Google Challenges Apple’s Dominance In Schools With Google Play For Education, Now Shipping

Google is no longer the best-kept secret in education - that is, if Google's presence in any market is ever “a secret.” Over the last year or so, the search giant has been quietly expanding its footprint in education and is moving quickly to capture a greater share of the K-12 market.

Thanks to Google Apps for Education sweeping through schools much as it did through the business world, Google's presence in education has been growing fast, but has been mostly limited to its cloud productivity services. However, with the launch of Google Play for Education, Google's march into education has become more pronounced, as it revealed a service today that will eventually combine the best of its hardware, software and marketplace businesses into one.

The company first revealed its plans to extend Play - its app and content marketplace for Android - into the classroom at Google I/O in May. Today, after spending the last give months beta testing the new service with students and teachers at more than 50 schools, the company is finally pulling the trigger.

In practice, Google Play for Education essentially aims to make discovering educational apps a breeze, while helping content providers reach a wider audience of teachers and schools. After surveying teachers and IT admins, Google said today in a blog post, the number one problem they wanted Google's help solving had to do with time. In other words, already overwhelmed with busy schedules, they wanted time savers - both tools to help students learn in the classroom and tools to help them transition those classrooms to new curriculum standards.

To do that, Google is taking this familiar, two-pronged approach, combining hardware and software. This starts by offering schools the ability to choose one of three “classroom ready” Android tablets. First is the Nexus 7, Google's 7-inch Android tablet, which will be available to K-12 schools beginning today at a cost of around $229 (plus a $30 management fee for those who want to get more Google assistance). Beginning next year, Google will be adding to its roster of education-focused tablets with a 10-inch ASUS Transformer Pad and an 8-inch HP Slate 8 Pro, though pricing is not yet clear for the latter two.

But to really lure in schools, Google knows it has to go further. In the K-12 education landscape, the company is not only going up against the familiar duo of Apple and its iPad, but a growing list of education-focused mobile devices as well, like Rupert Murdoch, Joel Klein and Wireless Generation's Amplify and whatever becomes of Intel's acquisition of Kno - to name a few.

To do that, Google is tying in Google Play and a few other things to sweeten the deal, like offering bulk purchasing with purchase orders and instant distribution of educational apps, videos and other content to their Android tablets via the cloud.

With Google Play for Education, teachers can discover apps “approved by teachers for teachers,” the company says, as well as videos and books. Teachers can search for approved apps by grade, subject, by price - and, most importantly - by Common Core standards. In fact, the company will even be paying some teachers to review apps for them, marking those reviews with a yellow badge. As of launch, there will be “thousands” of “edu-approved” apps, through which Google will be offering the standard 30/70 split with developers.

To reduce the time and work needed to get schools up and running, Google's new tablets with Google Play for Education are built on Google Apps for Education, which means that students can use their existing Google accounts to log-in without having to begin the set-up process all over again.

Another key element: When teachers find an app they want to use, they can proceed to check out, where they'll now have the option to make a purchase order rather than having to use their own credit card and get reimbursed by the school.

On the other side, schools and IT administrators can now set up a classroom of tablets in a few simple steps. Once they set up the first device, admins will be able to load a class list from a local spreadsheet, the company said, and provision additional tablets simply by bumping a new device with the administrator's tablet. The idea, Google Play for Education product manager Rick Borovoy told EdSurge today, was to enable classrooms to “provision a class in under 10 minutes.”

While teachers and schools would usually avoid deploying a bunch of tablets during the school year, by using this simple “bumping” provisioning process, schools can circumnavigate this headache and potentially provision thousands of tablets during the school year without missing a beat. Or at least that's the idea.

With its new tablets that come with Google Play for Education built-in (and built on top of Google Apps), schools can now adopt Google's education tools all in one go. This allows Google to have another entrance into the classroom on top of its Chromebooks initiative, which have already seen hundreds of districts adopt the company's web-centric laptops.

So far, Google says that it's been working with startups like ClassDojo, Socrative, Explain Everything, NearPod and thousands more to get their apps up and running on Play for Education. In terms of what this means for K-12 schools in the U.S., Google had this to say in its announcement today:

With more than 30 million people using Google Apps for Education already, tablets with Google Play for Education easily plug into many schools' existing technology. This is an affordable, 1:1 solution that puts greater power in the hands of teachers to find the best tools and content for their classrooms. We're continuing to evolve the Google in Education offering and are happy to bring even more choice in devices and content.

So, stay tuned for more.

For developers looking to learn more, check out the Android Developers blog here and teachers can find Google Play for Education here.

More in Google's intro video below:


Google Expands Role In Digital Education, Teams Up With edX To Build A YouTube For Free Online Courses

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It’s turning into a busy week for Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) providers, and the tech companies that love them — particularly Google. On Monday, Udacity co-founder and CEO Sebastian Thrun and California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom announced the Open Education Alliance, a consortium of online organizations dedicated to closing the skills gap, developing standards for career readiness and providing the content that will help get students ready for the workforce. Google and AT&T are some of the names already endorsing the Alliance, while rumors have been circling that Coursera and other MOOC providers are on board as well. However, at this point who will be participating and what it could mean for education is still up in the air. It’s an alliance-in-progress.

Today, Google took another big step into the open courseware game, announcing a new partnership with edX — the Harvard and MIT-backed, non-profit organization that currently stands as one of the Big Three MOOC Providers, along with Udacity and Coursera. Together, the two companies plan to launch MOOC.org, a site that will allow teachers, businesses — and really anyone — to create their own digital course and share it with the world. As of now, the site is slated for launch in the first half of 2014.

For edX, MOOC.org represents another step towards going beyond the boundaries of its current model, which includes partnership with institutions like Harvard, MIT, Stanford and other elite universities. In April, the organization merged with Stanford University-based startup Class2Go to build an open-source version of its platform that can be used by any institution around the globe. The goal has been to allow developers access to edX’s code to allow any institution to host and distribute digital courses for on-campus and distance learners — both online and offline — and create better ways to collect student data.

With today’s partnership, edX is expanding that mission, as its partnership with Google will enable any institution or business to post courses on MOOC.org and presumably open the doors to public access of edX’s content. It will also offer a more diverse range of content from non-profit institutions to higher education institutions and businesses, edX President Anant Agarwal said.

However, while edX has been building out its own open-source platform, Google said in its blog post today that it will be hosting MOOC.org in its own cloud and — not only that — it will also be lending a team of developers to the partnership to help develop Open edX, the organization’s aforementioned open-source MOOC platform.

In turn, for Google, its partnership with edX represents yet another step in its own foray into digital education — one that includes Google Play for Education, Google Apps for Education, and the launch of its own open-source course building platform, Course Builder, in September of last year.

In its blog post today, Google explained that, over the last year, Course Builder has served as as an experiment in how to build and optimize an open, digital course platform at scale. Since launching, Google said that the platform had become host to a variety of courses on “everything from game theory to philanthropy” and is now being used by both universities and non-profits alike to experiment with MOOC content and “make education more accessible … enabling educators to easily teach at scale on top of its cloud services.”

As to Google’s role in the MOOC movement and digital education, the company says that it will continue to “make contributions to the online education space, the findings of which will be shared directly to the online education community and the Open edX platform.” Of course, this partnership, like the Open Education Alliance, is still a work in progress. Details on what type of content, how it will be structured and just what businesses and teachers will be able to get out of the platform remains unclear.

Google did, however, choose to comment on the state of MOOCs and their role in the future of online education, saying, “our industry is in the early stages of MOOCs, and lots of experimentation is still needed to find the best way to meet the educational needs of the world. An open ecosystem with multiple players encourages rapid experimentation and innovation, and we applaud the work going on in this space today.”

It’s still far too early to say what the ramifications are for Google’s partnership with edX and its participation in the Open Education Alliance. Certainly, if both can work towards promoting a “new meritocracy in higher education,” as my colleague Greg surmised in his recent post, they could collectively bring enormous changes to higher education and the scope and breadth of education as it exists today.

Certainly, Udacity, edX and Google seem hellbent on recalibrating the focus of higher education and learning content, focusing on content that will help students learn how to become part of a modern, and increasingly more technical, global workforce. Whether the increasing role of Google and other tech companies in the educational landscape will be welcomed by academia is one thing, however, at the very least, these two experiments could serve to boost the profile of MOOC-style education, particularly of edX itself. It also seems to indicate the increasing likelihood that, whoever should win the battle to become the world’s largest open course platform, Google will be there to lend a hand — and share a piece of the pie.


Yahoo And Google Are Both Spending Big Money On Acquisition Sprees And What That Says About Their Futures

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These days it seems as if a startup so much as glances in Marissa Mayer’s direction, it can expect a bid within 24 hours. There’s been a lot of buzz about Yahoo’s new role as an acquisition hound of late, and Mayer’s attempts to turn the beleaguered giant into a mobile-first company and energize its ranks with young, acqui-hired talent.

But Yahoo isn’t alone in its pursuit of “serial acquirer” status. Highlighted by its blockbuster acquisition of Waze last month, Google has quietly snapped up a cadre of companies as well — and has spent a pretty penny doing it. In its “10-Q” filing with the SEC on Thursday, Google revealed that it spent $1.3 billion on acquisitions during the first half of 2013, with $966 million of that total going to Waze.

While reports had varied on the final purchase price, according to the filing, the acquisition of Waze was “for a total cash consideration of $966 million,” with “$847 million attributed to goodwill and $188 million attributed to intangible assets,” minus the $69 million in other net liabilities assumed from Waze’s books. Though the final number is subject to change, it’s now abundantly clear just how hungry Google was to beef up its social mapping data and prevent it from falling into the hands of its competitors.

On top of its new social mapping prize, Google has made another 15 acquisitions so far this year, shelling out $344 million in additional assets to buy companies like Wavii, Makani Power, Channel Intelligence and DNNresearch. Channel Intelligence represented the largest deal of the batch, with Google paying $125 million to continue its charge on the eCommerce front as well.

With Wavii going for an estimated $30 million and 13 companies still accounted for, we can deduce that Google, like Yahoo, has also been making its fair share of small-ticket acqui-hires over the year. In fact, Google acquired 53 companies in 2012, chief of which was Motorola Mobility at a price tag of $12.5 billion. The rest of its acquisitions cost $1.1 billion.

Notably, Google was in the midst of carrying out this M&A strategy when Marissa Mayer left the company to become CEO of Yahoo, and it’s clearly one that she’s now using to shore up Yahoo’s weaknesses. Yahoo spent most of 2012 wrapped up in internal struggles and attempted board takeovers. Compared to Google’s 53 acquisitions in 2012, Yahoo only made two — both of which took place only after Mayer had taken over.

Since Mayer took the reins last summer, Yahoo has accelerated its acquisition strategy exponentially, making a whopping 18 acquisitions. And, while that’s mind-boggling enough as it is, Yahoo is likely far from calling it quits. As my colleague Alex Wilhelm recently pointed out, Mayer actually has plenty of runway. Thanks to its stake in Alibaba, Yahoo has an ace up its sleeve that’s potentially worth tens of billion of dollars and which can continue to fuel its aggressive M&A strategy.

For many reasons, this is critical if Mayer is to have any shot at turning the ship around. If Yahoo really wants to strengthen its position in mobile and revamp its aging video and media technology, the company has to continue going after outside talent.

Similar Approach To M&A, Different Stories

While Yahoo and Google are both making headlines for the slew of acquisitions they’ve made over the past year — and the money they’re spending to do it — this shared approach says very different things about what each company perceives as its greatest need (read: deficiency). Yahoo’s biggest problem, at least in the short term, is PR.

In other words, when Mayer took the helm, Yahoo has been spinning in circles for years. They were directionless and basically seen as a has-been company that had lost its relevance in the modern tech industry. By acqui-hiring young talent, Mayer is showing that she’s eager to return Yahoo to its former standing and regain its luster — in part, by make it attractive to younger entrepreneurs but also by updating its product to make Yahoo a destination for younger people in general.

Its billion-dollar acquisition of Tumblr is a prime example: Tumblr’s core user base consists of young people, teenagers and middleschoolers. So not only was Tumblr an opportunity to make Yahoo seem like a cool company for young people and generate more traffic, but it also allows Yahoo to play to its strength, leveraging its ad network to monetize Tumblr’s massive content silo.

Mayer’s approach to M&A is also proving that the company is eager to fix its lagging mail, search and news tools, which have been gathering dust and have been eclipsed by the likes of Google and Microsoft.

Some of these problems will be easy for Yahoo to address and fix in the short term, but they could also create more issues for the company over the long-term. Yahoo is attempting to make a litany of significant, structural changes all at once, making it tough to achieve any kind of real cohesion across its products. It may do wonders for the stock, but it could easily end up being an ad hoc, duct-tape-style solution that leaves the real, infrastructural dangers roiling beneath the surface.

In contrast, it’s taken years for Google to achieve any sort of cohesion across its own disparate products and projects. But its recently embarked on a new, “One Google Era,” in which the company has begun to prioritize collaboration and unification across its properties, which, in turn, gives more meaning to both its M&A and product strategies.

Google’s acquisition of Waze, for example, allows it to add a social layer to its existing mapping and navigation products, strengthening an already formidable arsenal of mobile properties, rather than, in Yahoo’s case, allowing it to start from square one.

Google is now focused on becoming a big data empire and adding pieces that will help it power its massive cloud services infrastructure and products that are decidedly focused on real time. This applies across its diverse properties, whether that’s to allow people to collaborate and communicate in real time through Hangouts, Docs or Gmail, search in real time or navigate in real time through Google Maps and Waze.

Going forward, Google will begin looking more to acquire and build products that will prepare it for increasingly direct competition with companies like Amazon. One place that Google has been struggling of late is in its e-commerce and shopping, where its ambitions haven’t been met with the usual rewards or dominance it’s come to expect from its ventures into search, mobile and advertising.

For example, while Google’s dominance in search remains, when it comes to discovery and engagement around products, Amazon has been leaving it in the dust. If Larry Page’s mission is for Google to use its real-time infrastructure to create utilities that are critical to their everyday lives — whether in communication or otherwise — falling behind in product marketplaces is a big problem.

That’s likely why Google is working to boost its marketplace ambitions with products like the rumored “Helpouts,” which could help find a real home for its mobile payment products, like Wallet, and communication product like Hangouts to power real-time commerce. Amazon and eBay have been busy tearing down the walls that stand in the way of buying and selling on the web. Now Google wants to join the fun, and tools like Helpouts point towards a future in which Google may begin acquiring the kind of talent that can help it to build a real marketplace on top of search and other core products.


Meet Helpouts, Google’s Secret Project That Turns Hangouts Into A Commerce Platform

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While its roots lie in search, today, Google wears many hats. From self-driving cars and wearable technology to social networking and mobile operating systems, there are few industries where the search and advertising giant has yet to make its presence felt. Lately, however, Google’s expansion has taken a noticeable tack in a more singular direction: e-commerce.

With the outsized success Amazon and eBay have had building online marketplaces that seek to remove the barriers around buying and selling on the web, it was only a matter of time before Google decided to pull its chair up to the e-commerce table. Today, TechCrunch has learned via a tipster that Google has quietly been pursuing its marketplace ambitions under the auspices of a new platform that leverages its increasingly powerful cloud services to power live, real-time commerce.

The product, which has reportedly been named “Helpouts” and is currently being tested internally in Mountain View, will take shape as a marketplace that enables individuals and small and large businesses to buy and sell services via live video. With the capacity to connect merchants and consumers on both an immediate and scheduled basis, according to our tipster, the platform will allow sellers to create their own profiles and take advantage of reputation management, scheduling and payment features, while offering robust search and discovery tools for consumers.

As its live video infrastructure is increasingly becoming the unifying backend for its expanding roster of real-time products, Google’s new marketplace will leverage Hangouts to deliver services via live video. To that end, the platform will also come integrated with what could end up being a handful of Google products, particularly its young virtual wallet and payment service, Google Wallet.

From what we’ve heard, Google began internal testing of the product in late June, but may be at least a month away from a public release.

In the meantime, from what we can gather from leaked mockups of Helpouts, the platform seems reminiscent of eBay’s recent efforts to expand its own marketplace with the launch of Secretguru, its concierge-style platform that allows merchants to offer a range of services directly to consumers — from business mentoring to beauty tips.

Part of the reason Amazon has sprinted out to such a commanding lead in the e-commerce market is its growing network of fulfillment centers and distribution warehouses, which allow it to produce that magic, online retail bullet of low prices, convenience and speedy delivery. Without a fulfillment network, Google’s own local shopping ambitions seem to be taking a different shape. With Helpouts, Google, like eBay appears to be leaning into the territory of collaborative consumption marketplaces like, say, Zaarly, TaskRabbit and Live Ninja.

According to our source, Helpouts, like these startups before it, will cover a range of categories, including computers, education, food, health, hobbies and repair. One can then imagine services on Helpouts ranging from health consultations and fitness classes to appliance repair support and cooking lessons.

Google has also apparently partnered with a number of brands during internal testing, including One Medical Group, Sears, Weight Watchers and Alliance Frances, for example. At launch, the platform will also reportedly include an array of individual merchants and instructors as well, from yoga gurus to fitness teachers — all of whom will be able to offer both free and paid services to consumers via Helpouts.

According to our sources, with Helpouts, Google is looking to remove some of the barriers that have traditionally stood in the way of the seamless delivery of live services. For example, using Helpouts, a Spanish tutor from Argentina could offer language training to students in Japan, while a Yoga instructor in New York would be able to provide classes to a stay-at-home mom in Wyoming and an appliance repair shop could walk a customer through fixing a broken fan in their laptop — with an Internet connection being the only requirement.

Under the new, “One Google” Era, the company has begun to prioritize a greater collaboration or interrelationship between its products. With Helpouts, one could also imagine how the platform can act as a logical extension of Google’s core search and ads business. For example, customers could connect to retailers and manufacturers to get recommendations and advice on product purchases — or receive guidance on how to set up their products.

This could work to shore up a nagging gap for Google: When it comes to product searches, people no longer turn to Google. It’s all about Amazon. It also wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine Helpouts connecting to YouTube to offer video or lesson playback or integrating with Google’s nerd glasses.

Of course, as with any Google product launch, life could be getting a little bit tougher for its smaller (and startup-y) competitors. There is a long list of businesses that either parallel or would directly compete with some part of Helpouts, whether it be LiveNinja, PowHow (which is, believe it or not, founded by a former Googler), Live Moka, InstaEdu, Shmoop and, perhaps less directly, platforms like Angie’s List, Udemy, Skillshare, TaskRabbit, CreativeLive and Curious. Though, admittedly, some of these overlap more than others.

When it comes to big data or resources that can be thrown into curating a service offering like this, startups are bringing a knife to a gun fight. Firstly, there’s plenty of room for a more polished, higher-quality product in this space and, secondly, Google has video tech that’s already been widely adopted by individuals and businesses. Not to mention, most startups can’t hold a candle to Google’s marketing machine.

Furthermore, according to our sources, Google has been building Helpouts in complete secrecy — well, until now — and few employees at the company were initially aware of the product, which has been developed by a team of two dozen engineers over the past year. Other than that, details are hazy. Perhaps Sergey and his secretive Google X unit are responsible. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, some may be wondering, if Helpouts is destined for YouTube (or at least HangOuts)-level adoption, or whether this is more of an experiment and it will just end up suffering the same fate as Reader or the geek-adored Wave. It’s not totally clear just how much marketing spend Google is going to dish out or whether it intends for this to have mass-appeal, but based on what we’re seeing, I would lean towards the affirmative.

Furthermore, while the type and date of the product’s rollout remain unclear, we’ve heard from sources that Helpouts was recently the subject of a company-wide meeting, which suggests that at least a few Googlers are taking this seriously.

Stay tuned for more.

Additional key sleuthing and reporting contributed by the one and only Mr. Frederic Lardinois, the Maestro of Mountain View. 


Yahoo’s Shopping Spree Continues With Conference Calling Startup Rondee

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Thought Yahoo’s acquisition spree would culminate with a $1.1 billion deal for Tumblr? Nope, not so much. In fact, the buy-happy company just quietly made its second acquisition in 24 hours — in two different markets, no less. Yes, Yahoo followed this morning’s purchase of iOS photo app maker, GhostBird Software, by making a play into the enterprise conference calling space. Wait, what?

Yep, users of six-year-old free conference calling service, Rondee, were tonight informed via email that the startup has been acquired by Yahoo for an undisclosed sum. It will also suffer the same fate met by other recent Yahoo acquisitions — like MileWise, Astrid, GoPollGo and Loki Studios to name just four — in that it will soon be going the way of the dinosaur. After June 30th, the company’s website now reads, users will no longer be allowed to access their data or create new conference calls.

The startup will continue its progressive shut down from there, officially closing operations on July 12th, before ultimately cutting off user access to their calling data on July 30th, the startup said in an email to its customers today (copied below). However, to avoid stranding its users completely on such short notice, the company said that it’s arranging for “user Login ID and on-demand pins to work with InstantConference,” a company (and, previously, a competitor) it describes as a “highly reputable conference calling service.” Not sure that’s much consolation. “Hey, we may be forcing you to leave … but at least the place we’re sending you has electricity, right?”

What’s A Rondee

Rondee, for those who haven’t been following the crowded and congested conference calling market, launched in 2007 on a mission to build the “Evite for conference calls.” The startup set out to lower the barriers to entry in the conference calling arena and make it accessible to the masses. Today, that means it offers basic conference calling capabilities around the clock (for free) to anyone with an email address.

Granted, for those looking to get “fancy” with call recording, like having access to audio, custom tones, call directories and call scheduling, some account setup is required. But that’s about it. Users can choose between free, on-demand conference calling, or free, “Scheduled Rondees,” in which users can pick a future date and time to schedule a conference call and let Rondee send out email invitations to which invitees can respond to and use via the company’s website. Straightforward, easy to use and free.

Of course, while those are traits every company should shoot for, the VoIP market looks a little bit different than it did six years ago, becoming nearly ubiquitous thanks to companies like Skype and Google, meanwhile, startups like UberConference have moved onto free visual conference calling to compete with Hangouts et al. Today, Rondee’s basic VoIP model sounds very familiar.

So Why Did Yahoo Just Buy This?

While Yahoo nor Rondee has shared any real details on the terms of the deal or the motivation, we do know from a quick Google search (and a look at its press page) that the startup has been pretty quiet of late. Sure, it’s likely this wasn’t an exorbitantly expensive buy for Yahoo, but this also hasn’t been an area of strength (or focus) for Yahoo for a long time, which starts to make it seem like there isn’t really a good explanation for this one.

Maybe Yahoo wants to integrate Rondee into its internal conference solution, for internal IT use, seeing as it’s cheaper than buying an enterprise solution? Probably not.

Er, Maybe Because…

What may be more likely (and hopefully is the case) is that Yahoo liked the team and was eager to make use of its talent, so Marissa Mayer pushed Yahoo’s Acme Acqui-hire Button so that Rondee can join it in re-building Yahoo Messenger. Maybe? After all, on its website, Rondee says that it will be joining Yahoo’s Small Business Team, so while it may be a stretch, motivation could lie in the company’s has-been messaging client.

Marissa Mayer has made talent acquisition one of her top priorities since becoming CEO, and mostly her shopping spree has targeted mobile — in other words, showing the company understands that its mobile strategy and products have to evolve if Yahoo ever hopes to be truly relevant again. (And, really, it’s probably a little late, but…)

Right now, it’s easy to take a look at Yahoo’s product portfolio and sigh. Case in point: People used to Yahoo Messenger as their go-to chat app. (Well, some people did, somewhere. We’re still trying to find out who they are exactly.) But the point is that Yahoo’s messaging client used to be enormous, and now it’s about as cool as the Macarena. Meanwhile, sadly for Yahoo, gamified and chat-ified messaging apps are all the rage and continue to proliferate, especially in emerging markets. In some Upside Down World, this could mean that there’s still opportunity here for Yahoo.

Don’t Shoot The Messenger?

Though with Google’s assets like gChat, Google Voice, Gmail and Hangouts, just to name a few, Yahoo has a long way to go. A pretty long way. Sure, if anyone knows how to get Yahoo up to speed using Google’s playbook, it’s Marissa Mayer. But then there’s WhatsApp, iMessage, Viber and too many more to name. Google launched free voice calling from Gmail nearly three years ago, and adding similar capabilities and enhancements to Yahoo Mail would make sense — and wouldn’t hurt. Of course, even if it were somehow able to pull it off, weakly copying Googles Roadmap doesn’t do Yahoo any favors. It’s dangerous and, well, just sad.

Or maybe not. Maybe Yahoo will use Rondee as part of a foundation on which it will build a Hangouts competitor. Why the world needs that, of course, is another question entirely — sorry to say, Yahoo Mail diehards.

These are a few possible explanations for Yahoo acquiring Rondee, though I’m not sure they’re particularly satisfying. To this point, it’s worth reading this post (really, lament) on Yahoo Messenger from Yahoo’s former director of global tech initiatives. Marissa Mayer seems to be making an effort to address some of the internal idiocy Smith cites as contributing not only to the downfall of Messenger itself but to the downfall of products subsequently created (internally!) that might have saved it or at least prolonged its life.

Mostly, Smith attributes Yahoo’s struggles to crappy leadership, a management focused on preservation rather than trimming-to-grow or innovation, the ole “it’s hard to get stuff done at a big company” line and a lack of a unifying product vision. The latter of which, at least, fittingly smacks of the very product strategy currently at work in Google Land.

This seems to be a familiar tune at Yahoo, though it is heartening that some of that stuff is fixable. However, watching Marissa Mayer acquire all these startups that are on their last lifeline or just keeping their head above water is suspect. Now, it could be questionable in a good way, provoking media attention, buzz and providing a (relatively) cheap way to bring in quality talent. And maybe we’re watching a grand vision unfold, with Marissa acting as the Great Unifier it sounds like Yahoo desperately needs.

Sure, this could be akin to watching Tony Stark miraculously build an Iron Man suit from spare parts and scrap metal … or this turnaround strategy very well prove to be suspect in the same way that a bunch of bricks painted yellow does not gold bullion make.

For more, find Rondee’s email to users below:

Dear Rondee User:

We thank you for being with us over the last six years as we grew Rondee’s free conference calling service. It has been a privilege to work with you.

Yahoo! has just acquired Rondee, and we will be joining Yahoo! Small Business to continue innovating with technologies that help small businesses and groups.

Starting July 12, 2013, RONDEE WILL NO LONGER BE OPERATIVE. To minimize inconvenience to you, we have arranged for your Login ID and Rondee On Demand PINs to work with InstantConference, a highly reputable conference calling service. InstantConference has created a special free plan for Rondee users with unlimited minutes, unlimited conferences and up to 150 callers per conference.

You’ll do On Demand calls with InstantConference the same way you did with Rondee:

REDACTED
If you want to use advanced features such as audio recording, call scheduling using the Outlook add-on or real-time monitoring, you’ll need to log in to the account created for you at InstantConference.

REDACTED
There are three main differences between advanced features on Rondee vs. InstantConference:

Call recording works differently on InstantConference. Instead of activating audio recording in advance online, the organizer does it on the call by pressing *9 and entering the 4 digit code shown above, or by turning on audio recording through a moderator control panel. Learn More

InstantConference has a fully featured moderator control panel. You can monitor call attendance, mute, disconnect, or lock the conference in real-time. Learn More

InstantConference has a different way of handling scheduled conferences. Rather than the web-based format used by Rondee, InstantConference offers an Outlook Add-On which is convenient and easy to use. Learn More
BY USING YOUR RONDEE LOGIN AND PIN(S) WITH INSTANTCONFERENCE, YOU CONSENT TO THE INSTANTCONFERENCE TERMS OF SERVICE AND PRIVACY POLICY.

CLICK HERE for Terms and Conditions.

CLICK HERE for Privacy Policy.

For Premium users with balances in their PayPal account, we will be refunding those balances right after July 12, 2013. InstantConference also offers toll-free conferencing with plans as low as 2.9 cents a minute.

PLEASE NOTE: The Rondee service will soon no longer be operative and will no longer accept new sign-ups. Current users will be able to continue using Rondee for conference calls through July 12, 2013 and log in to access account information through August 12, 2013.

For questions about the Rondee service or your Rondee account, click here.

For questions about InstantConference, click here.

Thank you again for your support,

The Rondee Team


WTF Is Waze And Why Did Google Just Pay A Billion+ For It?

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The tech industry has seen its fair share of acquisition whoppers lately, with Salesforce acquiring ExactTarget for $2.5 billion this month, and Yahoo putting the icing on its acquisition spree by snatching up Tumblr for $1.1 billion. But the news today that Google is buying popular iOS map and navigation app, Waze, (reportedly for around $1.1 to $1.3 billion) is a little different.

While the prices are similar and Tumblr may well have seen interest before Yahoo swooped in, rumors have been swirling around Waze for months. First it was Apple with a reported ~$500 million bid, then it was Facebook that was said to be kicking Waze’s tires at $1 billion, before Google swooped in, upped the ante and closed the deal.

In fact, Israeli publication, The Globes, reported that Facebook execs were committed enough that they flew to Israel and were in the middle of serious (albeit stalling) negotiations when Google showed up.

What’s This Waze Everyone’s Blabbin’ About?

Founded in 2007, Waze is an Israeli and Palo Alto-based developer of free mapping and turn-by-turn navigation apps for iOS and Android. Since its launch a year later, Waze has raised $67 million in outside funding from a number of prominent Silicon Valley firms (including Kleiner Perkins), as well as Horizons Ventures in Hong Kong, and has grown to 110 employees — with the majority of its staff in Israel and around 10 or so in Palo Alto, including CEO Noam Bardin.

Amidst a flood of third-party mobile mapping apps that have emerged since, Waze is today pushing 50 million users (up from 30 million in October) and has managed to find a steady growth curve thanks to its unique crowdsourcing formula. Rather than assiduously map out every single road, lane and byway, Waze relies on its millions of users to act as traffic cops, field ops and cartographers, flagging and recording updates on accidents, bottlenecks and traffic as they drive. It sucks in and aggregates this realtime user data (on speed, location, routes and so on), using it to build out and refine its own maps and to calculate the best possible routes (and re-routes) for its drivers, among other things.

This crowdsourced data, driver-sourced mapping, community curation and citizen traffic reporting adds an interactive element to the user experience, which not only quickly becomes addicting, but tends to be more accurate thanks to its obsessive (and often geeky) army of reporters relaying traffic data and updates in realtime. The crowdsourcing model also (in theory) helps make it easier for Waze to offer more accurate re-routing info when you inevitably miss that left turn at Albuquerque — something the majority of apps struggle with (even Google) thanks to the amount of stress these realtime calculations and calibrations (and processing) put on the app and its infrastructure.

In other words, it’s a tough problem to solve, and the more realtime feedback and data you have on routes, etc., the better the experience is for drivers.

So, this, along with enabling drivers to tap into social layers, view realtime fuel prices, nearby gas stations, points of interest and use hands-free navigation (all of which adjust to your location as you drive), have enabled Waze to become an attractive alternative to native navigation apps. Which is impressive, considering its native competitors came with your phone when you bought it, so they’re already there, a finger tap away. As it is with apps no matter the category, to compete, there has to be a significantly higher value proposition, otherwise you’ll just stick with what’s on your phone.

How It Attracted The Big Three

As Jordan recently pointed out, the so-called “Map Wars” have become increasingly intense among the big mobile tech companies. For the Average Joe, while a navigation and mapping app probably won’t be the reason you buy one phone over another, a reliable, easy-to-use map app is key to a good mobile experience. After all, we use our maps and navigation apps so frequently — rely on them, really. For that reason, it’s no wonder Facebook, Apple and Google are all scrambling to one-up each other.

For Apple in particular, when the company was rumored to be checking out Waze, it was still stinging from the embarrassing premature release of its own native mapping and navigation app, which was so bad it drew a fairly unprecedented public apology from Apple CEO Tim Cook. With Apple Maps hitting the App Store half-baked, acquiring a popular and arguably far-more-accurate navigation app would have made sense. Hopefully Apple’s decision to pass on Waze isn’t a product of the company believing it can just build a better app internally. Sure, maybe it can, but that would also just smack of the same hubris/lack of perspective that led them to think Apple Maps was good enough to be released in the first place. (You think Steve Jobs was satisfied with “good enough”? Hell no.)

As to Waze and Facebook: The Social Network has been loudly stepping up its mobile game, including the recent launch of its much-ballyhooed half-operating system for Android (or “apperating system,” if you prefer Geek Speak), which comes amidst a laundry list of other mobile updates, shifts and product releases it’s made of late. After all, mobile is becoming an increasingly important part of Facebook’s bottom line. For Facebook, being able to offer a reliable, popular mapping app as a “native” part of its Android experience might have given potential customers a reason to take a second look and put a jolt into the lackluster adoption of Facebook Home.

Google’s situation is a bit different, as it already has a world class map product. For all intents and purposes, Google Maps set the standard and Google might as well have invented consumer-facing digital navigation (All apologies to MapQuest, of course.) I mean, what other company can you name that has sent out a fleet of hilarious-looking, seeing-eye cars to map each and every street? We now take it for granted that we can pop over to Google Earth and instantaneously “fly anywhere” on the planet to “view satellite imagery, maps, terrain, 3D buildings, from galaxies in outer space to the canyons of the ocean.” Which is ridiculous.

Why Google Won Out

In a blog post today, Waze CEO Noam Bardin gave a little insight into the mutual motivations for Waze (and for Google CEO Larry Page and Google GEO VP Brian McClendon, specifically.):

“We are excited about the prospect of working with the Google Maps team to enhance our search capabilities and to join them in their ongoing efforts to build the best map of the world,” he said, before revealing that “nothing practical will change” after the acquisition, and that Waze “will maintain [its] community, brand, service and organization.”

But that doesn’t really say much, so while both companies aren’t laying out all the gory details yet, below are a few of the reasons why Google was willing to shell out the big bucks and why it should be giving Apple, Facebook and everyone else map-shaped fits.

Geography.

Israel has a long, celebrated history when it comes to technology and R&D, and its startup economy, which is already one of the strongest in the region, continues to evolve and produce great companies. But with the exception of Cisco’s $5 billion purchase of NDS, Waze represents one of the largest exits for an Israeli-born company in recent memory. Especially consumer.

But more importantly, Google, as with every tech company, is now well aware of Israel’s talent pool. In the past, it’s scooped up native startups like Labpixies and Quicksee, and it already has a presence in Israel, including its recently-launched program for local entrepreneurs. With most of Waze’s staff based in Israel, Google wants to maintain the current set up, as it makes Israel’s strong R&D and emergent talent pool that much more accessible.

Less About The 50M, More About The Data.

It’s not unusual for companies to make acquisitions for their users, especially if that traction and user base is significant (and its users are on the younger side). Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr is a perfect example. But, with Google already owning arguably the most popular navigation app in the U.S., it’s not exactly dying for more users. Though certainly 50 million users doesn’t hurt.

But likely there’s a stronger pull in the overlap of what the companies see as their perceived value. Waze doesn’t consider itself a “Mapping Company,” but a “Big Data Company.” And considering Google is out to organize the planet’s information, Google is practically the definition of Big Data (and helped invent MapReduce), even if it hates that label, as MIT Tech’s Antonio Regalado explains. What’s more, Google loves to experiment with different ways to visualize Big Data in its maps, and its new, updated Maps product keeps improving.

And, really, the mapping game is won on Big Data, isn’t it?

Because of its giant data set, and maturing mapping infrastructure, Google itself has begun to leverage that data to offer custom, personalized maps for its users — something that’s fundamental to the social, customizable experience Waze has sought to create. But, generally speaking, when it comes to realtime navigation, adjusting to the driver’s route as it goes, Google still feels more pre-programmed. Yes, it has improved in the newest version of Google Maps, but while it has colored traffic layers to show users degrees of traffic, it doesn’t seem on par with Waze’s in-route, constantly-updated traffic info. And it often doesn’t offer the same number of potential routes as Waze when a driver is, say, looking to avoid traffic.

These differences in user experience may seem small by themselves, but compounded, they could represent a big value-add to Google Maps down the road. Plus, Google’s design has become uniform in an effort to maintain a single user experience across its various properties. Waze’s design and user experience is more fun, liter and more interactive. Wazers can be religious about reporting traffic jams or speed traps, and Google knows that it can use that.

Social Driving

Waze gives Google the perfect opportunity to leverage Google+ and make Google Maps more social. The company has moving quickly to integrate its new social graph (Google+) across its products, but it’s not there yet. Waze, too, has been stepping up its social game, adding social functionality in October that allows drivers to see which of their friends are on their way to a mutual destination, gave them the ability to share drives, pickups, meetup spots and more easily communicate status from the road.

Waze also added Facebook single sign-on, which one can easily see Google replacing with Google+ authentication to drive more users to Google+. And Google+ could use some friends, lets be honest. With its Facebook integration, Waze gave users the ability to collect friends around a shared destination point, distribute directions to that group and use short cuts — all cool features that Google can continue to expand via Google+ (as it already added social search function in its new version of Google Maps).

The Big Potential Of Local Advertising

While it’s always working to be seen as some sort of next-gen digital utility provider, Google is first and foremost an advertising company. Really, many of its services’ main function is to help their customers get their ads in front of their users. Google advertising can be a key asset to Waze going forward as it looks to expand its own revenue potential and advertising platform.

Up until recently, Waze had put monetization on the backburner, focusing on growth and product. But, late last year, Waze rolled out its own Ad product, which is essentially a “location-guided ad platform for local business owners and big brands that want to attract the attention of nearby drivers.”

While Waze previously allowed users to quickly tap and swipe through its categories to locate nearby gas stations, for example, its new ad product aims to take that to the next level. Rather than simply plastering display ads all over your phone’s already-limited surface area, Waze wanted to create a system where local businesses (and chains) can claim their spot on its maps, while sending out targeted messages and “native” ads to people who are already driving nearby and already happen to be looking for a local place to eat, for example.

Waze’s advertising product gives brands like Dunkin’ Donuts access to a self-serve advertising platform, where they can “set, change and measure their mobile advertising campaigns,” along with features like “local search advertising and advanced targeting.”

Who does that remind you of?

Many of the big tech companies have been looking to make a splash in local, whether it’s Foursquare, Yelp or Facebook, and many more are trying to get there. These three companies in particular can tap into geo-location data via check-ins and local search, but none of them can hold a candle to Google’s scale.

Yes, Google+’s local business pages may not quite have the same adoption as Facebook Pages, but the company is working hard to shore up the gap and make G+ a destination, digital real estate that’s actually valuable to local businesses. Though it doesn’t have the traffic yet, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore Google+. The company has an enormous dataset on local businesses, listings, contact information, hours and so on and they’ve capitalized on that to cater to local advertisers looking to reach customers as they search for related keywords, etc.

Local, mobile advertising spend in the U.S. is expected to skyrocket over the next few years, making Google’s vast index of local businesses and search extremely valuable to Waze, and to an extent, vice versa. Although adding this search and its accompanying massive dataset and processing on the backend may lead to a more cluttered user experience (and its hard to imagine Google will never touch Waze’s UI), Google can also give Waze the kind of search functionality and integration that it’s still missing.

Game Over?

The more one starts to drill down into the motivations for the acquisition, it gets easier and easier to justify the one-billion-dollar price tag. And, although it’s rarely said of big-ticket acquisitions like this, it almost seems as if it’s a steal. Rather than having an excellent map and navigation product fall into the hands of one of the other big players that (desperately) needs it, Google has taken its already stellar Maps product and added a younger but potentially equally valuable one.

And while Wazers may worry about its new owner tinkering (and screwing) with the app’s current experience and interface, it’s more than likely that any significant changes or integrations are still a long ways out. Plus, as my homeskillet and colleague Greg Kumparak points out, Google can immediately start getting value out of Waze’s realtime traffic data and its on-the-go re-routing prowess — both of which Google needs and both of which can potentially be integrated into Google Maps without spoiling Waze’s user experience.

Ultimately, however, if the “Map Wars” are more than just hype drummed up by the media and if its outcome has any significant bearing on their mobile strategies, than this seems like a fairly big loss for Facebook and Apple. It almost seems as if it would’ve been worth it just to keep Waze out of Google’s hands, but again, there’s a big mobile landscape beyond Maps. Regardless, after the Waze-oogle deal, Apple, Facebook and everyone else are now swimming upstream against a stronger current.


With Google Play For Education, Google Looks To Challenge Apple’s Dominance In The Classroom

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Google I/O, the company’s sixth annual developer conference, got officially underway in San Francisco on Wednesday, and it was an eventful day. It took the company every minute of its epic three-hour keynote to unfurl a laundry list of announcements and updates, seemingly across every product category in its arsenal — from Android, Chrome and Search to Maps, Google+ and Hangouts — each with a fresh coat of paint. We even saw the arrival of Google’s very own subscription music service, today, which is already being touted as a potential Spotify killer.

Amidst Larry Page’s triumphant return to the stage (after addressing his much-discussed vocal issues yesterday), Google’s soaring stock price and sexy smartphone demos, it was easy to miss an important announcement concerning Google’s foray into a considerably less sexy market: Education. (And K-12 education, no less.)

Android Engineering Director Chris Yerga took the stage to introduce Google Play for Education, through which Google hopes to extend Play — its application and content marketplace for Android — into the classroom. The new store, which is scheduled to launch this fall, aims to simplify the content discovery process for schools, giving teachers and students access to the same tools that are now native to the Google Play experience.

Teachers will now be able to search for and recommend learning content by category, grade level, and a variety of other criteria, and will have the opportunity to discover content recommended by other educators, for example. What’s more, every piece of content served within its curated portal is pre-approved by educators before being posted, so that teachers can rest easy knowing the recommended content is quality and school-appropriate.

Google has already begun to recruit content partners, with NASA and PBS among those that have already signed on to make their content available to users when the store goes live this fall. Yerga said that the team plans to begin accepting content submissions from developers at some point this summer.

Today, Apple is far and away the de facto leader in the education space, but with its new educational app marketplace, Google is clearly positioning itself such that it can begin to make a real play at challenging that dominance. To that point, the real key to Google’s new product is the fact that it enables administrators to distribute applications to their entire team. If a teacher wants to shoot content to a couple hundred Android devices, they simply have to type in their group’s name and voila, Google will push that sucker out to everyone on the list.

Another important perk for cash-strapped teachers is that the marketplace doesn’t require them to use credit cards to purchase content. Instead, educators have the option to buy apps and content in bulk and charge those purchases to their account. These are important features for educational users, removing a great deal of the friction around acquiring learning content.

Not only that, but, while schools and educators are eager to bring apps and other digital learning tools into their classrooms, it’s critical for them to be able to manage and to bring some oversight to the content distribution process. Plus, the Android Marketplace, er, Google Play, has had a long-standing malware problem, so that extra layer of teacher control can help get schools over the hump.

While the penetration of Apple’s mobile devices into education is significant, when it comes to other hardware, IT departments don’t want to deal with the hassle of networking iDevices. Plus, Apple products are expensive — and especially for bulk orders, schools will want to turn elsewhere.

Where Google can have a real advantage over Apple is in its ability to combine Google Play for Education with Google Appls for Ed. Small businesses have been adopting Google’s productivity software in droves, and the interest has started to grow among school boards who want to introduce tablets into their classrooms and use Google Apps as the standard.

Together these two products can work hand in hand in the classroom, with each becoming more powerful as a result. In turn this could help create the incentive or leverage that it needs to begin attracting new users.

The biggest takeaway: If it weren’t already abundantly clear, Google is no longer just a search company. The company has been exerting tremendous effort to achieve a unification among its products, not only in terms of design, but in the way its products interact with each other. That is best demonstrated by the fact that Google products now touch just about everyone. In a sense, Google is becoming a utility provider — for both consumers and developers — and, in turn, a data company.

While Apple has long been focused most of its attention on design over the years, Google’s focus on utility has allowed it to build a massive infrastructure, collecting data from across a broad range of software products at a nearly unprecedented scale. For me, there’s no better testament to the utility and wide application of Google’s infrastructure than Education.

Naturally, in juxtaposition with sexy new smartphones and mobile technology, streaming music services and re-imagined social networks, Google’s work in Education tends to end up in the backseat. But, for this reason, Google has quietly (and quickly) gained noticeable traction in Education, thanks to the adaptation of its utilities and gadgets, like Google Apps and Chromebooks, to the learning market.

For example, in February, Google announced in February that Chromebooks are now in over 2,000 schools across the U.S. For awhile now, Apple has grabbed most of the attention in the education space thanks to the rapid adoption of iPads among schools and teachers. Furthermore, when we talk about Google having positioned itself as a provider of essential utilities, there’s probably no better than the company’s recent announcement that the entire country of Malaysia — that’s 10 million students, teachers and parents — will use Google Apps for Education as part of the country’s effort to improve its education system.

Through its Google Apps products, Google allows students and teachers to collaborate in realtime through Web apps, while using already-familiar tools like Google search and Gmail. The other part of this is, Google’s cloud, its infrastructure, allows it to operate its software products at scale without the traditionally high costs. For that reason, the company can make its educational products accessible to cash-strapped IT departments, for example.

With infrastructure that allows it to run its software at scale from the cloud, Google’s products become more flexible. That foundation behind it, with Google Apps having found penetration among small businesses, it adapted the suite to address similar productivity and collaboration inefficiencies in education.

Apply that to Google Play and pair it with Google Apps, and you can start to see why EdTech entrepreneurs and investors, when asked what the biggest trends are in education (that no one’s talking about yet), more than a few have said “start paying attention to Google.”

And with the impending arrival of Google Play for Education, if Google can start to get Android tablets into the hands of kids, it looks like they might just be onto something…

Google Developer page here.


YouTube Tiptoes Toward Paywalls With The Launch Of Channel Subscriptions, But The Ads Play On

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While it would take you a million lifetimes to watch all the video on YouTube, the company relies on contributions from its amateur and professional partners to keep its content fresh. At the same time, its core business model revolves around providing advertisers with the ability to reach its billion-plus viewers. In turn, video creators rely (or want to rely) on a piece of that ad revenue to continue producing their content. The problem is, of course, that those ads are intrusive, annoying and, at the end of the day, its partners are finding that the revenue from those banners and clips isn’t growing nearly as fast as, say, the number of cat videos on YouTube.

In an effort to provide its partners with an alternative revenue stream, YouTube announced today that it is officially launching a pilot program that enables its video stars to charge subscription fees for access to their channels. Subscriptions will start at $0.99/month, and every channel will be able to offer a 14-day free trial, along with discounted yearly rates.

In its announcement, YouTube cites Sesame Street, which will offer full episodes through its paid channel, and UFC offering fans the ability to watch classic fights as examples. For more, here’s the list of its 53-odd pilot channels.

As of today, users can subscribe to paid channels from their desktops and laptops and watch across devices, but going forward YouTube will look to add the ability to subscribe from any medium/device. On top of that, YouTube will begin a broader roll out of subscriptions in the next few weeks for “qualifying partners,” and from the looks of it, it will be adding a paid channel recommendation feed — just as it does now for free channels.

If you don’t have a YouTube channel, why should you care? Well, YouTube has been telegraphing this for awhile, but it’s really the first (official) sign that YouTube is beginning to tiptoe into the paid video market. Granted, the subscription model isn’t a new idea for YouTube, considering the company just announced in March that it will be launching a music subscription service later this year.

The goal is much the same: Give musicians/artists/creators an opportunity to make some money, while improving the user experience for listeners by potentially removing some of those obnoxious ads that start every video. Of course, in the case of both video and music, it’s much more likely that YouTube is going to stick with both.

Amateur content creators are going to be hesitant about erecting paywalls around their content. Most viewers are going to balk at the idea of buying a subscription to a YouTube channel, and there’s a question of whether or not they’d really be able to convert enough of their viewers to paid subscriptions to make it worth it. In the end, it’s the same issue newspapers and publishers have struggled with for years.

There’s also the fact that every video producer is already offering their content for free, although behind ads. Now you’re going to tell viewers that they have to pay for the same content they’ve been getting for free? Sure, that will work for your superfans, but as is the way with the “freemium” model, if you’re going to charge, the content behind the paywall better be, well, premium. I want to see “Extras,” exclusive content/footage, and so on.

Of course, as Peter Kafka pointed out this week, amateur video producers likely don’t have the resources to produce that exclusive or premium content.

Nonetheless, the company is going to use paid subscriptions in an attempt to attract new partners, new content creator and, we assume, more dollars — although YouTube doesn’t specify whether it will be taking a cut of subscriptions or not. YouTube is clearly aware of the success Hulu, Netflix, Vimeo and other video sites have been having with subscription and on-demand models, and it wants to become more attractive to film and TV networks, studios and producers.

But for now, YouTube can’t make the jump exclusively to subscriptions, because it needs those ad dollars that are keeping the whole thing afloat. It’s a tricky line to walk, no doubt, but YouTube certainly isn’t helping its user experience by setting up the potential to have both a paywall and ads in and around videos for the foreseeable future.

Just speaking for myself personally, I probably most frequently use YouTube for search (and a little discovery), particularly around music. In other words, I’ll have a song or an artist in mind, will do a YouTube search, which inevitably serves a couple or dozens of choices for the same song, artist or even subject. There’s a high likelihood that I have no idea which video I want or is best, which requires some perusing, so having a 10 second ad at the beginning of each video is really disruptive.

Maybe that’s a niche use case, but I suspect not. YouTube ads, while tolerable because we consciously or subconsciously recognize their role in keeping millions of cat videos afloat and online, are frustrating. Sure, Hulu has ads, too, and they aren’t much better. But at least in Hulu’s case, the viewer knows they’re watching a 30-minute or hour-long episode of television online, and regular old offline TV has already conditioned us to expect ads every 5 seconds. Unfortunately. But for a 2-minute clip of questionable quality? Come on.

So keeping ads, while slowly throwing up paywalls is just a bad idea. So the roll out of paid video will end up being incremental and almost just a show of good faith — to keep from ruffling feathers — while the ads just keep proliferating.


Google Scoops Up Neural Networks Startup DNNresearch To Boost Its Voice And Image Search Tech

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Well, Google’s M&A strategy is nothing if not diverse in focus. In November, it acquired package delivery startup Bufferbox. Last month, Google it made its first acquisition of the year, buying eCommerce startup Channel Intelligence. Today, Google dug into the Computer Science department at The University of Toronto to acquire DNNresearch, a young startup founded by professor Geoffrey Hinton and two of his grad students, Alex Krizhevsky and Ilya Sutskever.

Incorporated last year, the startup’s website is conspicuously devoid of any identifying information — just a blank black screen. While the financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, Google was eager to acquire the startup’s research on neural networks — as well as the talent behind it — to help it go beyond traditional search algorithms in its ability to identify pieces of content, images, voice, text and so on. In its announcement today, the University of Toronto said that the team’s research “has profound implications for areas such as speech recognition, computer vision and language understanding.”

Furthermore, Professor Hinton is the founding director of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at University College in London, holds a Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning and is the director of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research-funded program on “Neural Computation and Adaptive Perception.” Also a fellow of The Royal Society, Professor Hinton has become renowned for his work on neural nets and his research into “unsupervised learning procedures for neural networks with rich sensory input.”

In its statement, the University of Toronto said that both Krizhevsky and Sutskever will be moving to Google, while Hinton will “divide his time between his university research and his work at Google,” both in Google’s Toronto offices and at Google headquarters in Mountain View.

For Google, this means getting access, in particular, to the team’s research into the improvement of object recognition, as the company looks to improve the quality of its image search and facial recognition capabilities. The company recently acquired Viewdle, which owns a number of patents on facial recognition, following its acquisition of two similar startups in PittPatt in 2011 and Neven Vision all the way back in 2006.

In addition, Google has been looking to improve its voice recognition, natural language processing and machine learning, integrating that with its knowledge graph to help develop a brave new search engine. Google already has deep image search capabilities on the web, but, going forward, as smartphones proliferate, it will look to improve that experience on mobile.

In a recent paper published by the three founders of DNNresearch, the team found that “despite the attractive qualities of CNNs [convolutional neural networks], and despite the relative efficiency of their local architecture, they have still been prohibitively expensive to apply in large scale to high-resolution images … [However, the results of its research] show that a large, deep convolutional neural network is capable of achieving recordbreaking results on a highly challenging dataset using purely supervised learning.”

Get that?

The acquisition of DNNresearch also follows a $600K gift that Google awarded to Hinton and his research team to support their work in neural nets. Following its do-good thesis, the company pledged to “support ambitious research in computer science and engineering” through its “Focused Research Awards program,” which offer unrestricted, two-to-three-year grants and give recipients access to Google “tools, technologies and expertise.”

So, it looks like Google discovered DNNresearch through its award program and, seeing the implications that the team’s work could have on the fields of speech recognition, language processing and image recognition — all central to its core products — decided that a grant wasn’t enough.

“Geoffrey Hinton’s research is a magnificent example of disruptive innovation with roots in basic research,” University of Toronto President David Naylor said in a statement. “The discoveries of brilliant researchers, guided freely by their expertise, curiosity, and intuition, lead eventually to practical applications no one could have imagined, much less requisitioned.”

More in the University of Toronto’s statement here.

Update: Professor Hinton penned a Google+ post today that offers his take on joining Google officially, in which he says he is betting on “Google’s team to be the epicenter of future breakthroughs.”

Full post below:

Last summer, I spent several months working with Google’s Knowledge team in Mountain View, working with Jeff Dean and an incredible group of scientists and engineers who have a real shot at making spectacular progress in machine learning. Together with two of my recent graduate students, Ilya Sutskever and Alex Krizhevsky (who won the 2012 ImageNet competition), I am betting on Google’s team to be the epicenter of future breakthroughs. That means we’ll soon be joining Google to work with some of the smartest engineering minds to tackle some of the biggest challenges in computer science. I’ll remain part-time at the University of Toronto, where I still have a lot of excellent graduate students, but at Google I will get to see what we can do with very large-scale computation.

Also, for those interested in some context as to the significance of Hinton within the scientific (and technical) communities, check out this Hacker News thread here. Basically, he’s Chuck Norris.


Ev Williams: Medium Wants To Help Build A Sustainable Economic Model For Journalism

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At the Launch Conference in San Francisco today, Twitter co-founder Ev Williams took the stage to talk to conference founder Jason Calacanis about everything from his experience at Twitter and the rise of Vine to sharing his take on Google and Facebook as well as the latest from Medium, his latest effort to shape the future of digital publishing.

Williams, a serial entrepreneur, has played a key role in helping to shape the way we create and share content on the web, as the co-founder of Pyra Labs, which produced Blogger — and was bought by Google in 2003. In doing so, Williams is often credited with coining the term “blogger” and helping to popularize both the term “blog” and the medium itself. After leaving Google, Williams went on to co-found Odeo and “idea incubator” Obvious, which produced both Twitter and, most recently, Medium (among others).

Through his experience at Obvious, Williams said that he learned two important things about himself. After departing from Twitter, he, Biz Stone and other early Twitter employees revived Obvious, but thereafter he found himself “stuck in a rut,” he told Calacanis. In helping to incubate (and finance) startups like Medium, Branch and Lift, he came to realize that he wanted to focus on building a company and a product — not simply to play the role of investor and advisor.

Seeing a market opportunity, a problem that “mattered” and leveraging his experience at Twitter and Blogger, he took a more active role at Medium, because “having an impact is at the top of my list of criteria” when deciding where and how to invest his time, he said. There was also the fact that Medium is a publishing tool, allowing people to create collections of content around a particular theme and/or subject, while inviting others to add their own contributions to those collections, as Drew wrote in November.

The startup focuses on ideas and concepts he had while at Blogger all the way back in 2000, features that he’d even built for the platform but never got around to implementing, he said. The idea with Medium, and what captured his attention — a problem that he says he feels like he has to solve, an idea most entrepreneurs are familiar with — was the opportunity to create a better Twitter for long-form content, a space that’s currently owned by Tumblr.

In a sense, he says, it’s along the same lines as what Twitter has been able to do with Vine, its popular video sharing app (where Williams sits on the board). It’s “still early, and I can’t take any credit for it, but I like it because it captures the essence of Twitter, for video … it’s becoming one of the first platforms to not just duplicate what came before it — the process for every new medium or platform — but create an experience, feel and interface that is unique to the format.

All of his ventures are either directly or indirectly attempting to address the long-standing problems that still exist in online media today, the Twitter co-founder says, particularly in the fact that, as the Web has succeeded in lowering the cost of content distribution, it’s created a flood of new content and information. The new economic model around publishing today incentivizes and rewards frequency, volume and keeping costs low when it comes to content creation, which, in turn, disincentivizes investment in a particular piece of content — and long-form content. It prioritizes lower quality content and burying higher quality content.

While Twitter and Blogger have both played a role in creating and instituting this new model, the first generation of digital publishing has focused on metrics like unique visitors and page views, which, while it’s a good start, he says, the way we measure the engagement around and value of content needs to evolve.

Medium, Williams says, is focused on understanding whether or not people have read the content, whether they read all the way to the end, whether they engaged, shared and commented — whether they actually got something from that content. “We’ve done speed and quick release in publishing, now let’s focus on the other things,” he told the crowd.

When asked how Medium involves and what his product development process is like, Williams said that, for him, “usage is like oxygen for ideas,” and that he tries to focus on what people are doing on the platform, how they’re interacting with it — not doing data analysis or stressing over user feedback. That way, he says, you are able to get a more organic understanding of what’s important (and of what users care about) in realtime, as the product moves forward. Then you can nudge development in that direction.

As it relates to Medium, Williams said that he wants to create a platform that can give context to the content that people create, eventually leading to a system where the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. The idea is to allow people to build a cohort of like-minded ideas and, to measure the value of its content, Medium is recording a rough heuristic for “reads,” Williams said in an attempt to discover whether or not people are reading the content, did they stick with it and get all the way through the post, etc.

That being said, Williams continued, he realizes that there’s more friction for Medium as a publishing tool than there is for, say, Twitter. “It’s not like a tweet, it’s not as easy, and we don’t expect the ratio of creators to consumers to be the same for Twitter and Instagram, for example; the point, instead, is not to lower the barrier to get everyone creating, but to get the maximum audience for the really good stuff.”

It would be great to get back to a system in which accuracy matters, and maybe it’s naive to think that quality can (and will) get more attention, he says, but it’s possible to use the network and great design to build a system that creates a better product — and thus creates more attention. “Most of the web is ugly, and the system is broken, it’s terrible for consumption,” he says. “By giving quality more attention and by creating a better system to create better content, we can solve that problem.” And, naturally, better design is part of that.

While the economics of journalism “is a very tough problem,” Williams says, building an economic model that supports journalism “is a worthy goal” and something Medium is
“definitely going to experiment with,” he concluded. The economics are different building a content platform than it is for a publication, any time you build a content platform, you will have commercial usage, and if it’s sizable than there’s money to be made, which is different than the problem The New York Times faces, for example. The idea is to create a bunch of people who are motivated to create content not because they’re getting paid, but because they want to create.

When asked what advice he would give to aspiring entrepreneurs, Williams said that they should focus on building something that they want to exist in the world and to “focus on it entirely.” Something good will come out of it. Of course, as we get older, he continued, that focus becomes much more difficult to maintain, because there are more opportunities — and distractions. “The only way I can manage that is if I say ‘no’ tons of times every single day.” The only way you can really do your best work, he says, if you learn how to say “no,” something that’s easier said than done.

Calacanis also asked Williams what his impressions were of the biggest Silicon Valley tech companies, like Google, Apple and Facebook. Of Google, Williams said that he’s “still a huge fan” and that most people who have worked their maintain a soft spot for the company. “Their values are real,” he continued, “and I love that Larry [Page] is making big bets. I think they’re going to continue to take over the world.”

As to Apple, Williams said that he, strangely enough, doesn’t know the company very well. “It’s funny that Apple is in Silicon Valley, employs tens of thousands of people, yet I don’t seem to know any of them. That’s strange to me.” The big issue for both Google and Apple is that it’s really hard for a company to create real value and be successful in different markets. The thinking is, he says, that Apple has all these smart people, it has all the money, so they should rule the next big thing. But, generally speaking, that’s not the way it happens.

At Google, Williams said, he realized why these big companies — in spite of all their success, all the buzz and giant market caps — create a landscape in which there will always be opportunities for entrepreneurs. In any field a founder chooses, traditionally the conversation has always been one in which VCs will ask, “but what if Google got into this? What would happen to your company then?” While the Google “danger” has always loomed for entrepreneurs, when he got to Google, he realized that it’s hard to innovate and build internally. In fact, most of Google’s most popular products (like YouTube, Android and Maps) were a result of acquisitions.

I realized there’s plenty of room for startups, not because of inefficiency or incompetence at these companies, but they’re just not focused on creating the best value for nimble companies, flexibility and innovation. So that’s the best part of this system, all of these companies eventually fall, or mature, or slow down, he says, and that means that we get to create new things.

You can watch the whole interview here.

[Photo credit: Flickr]


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