Monthly Archives: May 2013

Facebook Advertises That You Can Turn Off Home “If You Need Some Alone Time”

Desperate to make its homescreen replacement Home seem less invasive, Facebook is advertising that you can temporarily deactivate it and use your HTC First or other Android phone as normal. The fact that Home replaces your widgets and app folders has been a core complaint. Facebook vows to fix that, but until then it’s reminding people they can leave Home for stock Android or their old launcher.

The post by the Facebook Mobile Page which was also being shown as an ad in some peoples mobile feeds, says “Cover feed on the HTC First keeps your friends close by. But if you need some alone time, simply turn off Home and use your phone as usual.“.  When turned off, the HTC First reverts to stock Android 4.1, and the downloadable version of Home gives way to whatever launcher users had installed before.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg addressed the issue of users’ disappointment with how Home takes over their phone this week at D11 when asked if the product was a success:

“Facebook Home is v1 of what we think is a very large transformation that we think will absolutely happen, which is rebuilding your phone around people.

The way [phones are] organized is still around activities and apps. We think that phones will be reorganized around people, and we think Facebook Home is the first version of that. We consider it v1, very early. We’d love if we could put out a v1 version and get everything right. The feedback we’re getting is very bi-modal. If you look at our stars, we get fives and we get ones. We get almost no threes.

The people who love it, they’re heavy Facebook users. They want that experience. Not only do they love it but the metrics are working very well for us. They’re using Facebook 25% more and they’re doing 10% more more messaging. So this is a win, both in terms of how this will drive our business and for them.

For the people who don’t love it, they don’t like how it takes over their phone. They don’t like how the launcher re-organizes the apps they’ve already launched, but for the most part they actually like the two core features we launched which are Cover Feed and Chat Heads. So what we are doing is getting that feedback. I don’t know how long it will take. I think it will be a long road. but we really believe we’re on a path to making phones more social.”

As Sheryl explained, a big issue with Home was the sacrifice you have to make to use it. Android users gain some features, but have to give up much of the personalization they’ve worked to build into their phone in the form of widgets, folders, and app organization. I believe their omission from Home is related to some of the team that built Home being iPhone users who don’t have these options normally, so they didn’t miss them.

Supporting these customization features could make Home more of a bonus than a trade. When Home launched, Facebook Product Director Adam Moserri told me there were a lot of features he wished had made it into the initial build, including app folders.

Now Facebook is trying to get some of that functionality added through its monthly updates to Home. On May 9th at a small press conference at Facebook headquarters, Moserri unveiled Dock, a tray of a user’s favorite apps that’s persistently visible at the bottom of homescreen app launcher. Facebook plans to let users import their Dock of most frequently used apps from their previous Android launcher into Home.

Many are calling Home a flop already, and maybe it will be, but it’s early to make that judgement now. Facebook has a very long-term view for the software. Mark Zuckerberg’s belief is that we’re destined to share more and more with our friends, so some will want to prioritize them ahead of utility applications in their phones.

Zuckerberg told Wired’s Stephan Levy, “Three years from now, people are going to be sharing eight to ten times as much stuff. We’d better be there, because if we’re not, some other service will be.” That’s the goal of Home. But for Facebook to get to that future, it needs Home to gain traction. It’s hasn’t yet, having only hit one million downloads on May 10th. The active user count is suspected to be much smaller. As Sandberg said, it will be a long road to success…if Facebook’s even going in the right direction.

Google Won't Approve Glass Apps That Recognize People's Faces… For Now

The potential creep factor of Google Glass is something that the search giant has to mitigate as best it can if it wants that kooky head-worn display to become a mass-market sensation (and even that may not be enough), but a recent announcement highlights the search giant’s commitment to, well, do no evil.

Google confirmed on its official Glass G+ page earlier this evening that it won’t allow developers to create applications for the head-worn display that are capable of recognizing the faces of people the wearer encounters.

It’s no surprise that Google has been keen to downplay the idea of first-party face recognition features — Google Glass director Steve Lee gave the New York Times a near identical statement earlier this month — but now the company has made it clear that developers are subject to that same code of conduct.

That’s not to say that Google is throwing out the possibility of face-recognizing Glass apps in the future — the company just has to lock down a firm set of privacy protocols before letting developers run wild. As you’d expect, there’s no timetable in place yet so it’s still unclear when Glass will be able to chime in our ears with a long-forgotten acquaintance’s name. It may be a big win for privacy advocates, but the news doesn’t bode all that well for some of the early-stage startups that are angling to turn Glass into an ever-present recognition device. Consider the case of Lambda Labs — earlier this week the San Francisco team talked up its forthcoming facial and object recognition API that would allow developers to create applications with commands like “remember that face.” At the time, Lambda co-founder Stephen Balaban sought refuge in the fact that the Glass API didn’t explicitly bar the creation of face-recognition apps, a shelter that no longer exists. To quote the updated Glass developer policies:

Don’t use the camera or microphone to cross-reference and immediately present personal information identifying anyone other than the user, including use cases such as facial recognition and voice print. Applications that do this will not be approved at this time.

For now, though, Google seems all right with the prospect of using Glass to recognize individual, people so long as their faces aren’t the things being kept track of. Back in March, news broke of a partially Google-funded project from Duke University that saw researchers create a Glass app that let users identify people not by their faces but by a so-called “fashion fingerprint” that accounts for clothing and accessories. All things considered, it’s a neat way to keep tabs on individual people with a privacy mechanism baked into our behavior — all you need to do to be forgotten is change your clothes.

Big Impact On A Small Budget: Ben's Friends Wants To Build A Web & Mobile Support Network For Every Rare Disease

There’s a lot of exciting and head-turning technology out there today, and it’s changing our world in a multitude of ways, some more obvious than others — and at a fairly astounding rate. But many of these services, while making our lives more convenient or connected, aren’t necessarily helping people or having an impact at a more fundamental level. There are, of course, many exceptions, and Ben’s Friends is one of them — another example that for-profit, social enterprises can have a big impact even without venture capital, or big budgets.

For those unfamiliar, today Ben’s Friends is one of the largest platforms and support networks for people with rare diseases. Software developer and startup veteran Ben Munoz conceived the idea in 2006, after suffering from a life-threatening and rare form of stroke (as a result of a condition called “arteriovenous malformation”), which led to several years of intensive treatment, radiotherapy and neurosurgery. Unable to find the information or support he was looking for on the Web, he launched a site to find others who suffered from the same (and similar) conditions.

A community of people quickly formed around, and, joined by his friends Scott Orn, a partner at VC firm Lighthouse Capital, and Eric D. Kroll, the founders started Ben’s Friends to apply the concept to other diseases. In 2012 alone, the platform added seven new patient support communities to bring its total to 33 (which is now 35), allowing people to connect with others who share the same conditions or symptoms, whether it be in networks like “Living With Narcolepsy,” Traumatic Brain Injury or Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

The concept is similar in practice to that of a network called CureTogether, which was acquired by 23andMe last year. The difference between Ben’s Friends and other startups with similar ambitions, Orn told us recently, is that each disease has its own dedicated network and site. Everything on those pages, he says, revolves around that particular condition and the community of people who suffer from that condition. In turn, Ben’s Friends is volunteer-driven, with support communities adding content, resources and moderating each site themselves. The network of volunteer operators has grown to several hundred, Orn says.

The technology behind these sites isn’t necessarily new or sexy, originally built using a combination of Ning and Basecamp to keep the costs of hosting, scaling and project management low. And the community isn’t enormous, either. Ben’s Friends today only has about 30,000 members, but the engagement is high and the information collected by its community on these rare diseases is extremely valuable.

But it works, Orn says, because “the entire network is powered by volunteer moderators. We have 150+ people who keep the networks humming. They are also patients and understand what members are going through. They tell us that becoming a moderator changed their relationship with their disease. It took something negative and turned it into a positive.”

Comparatively, CureTogether took arguably an even greater quantitative approach to its community (which is what 23andMe found appealing), while Ben’s Friends has focused more on providing this kind of support — on making it easy for people to find and make those critical emotional connections with others who’ve experienced the same conditions. Of course, the importance of that shared community is something that holds true far beyond the scope of rare diseases and is as old as the earliest Web forums and, well, offline communities well before that.

Orn tells us that the look and feel of the site is owed to an approach the founders adopted early on: Capital efficiency. Monetizing rare diseases just isn’t an acceptable business model, Orn explained in the Harvard Business Review, which is why the founders felt they couldn’t justify raising venture capital. For it to work, everything had to be free and scalable, while avoiding as many fixed costs as possible. Since 2010, they’ve raised about $65K in donations from foundations, members and friends, as well as by running a campaign on Indiegogo — bootstrapping the rest of the way.

And, today, Ben’s Friends is launching its first native app (for the iPhone) to give patients around-the-clock, on-demand access to support groups while on-the-go. Reflecting macro trends, the founders say that mobile traffic to the site has increased significantly over the last year and now makes up over 25 percent of total traffic as patients turn to their mobile devices to access support groups and health info.

People with rare diseases also tend to find themselves spending a lot of time in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices, hospitals and clinics, making an iPhone app a fairly natural extension of the platform. Accessing support groups and relevant information at the time of diagnosis or surgery helps reduce anxiety, fear and figure out the right questions to ask. The same is true of’s iOS app (and these patient support apps), as well as more information-centric health resources like HealthTap, HealthKeep, HealthGuru and more.

To that end, Ben’s Friends has collected over 2,000 recommendations for doctors who specialize in rare diseases, which will be available in the app’s next update, coming soon. Recommendations like these are particularly critical for those with rate diseases, the founders explain, considering how frequently they are misdiagnosed. Naturally, being referred to a doctor who is aware of rare symptoms and conditions can potentially reduce the chance of being misdiagnosed.

“We never wanted to become one of those nonprofits that have massive overhead and have to spend half of their time raising money,” Munoz says. “We thought of it as a little software startup … in a garage eating Ramen noodles and peanut butter. How do we do it cheaper? How do we automate?”

And so far, it’s been working.

Science- And Tech-Focused ‘STEAM Carnival' Hits Its Kickstarter Goal

Looks like Kickstarter can add “reimagined” carnivals with “robots, fire, and lasers” to the list things that its users have crowdfunded.

Earlier today, an event called the STEAM Carnival, put together by a company called Two Bit Circus, reached its $100,000 Kickstarter goal. The initials are a twist on STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — the A adds Art to the equation.

Here’s how the Kickstarter page outlines the vision:

You’ve heard of STEM… but we agree with John Maeda of RISD and MIT that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math aren’t complete without Art. Our culture isn’t doing enough to get kids interested in STEAM. As professional inventors, we rely on these disciplines every day, and want to share our excitement about them with kids young and old. Through years of building and demonstrating fun games we’ve learned no better way to get kids into STEAM than to show them an amazing time. When you say ‘engineering’ to most kids they zone out. But when you say ‘lasers, robots, and fire,’ you have their undivided attention.

As planned, the event will include a number of high-tech, educational games that are currently being developed by Two Bit Circus, such as the “Motion Capture Spinning Bull” and “Laser Maze Limbo”. It will also showcase the kids’ work too. Apparently something that combined a traditional hammer carnival game with lots of electricity was demonstrated on-stage at the D11 conference earlier this week.

Two Bit Circus is led by Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman — Bushnell is an engineer and an entrepreneur who was featured as an inventor on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (he’s also the son of Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, who’s on the advisory board), while Gradman says his background includes experience as a circus performer, professional whistler, roboticist, and inventor.

The current plan is to hold events in San Francisco and Los Angeles next spring. And even though the STEAM Carnival has hit its funding target, the team is hoping to raise more money for a pretty straightforward stretch goal — bringing the event to more cities.

GitHub Announces Octokit, The Official Way To Build Using The GitHub API

GitHub today announced Octokit , a new lineup of GitHub-maintained client libraries for the GitHub API.

Octokit comes in two flavors. It offers a kit for developing Ruby apps and another for Objective-C. The Ruby version is what the site describes as a simple wrapper for the GitHub API. The Objective-C version uses the Cocoa and Cocoa Touch framework “for interacting with the GitHub API, built using AFNetworkingMantle and ReactiveCocoa.”

Both are collaborative efforts, built in large part by the GitHub community.

I am not a developer so I will never profess to know the details of  something like Octokit. But what I do find in these projects is people who use their skill sets to make things better. APIs are awesome but developers sure do talk a lot about their fragility and the intricacies that a developer has when building an app. Companies like Runscope are addressing the issue. Tasktop has launched the Software Lifecycle Integration (SLI) project, a service that I wrote about in March that “acts as a universal linked data message bus that allows for real-time synchronization between different tools so people can immediately discuss problems with the code as they surface.”

But it is the individuals who make the difference. Wynn Netherland created and over the years helped maintain the Octokit wrapper for the GitHub API. In an interview on the Treehug blog, Netherland said he has also helped maintain the Twitter Ruby Gem and the LinkedIn Gem for the LinkedIn API.

Octokit reflects years of work by the GitHub community and is a clear example of how bottom-up development has made it easier to work with APIs and integrate to create and maintain any variety of apps.

Ask A VC: Freestyle's Dave Samuel On The Secrets To A Great Co-Founder Partnership And More

In this week’s Ask A VC episode, Freestyle Capital’s Dave Samuel joined us in the studio to discuss his investment philosophies and more.

Samuel also talked about how and why his co-founder relationship with Josh Felser has been so successful. The duo co-founded Spinner (acquired by AOL for $320 million), and Grouper (acquired by Sony for $65 million). In 2011, Fesler and Samuel formally launched Freestyle Capital, which makes investments in early-stage startups.

Check out the video above for more!

Stilly Is A One-Button GIF Maker For iPhone That's Even Easier Than Vine

Like GIFs? Tumblr? Got an iPhone? $2.00? OK, good, then you’ll probably like this new app called Stilly which is either the most ridiculous thing ever or the most fun you’re going to have all weekend. The app, in a nutshell, turns anything you capture with your iPhone’s camera into a jiggling, wiggly, color-flashing GIF.

Well, you know, kind of!

Because it seems primarily designed for use with Tumblr for now, the company promoted it on its official blog today, saying just “this is addictive.”

And it is.

The app is dead simple to use. It has only one button to create the GIF, and another toggle to turn “Colors” on. The end results aren’t exactly the same kind of professional GIFs (oh wow, I’m writing that?) that you might find elsewhere on Tumblr, however, but it will do in a pinch.

Tumblr is already filling up with people posting using the pre-populated #stilly tag, which probably needs some sort of seizure warning.

The app is kind of reminiscent of Vine, but Vine was getting too high-brow for us anyway, what with its movie trailers, short films, comedic experiments and all. I mean really, Vine for filmmakers? C’mon. Can’t we just have a stupid toy every now and then?

Stilly will do.

The app was created by longtime Tumblr user Ian Broyles, who has been on the site since 2007, and loves GIFs and photography.

“I have been making GIFs in some form since 1995 and got my first digital camera the same year. (Casio QV-10a) I love playing with images, and moving ones are even better,” he explains.

“When I was 19, I made a site with my brother, David Broyles, that got a blurb in Time Magazine and was mentioned on the Today Show during the Bush/Gore tie up. It was based on funny GIFs I made out of candidates’ heads on dancing bodies from TV/Film. It was shared all over the web before social network via send-a-friend forms. I made a decent chunk of money for a teenager and moved out to Los Angeles to work in film as I didn’t care for school.”

“Gifs have been good to me,” he adds.

Broyles says he starting working on Stilly in December 2012, before he had heard of Vine and before it was released. He doesn’t think the two apps are all that similar, not only because of the creations’ length, but also because Vines are harder to make and send to friends.

Stillies, though, can be sent via iMessage or SMS for now, with more sharing options in the works along with a few other features, too. However, the core experience will remain very basic. And now that the app is launched and people seem to be enjoying it, Broyles says he will work on building an Android version too.

Stilly is $1.99 here in the Apple App Store.

After Four Years At Twitter, Director Of Platform Ryan Sarver Will “Fly The Coop” With “No Plans But Rest”

Ryan Sarver, who joined Twitter four years ago and is currently its director of platform, announced today he’ll be leaving the company on June 28th, and has “no plans but rest.” Fittingly, he announced his departure in a series of tweets seen below.

Sarver’s work over the last four years, when it comes to focusing on developers, can’t be ignored. During the times when there was confusion as to how Twitter would be dealing with third parties in the future, Sarver’s team marched through it. While not every developer has been happy with the changes that the company has made, specifically how it throttles its API, the messaging has been transparent and with complete warning, before things changed.

One of the most important things during his time at Twitter was its integration into Apple’s iOS. This key integration gave Twitter access to more users and more engagement than ever. At the time, Sarver told our own MG Siegler: “I think this integration has the potential to be the second biggest referral for app growth behind the App Store.” He was right.

As with most high-profile Twitter departures, a tweet was the way to announce it:

The timing is a bit curious, since it’s well known that Twitter will be heading toward IPOville sometime next year. Perhaps, Sarver saw this as an opportunity to pass on his responsibilities to folks he’s hired and groomed over the years, and just take it easy like he says. Having said that, we would be surprised if Sarver didn’t come back with his own startup sometime soon.

Twitter’s platform has branched out over the last few years, launching its own photo-sharing functionality, launching interactive Twitter cards and acquiring and integrating video app Vine.

With Over 12M Users, Hopes Its AdWords For Shopping Will Stick

Hey kids, there’s a new personalized shopping platform in town. Since it raised $1.7 million in angel funding, ads recommendation system ContextLogic has put its ads optimization technology to good use in a wishlist-making app called Wish.

As its moniker belies, Wish allows you to view a feed of goods specifically tailored to you and add them to various lists on the platform — like my list about Summer. Every time you add to a list or recommend an item, Wish’s natural language processing and machine-learning tech learns that that’s the type of thing you’re interested in and then shows you more of it. Like what happened to me and blingy iPhone cases (below). Yes, I did add such a silly thing to my Wishlist.

On the merchant side, Wish treats Wishlists as intent data and allows shopkeepers to run highly targeted offers through the platform, because of the simple principle that customers are more likely to buy some things they’ve already expressed a desire to buy. I’ve already received an email coupon for $5 off that tacky Swarovski peacock case in addition to 40 percent off a pair of Galaxy shorts I had also expressed interest in.

I’m very likely to buy those Galaxy shorts, is Wish’s value proposition. And Wish in return takes a 10 to 30 percent cut of those promoted sales, which it manages through an AdWords-like, self-serve ads platform.

People are adding between 5-10 million items to their Wishlists every day, recommending 250K products and saving 19.3 items on average daily. The app now has over 12 million users and, with five-star ratings on iOS and Android, is modestly making its way up the App Store rankings. It is now at No. 28 on iOS Lifestyle. For comparison, competitors Wanelo and Amazon Mobile are at No. 17 and No. 4, respectively.

“Engagement increased over 2013 as we increased the relevance of our recommendation system,” Wish co-founder Peter Szulczewski tells me, referring to the startup’s promising growth. “We consider these huge wins and proof that our approach is working.” He believes that after improvements in the relevance of Wish’s recommendation system, the startup is growing faster than Pinterest, Twitter or Google.

“The big change here is that, unlike on traditional e-commerce websites,” Szulczewski explains, “individuals are actually feeding very useful data back into the system in a fun way on a massive scale, which an algorithm can use to vastly increase the shopping experience.

“Google won search via relevance, because it was able to match millions of different queries with billions of web pages better than anyone,” he adds. “We are confident that Wish will win mobile commerce with a fun and relevant product, as well, because the problem isn’t all that different from Google’s challenge in search.”

And with everyone and their mother trying to crack the personalized shopping nut, the e-commerce challenge is probably just as hard. Can Amazon ever be dethroned? Will Pinterest capitalize on its vast and intimidating e-commerce potential? Does Wanelo need to go beyond social cures? What about the material things I secretly desire that can’t be gleaned from an algorithm? Glittery peacock cases are nice and all, but clicks sometimes fail to capture what exactly the heart, well, wishes.

Twitter Just Made It Easier To Obsessively Tweak Your Profile

I don’t know anyone who thought the process of editing their Twitter profile was just too complex — talk about first world problems — but they’re surely out there somewhere and working themselves into a tizzy over a recent announcement made by Twitter profile engineer Patrick Ewing. In a triumphant tweet, Ewing made it known that Twitter users can now edit their profiles in-line without having to pop into a separate account settings tab.

Frankly, it’s a wonder we made it made this far as a society without the ability to more easily tweak our Twitter profile blurbs. The changes aren’t perhaps as sweeping as one would hope though — while you can edit any of your personal info as well as swap your header or profile images at the drop of a hat, you’ll still have to venture into your profile settings page in order to revamp your account’s color scheme or background image.

It’s a relatively minor change (especially when Twitter has been making headlines for snapping up startups left and right), but Twitter has been on a sort of housekeeping kick lately with additions like two-factor authentication for accounts. In the event that you’re still not completely clear on what these new changes entail, take a peek at the spiffy YouTube video whipped up for the occasion:

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