go further and "censor" adverts on its international sites.

"While this is a first good step in the US, there are still more than 250 other Craigslist 'erotic' pages around the world where children and young women are still being sold for sex through Craiglist," said the groups.

They along with other anti-sex trafficking bodies will hold a press conference later today on the issue.

So do you think Craigslist was right to censor the adult services section or do you think it should be re-instated?

A poll on the news blog Mashable showed a majority in favour of not censoring the adverts.

Even the comedian Conan O'Brien has weighed in on the matter and declared on his Twitter feed that "Craigslist has shut down their adult services section. Looks like the 'used futon for sale' ads are about to get a lot more interesting."

Anti-Google campaign on privacy

Maggie Shiels | 09:40 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010

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The public advocacy group Consumer Watchdog is no lover of Google.

It has in fact been a constant thorn in the search giant's side and has set up a special Google website to log and monitor what it sees as its misdeeds as the firm tracks and collects data on us through our search history and browsing habits.

Now Consumer Watchdog has taken it to a whole new level with giant adverts playing on the JumboTron in New York's Times Square. See them here.

Screengrab of InsideGoogle image

Google CEO Eric Schmidt is portrayed as a "perverter of privacy" in the guise of an ice cream man. The animated video shows a caricature of Schmidt giving out free treats to children while at the same time spying on them and collecting information on them.

Consumer Watchdog's president Jaimie Court said the aim of the adverts was to "make the public aware of how out of touch Schmidt and Google are when it comes to our privacy rights. Google knows more about us than most government agencies."

"Google's motto is 'don't be evil' and the way Eric Schmidt has been talking lately proves he has not been living up to that standard."

Specifically Mr Court is referring to Mr Schmidt's recent comments about privacy and online behaviour.

"Schmidt is out of control," said Mr Court.

"When questioned about privacy, he has said, 'If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.' Recently, he suggested children could change their names when they got older if they wanted to escape what was embarrassing and public in their online lives."

As well as deriding Google and its CEO in this 540ft video screen in one of America's most populous squares, Consumer Watchdog has a serious message about online privacy in general. It wants Congress to implement a "do not track me" list that prevents Google and any other internet company from tracking users' every move online.

The list would work just like the "do not call list" which has been pretty successful at stopping those annoying marketing phone calls you get just as you are about to sit down for dinner/put the baby in the bath/read the toddler a book/or enjoy a sip of wine.

Google has taken quite a bit of heat lately over privacy. Its own admission that its Street View cars had mistakenly collected snippets of information leaking from unprotected networks in people's homes resulted in criticism from privacy advocates around the world.

Google's foray into social networking with its product Buzz also lead to unwanted headlines about a cavalier attitude towards privacy.

But as the Wall Street Journal points out, Consumer Watchdog is not above reproach. The group claimed that the Street view cars could have collected national security information from members of Congress but the Journal pointed out that it made the "allegations after sitting outside the homes of the members itself and sniffing for unsecured traffic".

Google's response to the advert is sanguine.

"We like ice cream as much as anyone, but we like privacy even more," Google said in response to the BBC.

"That's why we provide tools for users to control their privacy online, like Google Dashboard, Ads Preference Manager, Chrome incognito mode and 'off the record' Gmail chat."

The California-based internet Titan said that information about its privacy tools can be found online at google.com/privacy.

Apple heats up living room TV war

Maggie Shiels | 09:21 UK time, Thursday, 2 September 2010

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The battle for the living room has been heating up for a while; now that Apple has reloaded its weapons, the fight just got more interesting.

Steve Jobs

In the past, Apple co-founder and chief exec Steve Jobs has been a little dismissive of Apple TV, referring to it as a "hobby". He made light of that at Apple's autumn event in San Francisco, then moved to elevate the product and stuck a hard-to-beat $99 (£64) price tag on it.

Apple TV will also stream shows for 99 cents (64p), as well as a collection of HD movies for $4.99 (£3.24).

"Apple wants the living room and they are not ceding this market to anyone," says Michael Gartenberg, partner with research firm Altimeter Group:

"They need to change that consumer behaviour for TV watching, which is a 50-year-old activity that hasn't really changed. With Apple TV, they are looking to change it, evolve it and get the price point so it becomes more of an impulse purchase. And with their marketing and retail muscle, they have a good shot at driving this forward."
Apple TV

Mr Jobs also acknowledged that to date Apple TV has been a bit of a flop. OK, he didn't quite say that: but he did say that it had "never been a huge hit".

He added that the company had learned many lessons including the fact that people want Hollywood movies and TV shows and professional content. What they don't want, he said, is "Amateur Hour" - which is clearly a swipe at Google and YouTube.

Google laid bare its plans for the so-called third screen back in May by announcing an internet-focused TV in partnership with Sony, Intel, Dish Network and Logitech. The Sony-made sets are due to go on sale in the autumn.

In July, YouTube unveiled a product called Leanback which is in beta. It is aimed at creating a single channel that puts the user front and centre by streaming videos constantly while trying to learn what he or she likes so that it can customise the offering.

On the day that Apple held its launch, Amazon threw its hat into the ring with the news in the Wall Street Journal that it is working on a new subscription service that would deliver TV shows and movies over the internet.

And Sony did likewise at the IFA technology fair in Berlin with an offering that is set to challenge iTunes.

Content is always king in this kind of conflict; while Apple has only signed up ABC and Fox in terms of studios, Mr Jobs said he is confident others will soon follow.

"We think the rest of the studios will see the light and get on board pretty fast with us," he told attendees.

Analyst Mike McGuire of research firm Gartner says that, based on Apple's past performances, such an assertion is hard to disagree with:

"What I have been telling people is go back to the very first press release for the iTunes store in April of 2003. It is kind of quaint because they started with 500,000 tracks which wasn't representative of the entire catalogue of all the major labels.
 
"It won't happen with Apple TV overnight, but it will shift and I really think the studios won't have a choice but to start playing with this."

His colleague Van Baker isn't so sure Apple TV will be victorious, but he grants that, for consumers, the price is compelling.

"I think it stays a hobby for a while but it is going to be a much bigger hobby because, let's face it, $99 beats $299 hands-down - and if the other networks come around, I absolutely agree it moves beyond being a hobby."

So as web companies elbow their way in to control entertainment in the living room, what does this mean for the traditional players?

BK Yoon, Samsung's president of visual display business unit, didn't seem too disconcerted by the increased competition when I spoke to him earlier in the week:

"We are in the transitional period where we are witnessing a shift in the TV paradigm and I do believe we are at a starting point of seeing companies try to control the living room."

While Samsung may be the leader in TV sales, it is betting that smart connected TVs and 3DTV will be the next big thing: a two-pronged attack. But this week at its first-ever TV developers' conference in the US, Mr Yoon put the emphasis on persuading developers to develop apps for this nascent marketplace.

"When we talk about TV, it is something that the consumer perceives they just watch - but when we look at the smartphone, it is a much more personalised experience.
 
"The TV usually sits in the living room and it is for the whole family. So it is a very different environment, but when it is about 2012, I think we will see a much bigger change in attitude towards smart TVs."

Mr Yoon said he recognises that apps have been crucial to the growth of the smartphone market and he believes the same will be true for his company's smart-TV proposition.

Samsung is currently offering 87 apps in the US from the likes of Blockbuster, Hulu, Cinema Now and Amazon. The company has also developed a TV app with ESPN to give richer content like player statistics during a sports game. It is also working with Dreamworks on an app that will debut next month to show 3D movie trailers.

Samsung's aim is to have a stock of around 200 apps by the end of the year: a long way from Apple's App Store of 250,000. Co-founder Steve Wozniak said he likes both approaches:

"I was at Samsung's event and I am close to them for different reasons. They build it right into the TV, so there is the convenience factor - one less step. So I wouldn't rule out smart TVs.
 
"But remember stereos, where you could by all-in-one or different components. As far as the component device, Apple TV - you can use it on any display. Will it dominate? I don't know. But the formula for how the world is going to move to digital TV, I think it is finally here."

The stakes are high and Apple's reinvigorated entry has upped the ante a little.

Andrew Eisner, director of community and content at consumer electronics recommendation site Retrevo said that from a Silicon Valley perspective, there are two clear contenders set to duke it out:

"Again this is all about the apps. Apps make the world go round and everybody is interested in apps. Google is also interested in apps and this is another part of the war with Google for the living room.
 
"Personally I think as people migrate to getting their information from apps rather than going through a search engine, it is an area of concern for Google. People will get their stock prices and weather reports from an app rather than a search engine. Of course Google could address that too with their TV efforts."

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