Monthly Archives: March 2013

Google Introduces “Gmail Blue” – It's Completely Blue, Because Brown Was a “Disaster”



The Google April Fool’s train continues with the announcement of “Gmail Blue.” Yes, it’s a version of Google’s email service where everything is the color blue. The YouTube one from earlier was OK, and the Nose one was just so-so, but I’d actually use this product if it existed, especially since it took six years to “develop the technology.”

Can you imagine something like this actually happening? Some people flipped out about the new compose screen becoming the default, so they’d lose their mind if Google changed all of the colors in the email service.

The real bit of news here? Gmail turns nine tomorrow. Yes, we’re all old.

The video for Gmail Blue is pretty damn hilarious and worth checking out:

I can’t help but wonder if this is a not-so-subtle poke at Facebook, which of course is well-known for having the color blue all over the place within its apps and site. One of our readers, Edd Friedman, smartly suggested in the comments that this could be Google making fun of Microsoft Windows Blue. Makes sense. Regardless, hearing Googlers have a sense of humor about themselves and their “moonshot thinking” was enjoyable.

Get ready for more April 1st funnery from Google, and the rest of the Internet, tomorrow.

The Weekly Good: KULA Helps You Turn Loyalty Points, Rewards And Miles Into Charitable Donations



[Editor’s Note: This is a weekly series. If your company is doing something amazing to help a charitable cause or doing some good in your community, please reach out.]

It seems like every time we make purchases online or in a store, we’re collecting some sort of points or rewards. For the most part, those points go unused, mostly because the companies who give them out don’t do a great job of explaining what you can actually do with them.

You know the drill, you purchase a video game and you get some GameStop points that you can use after you purchase three more games, or something along those lines. Inevitably, you forget to use them when the time comes or you refuse to sign up to get their card.

A company called KULA Causes wants to point those points, rewards and frequent flyer miles to good use — for charity. KULA converts those points into actual currency, spreading goodwill all over the world.

According to the research firm Colloquy, at least $16B worth of reward points and miled went unredeemed in 2011 alone. KULA has built a service to turn those unused rewards into cash contributions for over 2.5M causes around the world. By working with brands on building this three-way bridge between companies, causes and consumers, KULA is making a real difference in over 80 countries all over the world. Since there are so many causes in KULA’s database, it’s easy to find a few that you really care about, and then you’re motivated to put your unclaimed rewards to good use.

KULA calls the process “democratized transactional giving,” which the company hopes will build goodwill between companies and consumers, even if the reward points that someone has collected aren’t used by them for in-store purchases. The company was founded in 2010 and has raised $1.6M to date.

It’s up to the companies to integrate KULA into their reward offerings, but it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

The company also has a great blog called “The Currency Of Giving” that is worth a read. The mixing of companies focusing on both profitability and non-profit programs is an important one, as consumers do care more about companies that do social good.

Would you give your points and rewards away for charity?

Ambitious Startups Could Signal The Coming Of A Second Space Age



In late March, the American Geophysical Union announced that the Voyager I space probe became the first man-made object to leave our solar system. Just a few hours later though, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory shot down that claim noting that the tell-tale sign of hitting interstellar space (a “a change in the direction of the magnetic field”) hasn’t been detected yet.

Still, this whole thing got me thinking: NASA launched Voyager I in 1972 to peer more closely at the outer planets. By late 1980, the probe had completed its tour of Jupiter and Saturn and made a gravity-assisted beeline for the edge of the solar system. In the 40 or so years that Voyager has toured the outer fringes of the solar system, our focus on space has grown more limited, and in many ways it’s a new breed of space-based startups that are helping to spark imaginations the way NASA has done for decades.

You see, back on Earth, some people are looking to the heavens with renewed vigor — emphasis on “some.” There’s still plenty of work to be done in low Earth orbit, with SpaceX and a handful of other companies crafting and perfecting their cargo-ferrying space taxis for trips to the International Space Station. But the U.S. government’s drive to search out newer and farther frontiers in space has been seemingly tempered by political pragmatism and a dearth of available funds.

Ventures like Curiosity’s Mars landing were highlights in the history of space science and exploration, but these days NASA can’t even maintain its public outreach programs thanks to recent budget cuts.

That’s why the promise of privately operated space startups is so captivating: national priorities have shifted since the sixties, but that hasn’t kept some ambitious entrepreneurs from almost literally reaching for the stars. SpaceX founder Elon Musk famously noted that he hoped to establish a full-fledged colony on Mars, and at least one mildly kooky organization is looking to get people living and working on the Red Planet as soon as possible by way of a televised spectacle meant to raise funds and select the first batch of Martian astronauts. Mars isn’t the only floating hunk of rock that entrepreneurs are currently eying up, either. A startup called (unimaginatively enough) Planetary Resources has received backing from some serious names and aims to explore/hopefully mine nearby asteroids for precious materials with a fleet of specialized robots.

It’s not as though every space startup has ambitions as wild-eyed as those listed above. Altius Space Machines took home the top at NewSpace 2011′s business plan contest for its vision of simplifying the process of wrangling out-of-control satellites and the like. Meanwhile, SpaceGround Amalgam won that same prize a year later for its inflatable antenna concept — they fold up for easy storage during launch, and can inflate and harden once in orbit. These sorts of less-flashy startups are just as important as SpaceX and Planetary Resources — should their long term visions pan out, they could help lay the groundwork (spacework?) for more majestic, horizon-expanding ventures to come. Even the Startup Weekend guys are getting into it: the very first SW event dedicated solely to space is slated to kick off in late May with the goal of coaxing would-be space entrepreneurs into cooking up the next great space startup.

Some of the plans above sound like spurious tales of science fiction, pages ripped from a pulp novel, but they shouldn’t be immediately discounted just for that. I suppose the notion that a device of mankind’s creation would break free from the influence of the sun would’ve sounded like science fiction a few decades ago, so who’s to say what the next few years will bring.

Speaking of the next few years, Voyager doesn’t have much longer to live. At the probe’s current rate of power consumption, it has enough juice in its plutonium-powered generators to keep it going until about 2020, when NASA will begin to remotely shut down Voyager’s instruments one by one. Ultimately, Voyager will continue to drift in the sea of interstellar space, but humanity will lose contact with its most far-flung explorer in short order — here’s hoping that some savvy startups help to kick off a second Space Age before then.

What Does A Ghost Smell Like? Google Nose.



Google is shutting down YouTube? Good riddance! There hasn’t been a video worth watching since Paula Abdul’s Opposites Attract anyway.

With the announcement of their newest totally real project, Google is making it clear that they know where the future of online entertainment really is: smells. Meet Google Nose.

With Google Nose, you’ll be able to stop and smell the roses without having to stop a damned thing.

So, how can you take part in on Google’s new olfactory odyssey? It’s easy! You don’t even to tweet at Google in hopes that you’ll win the opportunity to give them a pile of money for the appropriate hardware. You’ve already got the appropriate hardware! Just Google for your scent of choice (be it a wet dog, a cracklin’ campfire, or the gym), tap the “smell” button, and sniff away. Google will “intersect photons with infrasound waves” to emulate the requested aroma. That, my friends, is science.

If it doesn’t work right away, just lean closer and keep on sniffin’ — like many a Google product that came before it, this one is in Beta. (And, like many a Google product that came before it, they’ll probably kill it off in about 2 weeks)

[I’m pretty sure we’ll have a running list of April Fool’s gags tomorrow (it is tradition, after all), but this one is hittin’ early enough and got a hearty enough laugh out of me that it’s worthy of its own post.

Plus, it had me contemplating what the hell a ghost would smell like for at least 5 minutes.]

Facebook's Android Homescreen Could Expose Apple's Inflexibility



The mainstream has had little reason to care that Android gives developers much more customization freedom than iOS. But if Facebook’s fabled Android homescreen is a hit, the stubbornness of Apple’s closed mobile platform could be framed as a drawback after years of its cohesive design and ease being seen as assets.

Cheapness and handset/carrier choice are two of the biggest factors convincing people to pick up Android phones today. There’s its premier integration of Google’s app suite and the “rebel without an iPhone” attitude too. But Android’s flexibility for app developers has been more of a selling point for geeks and early adopters than for the average Joe.

Meanwhile, the straight forward “it just works” aspect of iOS that leans on its rigidity has made it a popular introduction to smartphones for hundreds of millions of people. There just hasn’t been a killer brand name app to grab the mainstream’s attention that depends on Android’s cooperative architecture and that iOS won’t support. No one has forced the issue of open vs closed on the common man.

But six years after the iPhone’s debut, the average mobile consumer has matured. They crave more personalization through homescreen widgets and custom launchers. They want to make their phone truly theirs. The mobile world may finally have reached the turning point where the benefits of Android’s customization outweigh the benefits of iOS’ simplicity. And it’s Facebook homescreen for Android that could crystallize this moment.

Last week, Facebook sent out invites to a big press event to “see our new home on Android”. My sources got us the scoop that Facebook plans to unveil a new homescreen for Android that pipes in its news feed content and notifications for instant access. We’re told this experience will be debuted on an HTC handset running a version of Android that’s been modified by Facebook. The homescreen replacement is also likely to make its way to other handsets, either in the form a launcher app that can run on standard Android builds, or through Facebook partnerships with other OEMs.

The kicker is that Facebook’s homescreen cannot run on iOS as it exists today.

Now, for any of this to actually alter the mobile landscape, Facebook “Home” as it may be called will have to be a real success. Not just “Oh that looks cool”, but “I need to have that on my phone”. A lot people will never say that, because they just don’t care that much about Facebook. Beyond that, it may be tough to add a lot of value on top of the full-featured Facebook For Android app that’s just a few taps away.

Still, it’s possible that Facebook’ heads up display, a sixth sense for your social life, could be good enough to shift the balance in the Game Of Phones. Even if not directly or immediately, the mere existence of Facebook Home could bring the open/closed debate into the sphere of public consciousness. In that sense, it could at least begin to generate momentum for Android’s “do as you please” ecosystem.

Apple is typically resistant to diverging from its roadmap to head off potential threats. As I’ve said, Apple doesn’t care what competitors do. But if it stays locked down, we might outgrow its hand-holding. For all Google’s talk off Android being open, it could take Facebook to make us realize its liberty we really want.

Read more about Facebook’s big new Android project:

Facebook To Reveal “Home On Android” Sources Say Is A Modified OS On HTC At 4/4 Event

Facebook’s “Home” On Android Could Give You A Sixth Sense For Your Social Life

What Games Are: My Three GDC Themes



Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The Game Developer’s Conference was, as expected, a whirlwind. Folks from all across the games industry and associated media came together, ate, drank, talked, queued, played, partied and even danced with wild abandon, and everyone’s takeaways from the event were different.

GDC is so big that nobody is able to objectively summarize what it is, but the separation between the talk and the business sides is palpable. If you mostly hung around in Moscone West and North then your GDC was probably all about education and big ideas. If you stayed more in the Expo, Moscone South or around the W hotel, it was more likely a sea of business cards. Depending on where you spent your time, there were whole parts of GDC you’d never see, news that you heard indirectly, rumors and issues which emerged on one side that the other either misunderstood or was completely unaware of.

This year I found myself straddling the divide, with many meetings and talks filling my calendar to bursting. I saw some things, learned some stuff and met some people, and some themes emerged for me. No doubt others who attended had a completely different experience.

My first theme was the increasing voice of women in games. The role, perception and treatment of women in the industry has been a long-standing issue. The most visible sign of this is the use of booth babes at trade shows to promote games, but it goes way beyond that. Female game makers have long felt that they have to struggle twice as hard to be taken seriously. They also feel woefully underrepresented by the industry’s output – even though women make up the majority market for casual and social games, for example, representations of women are often anodyne at best.

As a result of the #1reasonwhy meme of last year (which saw many female game makers express their frustrations on Twitter) this issue of women in games was the subject of the #1reasontobe talk. It also featured heavily in the “microtalks” and “rants” sessions, with Leigh Alexander talking about the tone-deaf practises of game marketing and Anna Anthropy advocating that male conference panelists should refuse to participate on a panel that doesn’t feature at least one woman. (As someone who participated on an all-male panel this year, this talk in particular has made me think hard about the unconscious culture in which I participate.)

Yet these noble expressions were undermined by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) party, which featured skimpily dressed female dancers. A catastrophic misjudgment of sentiment, the party – sponsored by Yetizen – led to many outbursts on Twitter and the subsequent resignations in protest of many high-profile IGDA members. Most notable was Brenda Romero, who only hours previously had been the leading light of the #1reason talk. It seems that the issue of women-in-games has gained much (rightful) traction on the Moscone West side of the conference. However it has yet to permeate through to the Expo side, the people who run marketing departments and PR events. Calls such as Anthropy’s are a start, but there is still a great deal to do to get those who aren’t really aware of the issue to care about it.

My second theme was microconsoles. There were two parties, one for OUYA and another for GameStick, where unveilings and announcements were made. Perhaps most impressively, Julie Uhrman announced that OUYA had shipped in March as the original Kickstarter had promised, that a much larger network of retail partnerships have been formed than most industry insiders expect, and that there are around 100 games available at launch (including a mix of vintage titles like Canabalt along with brand-new games). The GameStick event was also apparently very interesting (I wasn’t there) and it too is set to ship very soon (June, by all accounts). And there are other microconsoles in the pipeline.

However the resistance from the main industry to an app-style console that costs little and runs free, free-to-play and cheap games is very high. Many really don’t see what the fuss is about, comparing the microconsole to the console in a like-for-like comparison. Many question who the devices are for exactly, and what they are supposed to achieve. Personally I think this resistance comes from the same mindset that led many game developers to misunderstand the importance of social games, netbooks, tablets and a whole host of similar left-field market movements. It will probably take a year for a Supercell, Zynga or Rovio to emerge on microconsoles for game developers to suddenly realise that they’ve missed the boat.

The more relevant question is whether any of the existing microconsole contenders will be the ones to ultimately win. A rumour surfaced, for example, that Apple is almost ready to release a dedicated iOS game controller – which led some tweeters to tell me that this means microconsoles are already dead when it actually validates the idea. There is also the haunting feeling that Samsung and some of the other big Android handset makers are eyeing the space. Could Amazon get in on it? It’s entirely possible.

My final theme was the idea that real-money gaming is becoming respectable. This is a time when many publishers are facing up to the hard reality of making money in online gaming (and many are still advancing deals that will likely lead to game-a-day or vertical operations down the road), while retail games are capable of selling 3.4 million copies and still not meeting expectations. Real-money wagering, betting and the like were prevalent in back-channel talk at the conference. There is the expectation that at some point the United States will legalize real-money gaming in the form of small wagering, sports betting and similar, and various companies are poised to provide solutions when it does.

What surprises me is how less stygmatized that idea has become. There was a time, perhaps five years ago, when the games industry considered itself entirely separate from real money, but not quite so much any more. Perhaps as a result of free-to-play gaming starting to go indie (such as through games from Nimblebit and Spry Fox, both of whom talked about their experiences), sensitivity to the very idea of real-money seemed a little more confined to sensitivity about predatory practises. Provided the model is well-managed and controlled, some game makers seem quietly open to the idea. Personally I’m not sure how I feel about that yet, but the sentiment on the Expo side was palpable.

I wonder whether the ethics, morality and practise of real-money gaming will be next year’s hot button issue in Moscone West.

(PS: if there’s one GDC game that I recommend you look at Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine.)

All Quiet On The Western Front: Gaming M&A May Be In A Lull As A New Generation Grows Up



When you step off the elevator into Kixeye’s new downtown San Francisco office, a guy in military fatigues has you sign an NDA. After you do (I didn’t), a receptionist with a lot of piercings takes your name, while The White Panda’s “Foolish Monsters” blares in the background. Kixeye has whale harpoons stapled to its office walls, bad oil paintings (see left), ceiling-to-floor drawings of fire-breathing dragons and jacked unicorns, a 3-D printer of questionable purpose and little desire to answer to anyone else.

All while remaining profitable, the midcore social gaming company has quintupled its headcount over the last year to more than 450 employees. The company says it has “several” times the $19 million in capital they raised stowed away in the bank.

Too expensive for acquirers and still too small and unproven for public markets, privately-held gaming companies like Kixeye are chugging along profitably and doing things their own way.

“We don’t talk about exit scenarios here. The employees are not here for that,” said Brandon Barber, who is Kixeye’s chief marketing officer. “Most people are here because they love making games and that’s what they want to do. Focusing on that stuff at this point in our trajectory is super distracting.” (If you want to know what Kixeye really thinks of everyone else in the industry, watch this video.)

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, other privately-held gaming companies such as Finland’s Rovio and Supercell, the U.K.’s King and Germany’s Wooga are also growing profitable businesses.

Buyers Beware

That feeling is mutual on the buyers’ side too. Warner Bros said last week that it would be opening a gaming studio in San Francisco. In other words, it is choosing to build, not buy.

“Every time we looked at a company that was really interesting, we found that the price tag was more money than we thought was reasonable to pay,” said Greg Ballard, who is Warner Bros. senior vice president of digital games.

Similarly, EA is holding off after some big ticket deals in the last few years to buy Seattle’s PopCap for up to $1.3 billion.

“With regards to a large acquisition, we’re probably OK for the time being,” said Nick Earl, who oversees most of EA’s free-to-play games as a senior vice president there. “If the right deal presents itself, we would make that deal. But we’re not actively seeking it.” He said his arm of EA’s business, the All Play label, is putting more effort into a smaller number of games this year.

Likewise, Zynga’s COO David Ko emphasized a more “disciplined” approach toward acquisitions in an interview with me last month. Zynga’s shares were burned after the $180 million deal to buy Draw Something-maker OMGPOP. After some layoffs and a hard pivot to mobile platforms, Ko said the company is a lot more rigorous about what it looks for. Since OMGPOP, Zynga has only done a few talent deals with startups such as A Bit Lucky.

Basically, buyers and sellers are at odds over what these companies should be worth. Sellers want several times annualized revenues — based on the months where they have hits. Buyers have limited cash and are aware of how difficult it is to integrate acquisitions and retain talent in such a competitive market. GREE’s U.S. CEO Naoki Aoyagi told me in a panel at an event put on by investment bank Covert & Co. earlier this week that the company was much more careful about structuring retention with the $210 million deal to buy Funzio compared to the time that they spent $104 million to buy OpenFeint. He said he was much “happier” with the Funzio outcome, given that the co-founders have stayed on.

“Just a few years ago top media companies would pay high multiples for game companies on emerging platforms whose ultimate profitability was still unclear,” said Kristian Segerstrale, who just stepped down as executive vice president of EA’s digital business and came to EA through the $300 million acquisition of Playfish. “Most large media companies are still digesting past acquisitions and can simply not afford a reasonable multiple on today’s stars.”

Why Sell?

At the same time, if you can run a creative business that generates loads of cash when you have a hit, why work for anyone else?

On the back of two hit iOS games “Clash of Clans” and “Hay Day”, Finland’s Supercell is opting for a massive round of more than $100 million over acquisition conversations, sources tell me.

“There is a set of profitable, cash generating companies that feel they have a very legitimate shot at challenging the existing cadre of public game companies as the industry’s next leaders,” added Segerstrale, who didn’t comment specifically about Supercell. His early-stage firm Initial Capital is one of Supercell’s largest shareholders.

What that means is that is that the M&A market for big gaming deals might be quiet in the short-term — at least in the West. (The Japanese market is an exception with deals like GREE’s deal to buy Pokelabo, Nexon’s acquisition of Gloops and Softbank’s recent investment in Gung Ho Entertainment.)

It’s possible that the big gaming companies could start to feel comfortable with public markets in a few years, if they have a broad enough portfolio of hit franchises. Companies like San Francisco’s Kabam, Seattle’s Big Fish Games and Finland’s Rovio already regularly report basic revenue figures to generate interest — either from future public shareholders or buyers.

On top of that, it looks like this year is the first one where a single mobile game’s revenues could rival that of a traditional console blockbuster. Japan’s Gung Ho Entertainment published a financial statement a few days ago suggesting that its iOS game Puzzle & Dragons made somewhere between $62 million and 86 million, all in a single month and all from Japan. That company’s stock has surged by more than 2,000% in the last year because of that single title, and Gung Ho is now worth more than $4.8 billion, according to its market capitalization.

IPO Window Still Feels Closed

But none of these companies are going out to market now, especially considering that Zynga shares fell by almost three-quarters in the first year after the company went public.

Instead, this generation of gaming companies is biding its time, riding the wave of surging iOS and Android revenues and making sure that their businesses are more hit-proof.

“IPOs are fine, but there have also been scenarios where it was too much of a focus. Ultimately, they’ve been very destructive to companies that were doing notable and amazing things,” Barber said. “Those variables have to be weighed super carefully, so we’re not in a rush.”

King, an arcade-gaming company that started more than a decade ago, just made the leap to mobile last fall. Its game Candy Crush Saga has been competing with Supercell’s “Clash of Clans” for the top-grossing spot in the U.S. That single title blew through all of the’s company 2013 financial targets in a single month and brought them more mobile daily active users than Zynga had last quarter. They’ve quadrupled their headcount in the last two years ago, haven’t taken funding for eight and have always been profitable.

“We’re not planning to be acquired. There’s a bright future for us, whether we will do an IPO or not,” said King’s CEO Riccardo Zacconi. “We’re just working on execution.”

Eventbrite's Julia And Kevin Hartz On Building A Business As A Couple, And More [Video]




We all know that co-founders with a longstanding personal bond have a better chance of building a successful company than co-founders who don’t share a strong friendship. But what about when that bond between two co-founders is a bit deeper, as a romantic relationship?

Eventbrite co-founders Julia and Kevin Hartz have shown that building a business with your significant other — in this case, a spouse — can lead to big success. The online event planning and ticketing platform, which is understood to be making its way to an IPO, just hit a major milestone this week, crossing $1.5 billion in gross sales and 100 million tickets sold.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the Hartzes in a fireside chat last month at the really fantastic Startup Grind 2013 conference headed up by tech entrepreneur Derek Andersen in Silicon Valley. In our 30-minute conversation, we talked about all things Eventbrite, from the early days as a budding startup to its current status as a sizable tech company, and you can watch it all in the video embedded above.

But, being that today is said to be the wedding of Wildfire Interactive co-founders Victoria Ransom and Alain Chuard, another uber successful co-founding couple (congratulations!), I especially wanted to highlight Julia and Kevin’s comments about running a business with a loved one.

Kevin and Julia said placing a priority on keeping their interpersonal relationship strong was a smart decision that should be used by other co-founding teams, whether they’re in a romantic relationship or not. Starting at around 4:50, Kevin said:

“There’s been famous husband and wife teams where it’s worked out remarkably, and famous husband and wife teams, as in the case of Cisco, where it’s kind of a disaster — but, you know, Cisco became a great company. Like anything, it’s a co-founder relationship, and in our case we had to be extra sensitive about it because there was this extra personal relationship important aspect about it.

So, we approached it somewhat cautiously. We had many different chances where we would say, ‘OK, we’re not going to ruin the marriage,’ so you know, one of us steps out, and we have this kind of a Plan B if things went poorly. I also think it’s a great exercise in really ensuring we’re compatible founders, and we were very conscientious of it. When you’re working with founders, your fellow founders, that relationship is fundamental whether it’s romantic or not.”

And Julia added:

“We were so cautious about the decisions we made and what kind of modes of operations we would have. We had this law that we would divide and conquer, and wouldn’t work on the same thing at the same time. It just so happened we had complimentary skills so that was an easy thing to do.

When I overlay that over any co-founder relationship, it’s vital actually to be talking about those kinds of things.”

There was much more where that came from, and you can see it all in the video above.

Iterations: Calendar Frenzy, Google Now, and Apple's “Anticipatory Computing” Problem



Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is a contributor to TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

Now that the Mailbox sale to Dropbox is complete, let’s move on to the next native iOS app that everyone wants to replace: The Calendar. Yes, the calendar. Nearly every other conversation I had this past week included some chatter about all the new calendar apps (see the screenshot of my iPhone). Peeling back the layers on all these calendar apps and the herd-like interest in the space, however, reveals both challenges and opportunities that go much deeper than comparing mobile apps based on product features.

For those among us who use Android, Google Now is the type of anticipatory computing, powered by data and algorithmic learning, that enables a machine to guide us in life almost like an assistant would. On Apple’s iOS, however, there is no such thing like “Apple Now,” and as a result, savvy entrepreneurs are seeking to build that service as a third-party application. And, curiously, they’re using the mobile calendar on Apple to kickstart this game and using calendar “intent” to infer what to send to the user.

The motivation to write this post came as a surprise. You may have noticed that, over the past month, the amount of “smart calendars” and “intelligent assistants” has seemed to explode, all at the same time. Not too long ago, iPhone users had the chance to buy well-designed calendar apps like Calvetica and Fantastical to have a better experience that what Apple’s native calendar app provides. I’d guess many Gmail loyalists on iPhone would love to have a native Google Calendar app, just as Google has shown excellence in iOS recently, but that doesn’t seem to be a high priority for now.

Back in the middle of 2012, I started using a service called Sunrise, which started on the web. It is a well-designed product that integrates your social networks and calendar to provide more context around upcoming meetings. More recently, Sunrise has built a clever iOS app that has many neat tricks, such as allowing users to go straight from Sunrise to Google Maps for iPhone, since our friends in Cupertino won’t let us set our own app-defaults for actions like these.

There are many players in this category, broadly speaking. Apps like Twist, which starts out with the goal of automating arrival alerts between meeting participants via SMS, or Cue (formerly Greplin), which presents your day’s information with more context on mobile, or Any.Do, a daily planner tying tasks together with the calendar, could grow into something larger at scale.

The big idea here is that systems like Sunrise and the others could, over time, start with making a better mobile iOS calendar and then grow into more anticipatory services, perhaps becoming a “Google Now for Apple.” And, as competition goes these days, just as Sunrise is drawing attention, we have witnessed a whole new crop of “intelligent assistants” on Apple’s platform, such as Tempo (originated at SRI) and Leave Now, as well apps that we can only anticipate (pun intended) like Sherpa and Donna, which haven’t yet been released. (I have not tried Sherpa or Donna.)

These are all great apps, quite sophisticated in their feature offerings, but overall, while I find this particular entrepreneurial pursuit more than noble, I wonder about how much of an effect these apps could have within the iOS ecosystem given all the hurdles presented by Apple. Let us count the ways. App Store discoverability seems to be getting worse, not better. Most of these apps ask for access to your iPhone contact list and your iPhone calendar, and if users don’t allow those permissions during onboarding and registration, users will need to navigate their way into “Settings” to reactivate those permissions piecemeal. Even if an app can extract these permissions, many of them end up grabbing location persistently, even though some of them talk about access the GPS sensor in low-power mode. I’m of the belief that these always-on, location-aware apps are slightly ahead of their time and will require fundamental advancements in moile battery technology before consumers will give up their battery life. (Even apps as elegant and useful as Moves or Highlight, for instance, which passively grabs user location data throughout the day, may have their overall adoption impacted because of this reason.)

The larger question here, ultimately, is the delta between the efficacy and utility of a service like Google Now and what is possible given the current iOS environment. The way things stand today — and I know things could change, with advancements like Google Glass or an iWatch, etc. — recreating a “Google Now-like” experience on iPhone can only happen at the application layer, hence the competition listed above, but in order to really work for consumers, it will have to be an OS-level solution. Perhaps Apple assumed technologies like Siri could start to train iOS users to start giving voice-commands as inputs with a long-term goal of delivering intelligent outputs. I don’t fully understand the depth of the technological problems underneath this, but at least as a consumer, this notion not only seems far off in the future, it may also be a pipe dream.

This poses a curious opportunity and challenge for iOS app builders in this space. Even though they may have deep technologies and elaborate product roadmaps, all of the hurdles of getting to scale on iOS as well as all the permissions they require from the mobile operating system present a series of minefields. In order to compete with a service like Google Now, an iOS app would need continuous access to data in our email, calendars, address book, and location logs. And, with the acquisition of Mailbox fresh in our minds, that transaction may have set a bandwidth that any app in this productivity space could fetch on the market.

While I would never want to constrain a young team’s sights on more short-term goals — and I do sincerely hope one of these players emerge to be on everyone’s iPhones — the combined reality of (1) Apple’s legacy mindset with respect to its own mobile operating systems and (2) today’s acquisitive environment for iOS teams means startups in the calendaring or assistant space on iOS have a small but rare opportunity to sprint to grow (hint: use the web!). And, if successful, they may end up in Cupertino building this, because it’s only at the OS level — not app layer — that Apple could begin to provide more pervasive computing services and allow their machines a chance to to get better with time. In long-run, all of this poses a significant challenge to Apple’s iOS platform. Perhaps this is just one way to read the tea leaves. Unless something drastically changes in the meantime with respect to the App Store, battery technologies, or simply how Apple sets up their OS, I just don’t see any other way.

CrunchWeek: Amazon's Purchase Of Goodreads, YC's Smaller Demo Day And Bitcoin Hitting $1 Billion



It’s time for CrunchWeek, that very special time each week when a few of us writers gather around the TechCrunch TV cameras to shoot the breeze about the biggest and most interesting stories from the past seven days.

Anthony Ha, Colleen Taylor and I sat down to discuss Amazon’s purchase of social reading site Goodreads, Y Combinator’s Demo Day this past week and whether Bitcoin can become a real currency now that it is a billion dollar market.

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