Tag Archive | tc

BlackBerry Lays Off 250 Employees From Its New Product Testing And R&D Department

blackberry-q5-keys

Layoffs at Waterloo-based smartphone industry pioneer BlackBerry cut deep last year, with around 5,000 employees being let go. Those cuts continue into 2013 as BlackBerry undergoes what CEO Thorsten Heins called a “complex transition” earlier this month, and the latest is that 250 employees of its core R&D and new product testing facility have been let go as of earlier this week, as confirmed by Canada’s CTV News and by BlackBerry itself to TechCrunch.

That number pales in comparison to some of the massive cuts that came in big batches last year, including one 3,000 person block in August 2012. Last year, however, BlackBerry reportedly told its employees that if they were working on services or projects key to BlackBerry 10, they’d mostly likely be safe. These cuts appear to be closer to the bone, however, coming as they do at the heart of BlackBerry’s innovation efforts, which is why it’s perhaps more worrying for the company’s overall outlook than the big sweeping trimming of potentially redundant or sub-optimal departments last year.

BlackBerry is saying the change to employee count is all about efficiency, in a statement provided to TechCrunch (included in full below), but it’s hard to see a big batch of layoffs so near to R&D, which should be the lifeblood of any technology company, as a good sign. Heins’ strategy of cost-cutting and efficiency has helped BlackBerry manage to stay relatively strong on revenue, however, and to keep a healthy cash reserve on hand.

BlackBerry has a number of products in the pipeline, apparently, including the leaked A10 (and the somewhat unimpressive Q5), a new touchscreen flagship that’s rumored to be launched later this year. But that device looks to be quite far along already; this fresh report of staffing changes begs the question of how much more new hardware we have left to see beyond that.

The full statement from BlackBerry’s Lisette Kwong follows:

I can confirm on the record, that BlackBerry on Tuesday informed 250 employees of their termination in Waterloo. These employees were part of the New Product Testing Facility, a department that supports BlackBerry’s manufacturing and R&D efforts.

This is part of the next stage of our turnaround plan to increase efficiencies and scale our company correctly for new opportunities in mobile computing. We will be as transparent as possible as those plans evolve.

Microsoft Launches IE11 Developer Preview For Windows 7, Updates Modern.IE With New Tools

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Almost exactly a month ago, Microsoft launched Internet Explorer 11 as part of the Windows 8.1 preview and today, it is also launching a developer preview of IE11 for Windows 7.

Sandeep Singhal, Microsoft’s group program manager for IE, told me earlier this week that IE11 for Windows 7 will bring all of the advances of IE11 for Windows 8.1 to users of Microsoft’s older operating system. One area Microsoft has focused on with this release is speed, including a much-improved JavaScript engine and a stronger emphasis on GPU hardware acceleration for 2D and 3D content, including fonts, JPG images and WebGL-based experiences.

IE11 is Microsoft’s first browser to embrace the WebGL standard for accessing the computer’s GPU for rendering advanced 2D and 3D experiences. As Microsoft’s senior program manager for IE Frank Olivier told me, his team has worked hard to ensure that WebGL in IE (both on Windows 7 and 8.1) is as safe as possible and can’t crash the system (it does, after all, allow very low-level access to your hardware). Indeed, Olivier showed me a demo that stressed IE11 s WebGL implementation to the point where it crashes. IE11 handles this situation gracefully and simply restarts its WebGL core as needed.

To show off IE11 s WebGL features, the company teamed up with GlacierWorks, a site that aims to raise awareness about the effect of climate change in the Himalayas, to add more WebGL content to its site.

Fast, But Not SPDY On Windows 7

All of these features will also be available to Windows 7 users and Singhal expects the Windows 7 version to offer virtually the same performance as on the new operating system. One feature Microsoft doesn’t bring to Windows 7, though, is support for Google’s SPDY networking protocol.

As for Windows 8, Microsoft tells me that it will ship IE11 with the free Windows 8.1 upgrade. Microsoft clearly expects most Windows 8 users to upgrade to 8.1 and it doesn’t look like it plans to make IE11 available as a standalone download for 8.

With today’s update for Windows 7, Microsoft is also updating modern.IE, its site for tools and resources for developing for IE. The site now features virtual machines for testing IE11 on Windows 8.1 and Windows 7, as well as a new screenshot tool that lets you see how your sites look across different browsers and devices. For a limited time, Microsoft is also offering developers a 25 percent discount on Parallels for Mac so they can run these virtual machines. IE11 itself, it’s worth noting, also includes a number of updated developer tools.


Study: Apps and Content Startups Miss Out Because Affiliate Model Is Broken

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 15.21.14

Skimlinks, the platform which gives publishers greater control over affiliate links and content monetization, releases some major research today which could well concentrate the minds of online “publishers”, and that includes apps, startups and bloggers.

It’s white paper reveals that while editorial or social websites can point a user towards a product they might go on to buy, publishers rarely receive the financial reward for doing so because of problems with the “Last Click” attribution model used in affiliate marketing. Now, while the study is clearly a ploy to get apps and content publishers to run their affiliate programs through Skimlinks rather than through traditional affiliate platforms, the research itself does bear examination.

The study found that content sites were the first place users read about a product 27% of the time, and were in the first quarter of the user’s path to purchase 36% of the time. And when a user started their journey to a purchase with a content site, she or he was a new customer 55% of the time. However, content sites were the Last Click only 6% of the time and 94% of the time, the content affiliate was NOT awarded the sale. Plus, 65% of the time when a content site is the first click in a purchase journey, sparking purchase intent, another channel is the last click, taking all the credit for the sale.

They also found that content sites drove nearly 30% more new customers to brand sites than the average of all other channels. In addition, when consumers started reading about a product on a content site their desire to purchase grew over time: in this case, 9% of the sales would occur within one hour, 16% within 24 hours and 31% happened within 3 days.

In other words, if online marketers shifted their affiliate strategy away from the Last Click attribution model towards online publishers, apps and social sites, they’d basically get faster and more robust sales.

This would be music to the ears of many social and content sites.

Alicia Navarro, CEO and co-founder of Skimlinks says: “The general view is that better attribution is required – that distributes the cost-per-acquisition across multiple parties responsible for creating and driving purchase intent. By only remunerating the last-click publisher, you create the wrong incentives, and end up with a ton of low-value deal/coupon sites, rather than rich apps and content, who have less incentive to link out to merchants because they don’t get paid for top-of-funnel activity via affiliate marketing.”

Ryan Jones of Shop Direct, where the study was based, points out that it’s a two-way street: “Retailers are probably missing out on exposure as commercially savvy content sites tend to promote the brands they earn more from.”

For the research Skimlinks analyzed data provided by Shop Direct’s ecommerce site, Very.co.uk, which spanned all orders between July and November 2012 that included a click from a Skimlinks content site.

Skimlinks clients include Conde Nast, Gawker, AOL Europe, WordPress, Hearst Digital, Haymarket Consumer Media, Telegraph Media Group, among others.

Skimlinks’ main competitors are the Google-backed VigLink and the seed-backed startup Yieldkit. This year it completed an undisclosed growth financing round led by Greycroft Partners and others.

Dorm Room Fund-Backed Skillbridge Is A Freelance Marketplace For High-End Professional Services

Skillbridge logo

A startup called Skillbridge is trying to create a new kind of marketplace for freelance work – not for the programming and writing jobs that you’d find on a site like Elance, but for strategy, finance, marketing and other professional services.

The company is announcing today that it has been backed by First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund, the firm’s student-run investment arm that offers mentorship and $20,000 in funding to each company. (Skillbridge is also part of Highland Capital’s summer incubator and the MassChallenge accelerator..)

Co-founders Brett Lewis and Raj Jeyakumar have worked as consultants themselves – Lewis, for example, spent nearly three years at Bain & Company. They’re both recent graduates of Wharton Business School, and they said that when they were students, they wanted to use their experience for freelance work. However, they discovered that it was incredibly difficult to actually find interested companies, so they created Skillbridge to match qualified workers with businesses looking for professional services.

Lewis outlined the vision in a post for the Wharton Entrepreneurship Blog, where he said that the United States’ freelancers have grown from 6 percent of the total workforce in 1990 to 20 to 30 percent now: “Elance, an early talent marketplace, has focused on low-end providers of technology and creative talent. Yet the biggest growth trends are in areas of financial planning and analysis, accounting and legal strategy, where only behemoth white-shoe firms have dominated until now.”

Lewis and Jeyakumar said their core talent base consists of stay-at-home parents and graduate students who have either an MBA or at least three years of experience at a finance or consulting firm. These are people who either aren’t in a position to work full-time or aren’t interested, but they are willing to take on smaller projects or part-time work with flexible hours. And by hiring these workers, companies don’t have to pay for the overhead of a traditional consulting firm.

Not that Skillbridge is trying to replace the big firms. Jeyakumar compared them to Ferraris: “There will always be a need for Ferraris, but there are people for whom a BMW is just fine.” If the BMW doesn’t seem like much of a compromise, that’s Jeyakumar’s point. With Skillbridge, companies that probably couldn’t afford to hire a traditional consulting firm can still pay for high-quality work. He added that there’s already been interest in companies ranging from “pre-revenue startups that need help with market sizing for their pitch decks” to large e-commerce organizations.

The company supposedly delivers a “highly curated” experience, where it provides customers with templates for work requests, identifies two or three of the best matches that they can choose from, and helps to create milestones for the project to ensure that things stay on track. It’s currently in beta testing, with plans for a full launch later this year.

Amazon Cloud Drive Photos App Expands To Support Video Upload & Playback On Android

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Amazon Cloud Drive Photos, the photo-uploading utility that helps move photos from a mobile device into Amazon’s online storage, may have to change its name. Now, the tool doesn’t just support photo uploads, it supports videos, as well. Videos can be manually uploaded one by one, or users can opt to have videos auto-save from their devices directly into Amazon’s cloud.

This automatic upload option was already available for photos through an update out at the beginning of the year, but videos within Cloud Drive Photos had not yet been supported, whether manually or through the auto-upload feature within the application.

Amazon says that videos are restricted to 2 GB in size or 20 minutes in length, whether they’re being uploaded or downloaded from the Cloud Drive service – that’s slightly longer than YouTube’s default setting ahead of account verification. This is fine for the majority of users’ personal videos, of activities, pets, kids or events, for example, recorded on their mobile devices.

After the files are in Amazon’s cloud, the video can be played back to any device, including, of course, the Kindle Fire and other Android tablets. According to a post on Amazon’s Web Services blog about the technical underpinnings to the new feature, Amazon’s Elastic Transcoder service was used, which supports over 20 file formats and 40 video codecs. The team says its goal was to have videos transcoded within 15 minutes after uploading, but ended up achieving videos that are often ready within a minute or two. They also went ahead and processed all the videos stored in Amazon users’ Cloud Drive libraries ahead of launch.

Though the company offers a version of its Amazon Cloud Drive Photos app on iOS devices, too, only the Android version has received the video support at this time. That makes sense because not only is the Kindle and Android-based tablet, and therefore Amazon’s priority, the Android app was also the first to launch, back in November 2012.

The iOS version didn’t arrive until this May, and it serves as a viable alternative to Apple’s own iCloud sync and storage service, with reasonable pricing of 5 GB for free, then $10/year for 20 GB, $25/year for 50 GB and so on, all the way up to 1,000 GB for $500/year. Keep in mind that the storage goes up so high not because users need so much space for photos (and now videos, too), but because Amazon Cloud Drive is meant to serve as a competitor to Google Drive or Dropbox, with support for a variety of file types, including office documents and music, which can also be streamed back through Amazon Cloud Player.

In other words, this isn’t the first time users could upload videos to Amazon’s cloud. This is just making it possible to do so within the Cloud Drive Photos application.

The updated Cloud Drive app is available now on Google Play and Amazon’s Appstore.

London, We Want To See You At Our Pitch-Off+Meetup On Monday

european-vacation-roundabout

In preparation for TechCrunch Disrupt Europe I’ve been running around the Continent for more than a month, hitting the Balkans for a huge tour and Warsaw for an amazing meet-up. Now I’m back for a meet up+pitch-off with our own Mike Butcher and the rest of the UK team. Tickets are free so grab yours now.

There will be great networking opportunities, and a battle to the death to see which entrepreneurs can dazzle and excite in under 60 seconds.

PitchOff details:

LONDON INFO HERE

  • Participants interested in competing in the pitch-off will have 60 seconds to explain why their startup is awesome. These products must currently be in stealth or private beta.Application form for London is here or simply enter below.

    ONLY FILL OUT **ONE** APPLICATION.


Office hours details

  • Office Hours are for companies selected for the Pitch-off, these 15 minute 1 on 1 talks will be held on the day of the event. We’ll hear about your company, give feedback, and talk about the best pitch strategy for the 60-second rapid-fire competition. More information on Office Hours will follow in a post on TechCrunch.

Pitch-off winners

  • We will have 3 judges who will decide on the winners of the PitchOff. First place will receive a table in Startup Alley at the upcoming TechCrunch Disrupt Europe in Berlin. Second Place will receive 2 tickets to the upcoming TechCrunch Disrupt. Third Place will receive 1 ticket to the upcoming TechCrunch Disrupt.

Venue in London

  • Ground Floor – CAMPUS LONDON, 4-5 Bonhill Street, London EC2A 4BX
  • Event runs from 3 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. on Monday July 29th, 2013
  • We will de-camp to a local bar afterwards, sponsors welcome to support (email sponsors@techcrunch.com)

Remember we are holding our Berlin meetup later this week so if you don’t want to wing your way North we’ll come to you. Application form for Berlin is here.

Questions about the events? Please contact: events@techcrunch.com.

How To Become A Sponsor

  • For more information on sponsorship packages and to discuss becoming a sponsor, please contact sponsors@techcrunch.com.

And whether you’re an investor, entrepreneur, dreamer or tech enthusiast, we want to see you at the event, so we can give you free beer and hear your thoughts. Come one, come all.

Wunderlist Pro Gets File Sharing And Business Plan Pricing As Wunderlist Nears 5M Users

wunderlist-pro-files

Berlin-based 6Wunderkinder is adding more features to its new Wunderlist Pro paid tier of service today, answering the number one request of its users with the addition of file upload and sharing. Users can add files to tasks and synchronize them across devices and team members for collaboration purposes. That, along with newly introduced pricing plans for Wunderlist Pro aimed at businesses, should help growth of the revenue-driving service skyrocket, says 6Wunderkinder founder and CEO Christian Reber.

“We had large corporations contacting us the first day we launched Wunderlist pro and ask us ‘Can we use this in our business, what can I do to sign up my entire team of 250 people?,’ etc.” he said in an interview. “That was exciting for us but unfortunately we didn’t have the business accounts yet, we didn’t have the dashboard to manage those people.” This change will help them sign on these new customers who have just been waiting for an opportunity to get on the platform.

The changes today aren’t only aimed at business customers big and small, however; Reber says that file sharing is something that should appeal across its user base, and drive up the value perception even for individual Wunderlist users who have been considering the paid option. “We think that files is a feature that everyone wants, and we think that we will see a very high conversion rate of free users to premium users also, because it’s a feature that everyone just asked us to build,” Reber explained.

Reber says they “quadrupled” their own internal expectations for new user growth with the introduction of Wunderlist Pro. The entire user base of nearly 5 million Wunderlist users (including free and paid) is around 29 percent U.S.-based, he said, but 40 percent of the paid customers come from the States. Over 40 percent of paying customers are businesses, too, which is why the business plan rollout is designed to unlock more of that potential market.

Ultimately, 6Wunderkind’s strategy is to become just as essential and widespread a productivity tool as a Dropbox or an Evernote, Reber tells me. Those have validated their business model, he says, though they target a completely different market. The aim is to grow from a simple to-do list to more full-featured collaboration software, while retaining focus on both individuals and business customers, instead of just one or the other.

Reber wasn’t ready to share specifics about conversion rates on Wunderlist Pro just yet, but he says that 6Wunderkinder does plan to be much more transparent about that kind of data with future releases, since it believes there’s value in showing other startups how it’s doing building a business, so expect to see more granular detail about how Wunderlist’s monetization strategy is working out in the near future.

Uber Looking To Raise An Uber Round Of Funding Led By TPG, At A $3.5B Valuation

uber logo

On-demand car service Uber is looking to raise another big round of funding, this time led by private equity firm Texas Pacific Group we’re hearing. And so is Dan Primack. And Liz Gannes. The round is expected to be between $150 million and $200 million, at a valuation of about $3.5 billion. The round hasn’t closed yet, but it’s close to being completed, or so our sources say.

The funding comes as Uber is growing fast, expanding into new territories and adding lower cost services. AllThingsD reports that the company is expected to pull in $125 million in revenue this year, which is higher than had been expected.

Uber is now available in more than 35 cities around the world with its on-demand black car service. But it’s quickly adding lower-cost options in many of those markets. In several cities, that means lower-cost hybrid cars taking passengers, while in others, the company is partnering with local taxi companies to use its e-hail service. With the funding, it will likely expand even more quickly.

TPG isn’t your typical tech investor, although it has held stakes in companies like SurveyMonkey and Travelocity parent company Sabre Holdings. But it has done a fair amount of investing in travel and leisure companies, including a number of airlines and hospitality businesses.

On that front, Uber seems like a good fit, as it’s not your typical tech investment. The company is looking to disrupt the urban transportation industry, which has been stifled by decades of regulation. But it’s also built a logistical framework that could be used for any number of things: in the past it’s experimented with barbecue and ice cream delivery, and it’s even been used to order canal boats in Amsterdam and water taxis in Sydney.

Google Ventures is also expected to be an investor in the round, according to Gannes and Primack, though we hadn’t heard about that.

Uber has raised $57 million since being founded in 2009. Its most recent funding round was for $37 million in late 2011, and came from investors that included Menlo Ventures, Jeff Bezos, Goldman Sachs, Benchmark, CrunchFund*, and Troy Carter. Other investors include Benchmark Capital, First Round Capital, Lowercase Capital, Founder Collective, and a whole bunch of angels.

Uber, TPG, and Google Ventures all declined to comment for this story.

==
* DISCLOSURE: Some time ago, Michael Arrington founded TechCrunch. Later, he founded CrunchFund. And at some point after that, CrunchFund wrote a check to invest in Uber. But that all has nothing to do with why I’m writing this story about someone else possibly writing a check to invest in Uber.

Home 3D Printers Emit Some Nasty Stuff, Researchers Find

Image (2) full-color-3d-printing.jpg for post 133037

Home 3D printers – particularly FDM, Makerbot-like devices – are still in their infancy and, as such, are untested when it comes to safety. That’s why some researchers at the Built Environment Research Group at the Illinois Institute of Technology decided to test a popular model for ultrafine particle emissions, a measure of how much junk these things emit while in use.

The result? PLA, a starch-based material, emitted 20 billion particles per minute while ABS, a plastic, emitted 200 billion. This is similar in scale to using a gas stove, lighting a cigarette, or burning a scented candle. In short, it’s a significant bit of potential pollution in an unfiltered environment but it’s nothing we don’t do to ourselves on a daily basis already.

The study didn’t take into account what materials were being expelled, which makes it a bit more troubling. For example, according to PhysOrg, ABS is known to be toxic in lab rats but PLA, oddly enough, is used in nanotechnology for the delivery of medicines.

What’s the takeaway? Ventilate your 3D printer.

Because most of these devices are currently sold as standalone devices without any exhaust ventilation or filtration accessories, results herein suggest caution should be used when operating in inadequately ventilated or unfiltered indoor environments. Additionally, these results suggest that more controlled experiments should be conducted to more fundamentally evaluate particle emissions from a wider arrange of desktop 3D printers.

Obviously these devices are designed for home and office use and probably will never end up under a lab-grade ventilation hood. However, given the various processes used to make 3D objects, it’s important that this research is done to reduce the effects of UFPs on children who may be using these in schools as well as the teachers, designers, and makers who use them on a daily basis.

You can read the entire paper here or just turn on a fan.
via Physorg

A Year In The Making, Machine Zone Launches Game of War, An Impressively Large MMO For iOS

WorldMap-War

While iOS games started out as either simple physics or casual simulation titles when the platform launched about five years ago, the bar has gotten steadily higher and more hard-core. Midcore studios like Kabam started to rise in prominence.

Now the iOS platform might be seeing is most hardcore title to date – a very, very massive multi-player title from YC- and Menlo Ventures-backed Machine Zone.

The company, which started out doing text-based RPGs a couple years ago like iMob, is launching Game of War: Fire Age. It’s a title where players build and grow empires, train massive armies, forge alliances with other players to win kingdoms.

The game can handle hundreds of thousands of players concurrently in the same universe, which is not an easy technical feat. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, in contrast, typically handles a few thousand players simultaneously in a single realm. All movement on the game’s map is visible to everyone else.

“We wanted to take the company to the next level and be really ambitious,” said Machine Zone CEO Gabriel Leydon. “We decided to build some things that had never been done before. We had the capital to do it and the willpower.”

Leydon didn’t hire just typical game designers to build the title. He also found people who had experience in scaling massive systems. The game’s user interface is in HTML5 and is rendered natively, allowing the company to handle different screen sizes.

The other really cool thing about the game’s social capabilities is that there is a mechanical turk-like translation system where the players themselves translate chat in exchange for virtual currency rewards. That helps Game of War have really interactive play with a proper critical mass of users who can talk to each other, even if they don’t speak the same language. The in-game chat system helps Game of War get manage slang and gamer speak, which a third-party translation system probably wouldn’t handle correctly. If say, 50 players translate the same words in the same way, then the game will start using that translation automatically.

“It’s like a highly structured Facebook,” Leydon said. “My goal as a game designer was to create a feeling of what it would be to be a king, where you’d have a lot of people under you. You’d have to subjects, wealth and land.”

Assuming say, the game grows to 1 million players, there might only be 20 kings in the game. To reach that level, players have to woo others to form alliances with them. Within those alliances, there are ranks for different officers.

“This is a very hardcore game. This is not Candy Crush,” he said. “This is a complex system with a lot of potential trees of outcomes. If you’re the type of person that’s fascinated by systems like this, then this is for you.”

Machine Zone used to be known as Addmired, and rebranded last year when it took $8 million in funding from Menlo Ventures. Leydon said this is what the company took the round for, even though its older titles like Original Gangstaz and iMob 2 were pretty lucrative early on.


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