Google, Apple, Jacob, And The Man In Black

ABC’s popular television show Lost comes to an end this weekend. This season has been largely about the backstory for why things are the way they are on the island. It’s a minor spoiler to say it, but I’m going to anyway — basically, it boils down to a war between two brothers, Jacob and the Man in Black. Growing up, the two brothers were very close but decisions each made, forced them apart. And once apart, a series of events occurred that showed them just how different they really were. Those two brothers remind me a lot of Google and Apple right now.

If there was any remaining doubt that Google and Apple were in the midst of an all-out war, yesterday erased all those doubts. Anyone who was sitting in the Google I/O keynote heard shot after shot taken against Apple and their closed iPhone platform. Some references were thinly veiled. Some were not. It was really quite remarkable to watch. And I loved every minute of it.

The Fight

Regular readers will know my affinity for Apple products. But they’ll also know that I have a strong affinity towards Google products as well. My rationale is simple: I like the best products. Apple has some (the iPhone, MacBooks), Google has others (Gmail, Chrome). And that’s why I love that these two are now battling. In many ways, it’s a fair fight — both have strengths and both have weaknesses. And because it’s a even match, both are going to force one another to make their products better. And the consumers will win as a result.

Obviously, both have other rivals as well. And both have had rivals in the past. But part of what makes the Apple/Google rivalry great is that they used to be so close — because they had some of the same basic ideas. Namely, that Microsoft needed to be defeated. Both have battled Microsoft over the years — Apple, far longer than Google, of course. But the Apple/Microsoft and Google/Microsoft rivalries were never this entertaining because most of the time the fight has been one-sided.

During the PC wars of the 80s and 90s, Apple at first was much bigger than Microsoft. But then the momentum shiftly the exact opposite way, and Microsoft was much bigger than Apple. Meanwhile, in the desktop wars, Microsoft dominates one of their core businesses where Google is trying to compete: Office. And Google dominates one of their core businesses where Microsoft is trying to compete: Search (well, really, just about everything online). These aren’t fair fights. At least not yet. They could get more interesting over time, but for now it’s a bit like watching a blowout in sports — it’s no fun to watch (unless maybe you’re a diehard fan of the winning side). But Google and Apple squaring off should be competitive. And, as a result, fun to watch. The keynote yesterday proved that.

Android/iPhone

With Android, Google seems to now have its focus on one thing: beating Apple. That’s interesting because when Android started out, it was clearly set up to be a platform to kill Windows Mobile. But again, there was no fight there. Windows Mobile laid down as if it were paid to take a dive. And at the time, Apple clearly didn’t consider Google a threat with Android, or else they would have removed Google CEO Eric Schmidt from their board of directors long before they actually did. But things change over time. Goals are reassessed and set higher. Google and Apple are now clearly the two frontrunners in the longterm mobile game (sorry RIM and Nokia). And they’re doing what the two at the top do: battle to be number one.

Google TV/Apple TV

But here’s why this is really going to be a great fight: it’s encompassing. While Steve Jobs is reported to have said that the Android team at Google wants to kill the iPhone, it’s starting to go beyond that. As we saw yesterday, round two of the fight may be Google TV vs. Apple TV. Considering that Apple hasn’t taken Apple TV very seriously up until this point (it’s a “hobby,” remember), it may not seem like much of a fight. But don’t be surprised if this pushes Apple back into the ring in a big way. And it’s similar to Android vs. iPhone because it’s open platform (Google TV) vs. closed system (Apple TV). Not to mention the fact that Google TV runs Android. And don’t be surprised if in the future, a new version of the Apple TV runs the iPhone OS.

Google Tunes/iTunes

As we also saw yesterday, Google is finally preparing to take on iTunes directly. There aren’t much details at this point (and execs refused to give them when questioned later), but the fact that Google showed off this “proof-of-concept” on stage at their biggest keynote of the year, shows they’re serious about it. Google is going to start selling songs through the web browser to compete with the iTunes software. And these songs will automatically sync with all your Android devices over the cloud. Apple, meanwhile, is rumored to be working on an iTunes-in-the-cloud solution to replace (or at least supplement) its popular software.

Remember though, iTunes isn’t just about music purchases. It’s the central hub for all of its new popular devices — the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod touch (and even the aforementioned Apple TV). iTunes is the App Store too. Google started out the other way, with an app store (Market) that only existed on its devices. But that’s moving over fully to the web now, and extending beyond apps, into music. And you can bet other content will follow if that works.

Yesterday on stage, Sony CEO Howard Stringer said that “domination is beating Apple — it’s a new definition.” Google is rallying others to its cause — people in charge of a lot of content. This is going to be a major clash.

Chrome OS/iPad

And there’s also Chrome OS. While this new product (due later this year) is right now aimed more squarely at Microsoft — and specifically, netbooks running Windows — this will clash with Apple too. At first, I didn’t think it would, but the iPad changed that. As Steve Jobs has made very clear, the iPad isn’t just Apple’s answer to the netbook, it’s Apple’s answer that’s better than a netbook in every way (in his mind, at least). More importantly, this isn’t just about one sub-market, this is about the future of computing. So is Chrome OS.

Google believes the future is the web browser. That’s all Chrome OS is, a web browser. While they’re clearly ramping up Android to be their OS for the foreseeable future, Chrome OS is more inline with the long-term strategy of the company. They don’t want native apps to rule the world, they want the web to. No less than Sergey Brin made this clear two days ago when he said that he believes Android and Chrome OS would eventually merge into one web OS.

That Google is putting so much into Android right now just shows how smart they are. They see the pattern. The iPhone and its native apps are winning. Those without a strong mobile presense are losing. And right now, to have a strong mobile presense, you need native apps. HTML5 just isn’t quite ready to do what native apps can. And depending on who you listen to, it won’t be for a long time (Joe Hewitt) — or it will be sooner than expected (Google).

And because apps are winning on mobile phones, they’re starting to win on other devices too — like the iPad. That’s why Google is putting Android in Google TV; because the apps are winning. But again, Google’s long-term bet is that the web (and web apps) will eventually take over. It’s just going to take a while. But Chrome OS (and its own Chrome Web Store) is the first step to shift momentum back to the web. That may make Chrome OS netbooks versus the iPad one of the most interesting Apple/Google battles.

iAds/Google Ads

This isn’t all Google invading Apple’s space. Apple is getting ready to enter the online ad space in a major way with iAds. This is aimed squarely at Google’s core business (advertising), which has yet to catch on in a major way on mobile devices. Because actions are different on mobile devices, the ads have to be different, Jobs reasons. For now, that seems to be true. Search is less important, and apps are more important. iAds are all about rich in-app advertising, Google is mostly about more basic search-based text advertising.

But yesterday during the keynote, Google also showed off richer ads for mobile that they’ve been working on. They didn’t look as nice as iAds, but it’s clearly in response to Apple’s efforts.

Apple is a company dependent on hardware sales. Google is a company reliant on advertising revenue. iAds is Apple going for Google’s jugular perhaps more than any single Google threat is going after Apple. Say Android kills the iPhone (which won’t happen, of course, neither is going to “kill” the other one), Apple still has the Mac business, they still have the iPod business, they still have the new iPad business. If iAds kill Google Ads, Google is screwed.

MobileMe/Google Apps

As of right now, the “battle” between MobileMe and Google Apps is basically not a battle at all due to the fact that Apple (rather ridiculously) charges $99 a year for MobileMe, and Google Apps (for the most part) is free. But there are rumors that MobileMe could soon become a free set of services that Apple uses to tie many of its products together. MobileMe is a great solution for that currently, the price just isn’t right (especially not to take on Google Apps).

Apple has yet to really show that they’re aware of the importance of the cloud going forward in computing. But with the aforementioned rumors of iTunes-in-the-cloud, the related acquisition of cloud music start-up Lala, and the massive cloud computing datacenter they’re building, indications are that they’re starting to get it. And if they do, they’ll be aiming squarely at one rival: Google.

Lost

Going back to Lost, even though the two brothers, Jacob and the Man in Black, are at odds with one another, they routinely meet up. This reminds me of a certain recent meeting between two CEOs. The fact of the matter is that despite their very real differences, they share more in common than perhaps they’re willing to admit now (both the brothers and the companies).

With the brothers, one appears to be good, while the other appears to be evil. But the fact is that both have their rationale behind what they’re doing. And the one that is “good” seems to actually have a weaker rationale than the one who is “evil.” And, interesting, the one now perceived to be good, used to be perceived as evil (I’d go into that more, but I don’t want to spoil too much — maybe in a later post).

Right now, at least in the eyes of much of the press, Apple is perceived to the be “evil” company, while Google is the “good” one. This is largely based around the fact that Google (and its platform) is more open than Apple is. But just as with the brothers, both have their rationale behind what they’re doing. And, just as with the brothers, perceptions change over time. It’s naive to think one is good and one is evil. Both believe they’re doing what’s best for their users.

And again, that’s why this war between the two is great: it’s only going to make things better for the users. Google will make moves, and Apple will be forced to respond. Apple will make moves, and Google will have to respond. They will have to keep one-upping one another in terms of what they’re offering. And because they’re evenly matched, it’s not apparent how either will get the upper-hand and actually beat the other one anytime soon. It’s like the two brothers: neither can kill the other one, even though both want to. That’s the key: a fair fight. As long as it stays that way between Apple and Google, we’ll all win.

Or, to put it in a more straightforward and less allegorical way, having two companies with relatively equal power going head-to-head gives us, as consumers, a fundamental necessity: choice.

[photo: ABC]

Information provided by CrunchBase


Overpriced Reader Underdelivers, Despite Dual Screens

Product: Alex E-Book Reader

Manufacturer: Spring Design

Wired Rating: 5

E-mail, photos and a web browser in an e-reader: Wow! That’s almost like an iPad. Except it’s not.

The Alex is a dedicated e-book reader that uses a 6-inch, black-and-white E Ink display but also includes a tiny 3.5-inch LCD touchscreen.

The idea is that you read books on the E Ink screen but leverage the color LCD for doing everything else the device is capable of from checking e-mail to surfing the internet to playing video clips and viewing photos.

Sound familiar? That’s because it is. Alex’s design is very close to the Barnes & Noble Nook that launched last year. (The two companies are embroiled in a legal fight over the design.)

Lawsuits aside, the Alex has a snappy, easy-to-navigate user interface. Flip on the LCD display and the reader shows two rows of neatly arranged icons that take you to the bookstore, browser, images gallery and e-mail.

Under the hood, Alex runs Android OS. Setting up a Gmail account was dead easy, and the machine supports up to five separate e-mail addresses.

The touchscreen browser doesn’t have pinch-to-zoom, but the single finger scroll works well. And the internet surfing experience is decent. What’s annoying, though, is that entering a URL into the browser is an exercise in redundancy.

Just tapping on the URL box in the browser doesn’t work. Instead, you have to hold the right-hand page-turn button down to draw up a tab of options and then enter the web address there. It’s a bit like turning your windshield wipers on and then tuning the radio to 91.1 FM in order to start up your car.

Despite the optimistic video and YouTube feature, the Alex’s processor isn’t powerful enough to actually handle video. We found a strong W-Fi connection and loaded up a YouTube clip of kittens romping around. The resulting video, however, ended up being a choppy, pixilated blur.

There’s also a music player integrated into the Alex but unless you like your tunes tinny, you’d be better off plugging into your iPod or just sit in silence.

But these are all multimedia options on a device that’s designed for reading books. How does the Alex fare with its primary assignment? Fairly well, in fact. It uses the same E Ink screen as the Kindle, Sony and Nook, so text is sharp and clear in bright light. But where the Alex falls short is in the content department. Unlike the Kindle or Nook, there’s no 3G access on the device, so you can download books only by Wi-Fi.

There’s also no integrated bookstore. In order to obtain text you’ve got to wrangle it on sites like Google books first then transfer it to the Alex.

And, oh yeah, since Amazon uses a different standard for Kindle books, don’t bother going to the Amazon bookstore.

In all, the Alex is an interesting e-reader packed with extras, but at twice the price of the Kindle, it’s way too much. For just $100 more you can get an iPad, which is far more versatile and has many fewer usability quirks.

WIRED Easy to use. Packed with browser, e-mail and access to photos. Crisp screen easy on the eyes. Long battery life.

TIRED No integrated book store: WTF? No 3G. Inadequate graphics and processing power. Expensive.

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MOG’s Music Network Gaining Fast On Competitors, Still Has A Ways To Go

Things seem to be going well for MOG, the online music company that offers both an on-demand streaming music service and a large network of music blogs. In February the company raised another $9.5 million in funding and it has some promising mobile apps slated for release this quarter. Now the company is sharing some of its growth figures and how they compare with the rest of the industry.

According to Quantcast, the MOG Music Network, which includes thousands of music blogs written by the MOG community, has grown to 13.2M monthly uniques in the United Sates and 23.7M worldwide. To show how that compares with its competitors, MOG plotted the comScore numbers of other popular music services including MTV Networks Online, Vevo, and MySpace Music versus its own Quantcast stats. It’s not usually a good idea to mix data sources, but MOG says that Quantcast is actually undercounting MOG’s growth relative to comScore, because it doesn’t count ‘duped’ uniques across its network.

Note that the Y-axis in this graph is different for MOG — it isn’t nearly as large as most of these competitors yet, but it is growing faster than them. MOG also says that if you combine all the ‘repeat’ comScore properties (in other words, count sites like AOL Prop Brand Music, AOL Network Music, and AOL Music as the same), MOG is up to the 9th largest music portal overall, behind Yahoo’s music properties.

To be fair, in some ways this really isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. The MOG Music Network includes thousands of music blogs, while many of the competitors listed in the graph are focused primarily around listening to music. Most of them have some editorial content too, but not to the extent of MOG’s army of bloggers. Still, comScore puts them all into the same bucket of music sites, and advertisers may not care too much about the differences.

Information provided by CrunchBase


AT&T Hikes Smartphone Early Termination Fees, Claims It Has Nothing To Do With iPhone. Right.

The Dow Jones Newswire reports that AT&T is nearly doubling the fees smartphone-toting customers will have to pay if they break their contracts early — bumping the fees from $175 to $325 beginning June 1. The move comes only a few weeks before Apple is widely expected to unveil its next iPhone, which will likely be available in the US exclusively through AT&T (at least at first). Thing is, AT&T is claiming that the iPhone has nothing to do with the move — a spokesman tells us “The timing for the new ETFs isn’t being driven by any specific device.” Uh huh.

As the WSJ article points out, it’s pretty clear that AT&T is looking to take advantage of the slew of customers certain to re-up or sign new contracts when the iPhone comes out. This boosted ETF is more likely to keep all of these customers chained to AT&T for another two years — even if the iPhone makes its way to Verizon, which has been rumored to happen later this year.  Assuming the rumors are true, Apple is suspected to be giving AT&T a few months where it will retain exclusivity, so it’s no surprise that AT&T would want to make the most of them.

We should point out that Verizon similarly increased its ETF for smartphones to $350 back in November, right as the very popular Motorola Droid launched, so this isn’t unprecedented. Verizon’s ETF increase probably contributed to the FCC’s decision to launch an investigation into high carrier termination fees in the mobile industry. AT&T’s move today seems to indicate that that’s no longer a concern.

The only plus from today’s news is that ‘feature phones’ and other less powerful devices are having their fees slightly reduced, from $175 to $150. An AT&T spokesman says that these changes “reflect the way customers buy our products and services”, going on to explain:

Those who buy less expensive devices and lower priced service plans will pay a lower ETF in the event they terminate their contracts early, and consumers of more expensive devices and service plans will pay a higher ETF for terminating their higher priced plans early.  Our new structure was designed to be fair to all our customers.

Image via Mark Coggins

Information provided by CrunchBase


Guide to Google TV’s Ecosystem [Video]

At this week’s Google I/O Conference, the company carefully articulated its vision of the world. There’s Apple in one corner, carefully controlling its ecosystem, rejecting Flash, and conjuring images of an Orwellian Big Brother. As the “one man, one company, one device” (Vic Gundotra’s words) becomes more powerful, Google is trying to posit itself as the other choice. The more “open” choice. Whether or not you agree with Google’s goggles, it’s a very smart and well defined message, creating an us vs. them environment and reinforcing the mantra “Don’t be evil.”

This point of “openness” was driven home on Thursday, during the I/O keynote, when Gundotra and Co. unveiled the highly anticipated Google TV project. Unexpectedly (and to great effect), Schmidt took to the stage at the end to introduce Google TV partners, a panel of high power CEOs (Best Buy, Sony, Intel, Dish Network, Logitech, Adobe). Together, those companies represent a market capitalization of roughly $200 billion ($350 B when you add Google).  Their attendance wasn’t really necessary— there was plenty of flash in the presentation (no pun intended)— but it punctuated Google’s message: Google is open, inclusive and powerful and we are definitely not an army of one. Let’s just say, I don’t think it was a coincidence that Adobe’s CEO Shantanu Narayen was seated next to Schmidt.

Obviously, not every Google TV partner relishes the product’s rivalry with Apple TV, or the larger Google vs. Apple battle. Some of the CEOs seem simply convinced that Google TV will revolutionize the way consumers define “TV” and are excited by what it could mean for their bottom line. Regardles, here’s a closer look at the Google TV team and how it operates.

Sony will produce “Sony Internet TVs” and a set top box with a Blu-ray Disc drive. These products will have Google software and Intel technology built-in. The Sony Internet TV is part of the company’s new “Evolving TV” line— internet TVs that can “evolve” with new downloadable applications. This initiative could be the first of many Google-friendly Sony products, the company says they are looking into creating other Android-based “products for the home, mobile and personal product categories.” Release: USA Fall 2010.

Sony and Apple have been rivals for several years (i.e. Connect music store, e-reader, Vaio laptops). The company hopes to compete more aggressively against the iPad maker this year, with plans to expand its online media platform and mobile product line. CEO Howard Stringer sees open technology (like Google TV) as key to its success, in an interview with Nikkei Electronics Asia, he said “If we had gone with open technology from the start, I think we probably would have beaten Apple” (in music). (For more on Stringer, see our quick interview with Sony’s chief. Above.)

Adobe– Google TV will use the Android 2.1 operating system, Chrome browser, and yes, Flash 10.1 (which will be integrated into the Chrome browser). “Flash Player 10.1 will support hardware-accelerated video playback and deliver smooth, HD (1080p) quality video on Google TV devices,” Adobe’s Aditya Bansod said on the company’s official blog. Google TV provides the technical capability to run flash on sites, but it is up to the site to determine whether to enable content.

Adobe’s incentive to work with Google is clear. If you’ve been living in a hole for the last year, try this, or this, or this, or this.

Logitech will make set-top boxes, for user who want to use Google TV with other televisions. The Logitech’s set-top boxes will connect  your TV through an HDMI port and a controller (which includes keyboard capabilities). According to reports, it will include 4 GB memory and Dolby 5.1 surround sound. “We’ll be making a variety of options available right away, including video calling and a variety of controllers – even a Logitech smart-phone app — and even more stuff we can’t talk about,” Logitech says on its site. To make the product work, you’ll need a TV with an HDMI input and a broadband internet connection. And “To take full advantage of the content search, you’ll need a satellite or cable set-top box with an HDMI output as well,” according to Logitech. At some point down the line, Logitech also plans to roll out a companion HDTV camera to enable video chat. Release: USA Fall 2010.

DISH Networks – According to DISH and Google TV, the DISH subscription will provide the most optimized experience for Google TV (in regards to content management). Some of the features on the Google TV home screen can only be unlocked with DISH. “Only DISH Network Google TV customers will be able to enjoy a unified search across TV, DVR and web; easily find related content; and manage their entire TV viewing experience,” Dish Network CEO Charlie Ergen said in a release. Release: USA Fall 2010, prices not yet announced.
DISH and Google have been working on this project for quite awhile. More than a year ago, the companies launched a beta trial with some 400 DISH subscribers.

Intel’s Atom CE4100 processor will be used in the Logitech and Sony products, to power Google TV. The chip promises “home theater quality A/V performance.”
Intel’s relationship with Apple is a bit complicated. Intel has been a major chip provider but the relationship has cooled somewhat, amid reports that Apple is flirting with rival AMD for future products. Apple seems to be slowly moving away from Intel (for example, introducing its own chip in the iPad), giving Intel extra reason to build on its relationship with Google.

Best Buy is the first, exclusive retailer for Google-TV devices in 2010. The Sony and Logitech devices will be available at Best Buy, starting in fall 2010.

Information provided by CrunchBase


Late Mate for BlackBerry Screws With Your Clock To Make You More Punctual

I run late. Always. The last time I remember being not-late, it’s because I thought the event started 30 minutes earlier than it actually did. I ended up only being 15 minutes early.

If you’re a late person (or if you’ve seen that one episode of I love Lucy), you’ve probably heard of that trick where you set your clock forward X number of minutes, thereby theoretically ensuring that you’re out the door X number of minutes earlier. The problem: you know what the value of X is and, after about a day, you’ll start compensating for it.

Late Mate for BlackBerry makes sure you never know what X is.

Read the rest at MobileCrunch >>


Google Begins Locking Down Search With SSL Encryption

Online privacy seems to be at the top of everyones’ minds these days. Facebook, Google, and Blippy have all had high-profile privacy lapses in recent weeks — the problem seems to be getting worse, rather than better. Today, Google is starting a new project in an attempt to show their commitment to security — they’re adding SSL encryption to Google.com itself.

Now, to be clear, this isn’t on by default. To use this beta product, you have to visit https://www.google.com — the “s” is the key there, that’s how you know it’s secure. When you do this, both your search terms and search results will be encrypted as they travel across networks. This makes it much harder for third-parties to intercept them.

Google says it’s not rolling this feature out by default for a couple reasons. First, they don’t want there to be any confusion among Google Search users which parts are secure and which aren’t. This SSL search isn’t yet available for image searches or Maps searches, for example, so even if you do a search on this new site for those items, you’ll be taken to an insecure page of results.

The second reason Google isn’t rolling this out everywhere is that it does hamper the speed of search a bit. Since all this data must be encrypted, it’s delivered to you more slowly. I’ve been testing it out a bit just now, and the lag is barely noticeable, but this is Google — speed is everything.

Google is also fast to note that this does not mean they’re giving up on collecting your search data for these searches. This is simply about encrypting the searches. “Searching over SSL doesn’t reduce the data sent to Google — it only hides that data from third parties who seek it,” they write.

Google has long offered SSL support in Gmail, where the transfer of secure data is obviously seen as more important. In fact, Google made it the standard for Gmail recently — shortly after the pull-out of China, where hacking of email accounts supposedly took place.

Google’s own Chrome browser makes it more obvious when you’re at a secure site by making the “https” portion of the URL green. If there’s a problem with the encryption, it will show up red (and clicking on it will show you why).


Modern Parenting Site Babble Raises $3 Million

Babble, a magazine and parenting community site, has raised $3 million in Series B Financing led by Village Ventures with Greycroft Partners and iNovia Capital participating. This brings the startup’s total funding to $6 million. The funding will be used to expand Babble’s team.

Spun off from sex and dating community Nerve Media, Babble takes a more modern view on parenting, aiming to address the breadth of parenting lifestyle in addition to basic health and development content common on parenting sites.The startup, which we previously wrote about here, makes money from ad revenue, which has increased 570% over the past year, and the company is approaching profitability. Advertisers include Disney, Pampers, Huggies, Clorox, Tide, Target, and PBS.

Babble also recently launched a new Facebook app, called “Connected by Kids,” which allows parents to create Facebook profiles for their children, as well as groups for schools, softball teams, and friends. The virtue of the app is that it allows users to share photos and updates with family friends without sharing them publicly.

Babble faces competition from Parenting.com iVillage and others.

Information provided by CrunchBase


The “Get a Mac” Ads Are Gone

Friends, it’s happened. Those long-running ads featuring John Hodgman and Justin Long as PC and Mac, are over. They have been replaced by the “Why you’ll love a Mac” page featuring pictures of Macs and a number of roll-over peans to Mac’s greatness including “It’s designed to be a better computer” and “It runs Office and works with your existing PC files.”


Y Combinator Closes New $8.25 Million Fund, Sequoia Is Lead Investor

Startup incubator Y Combinator has just closed $8.25 million new fund led by Sequoia Capital with Ron Conway, Paul Buchheit, Aydin Senkut, XG Ventures, and Geoff Ralston participating.

The new fund is four times larger than $2 million fund raised last year. This is because it’s meant to be a long term fund and Y Combinator is planning to increase the number of startups the incubator funds. At least 35 (give or take) startups will join the summer 2010 funding cycle. The previous YC funding cycle, winter 2010, had 27 startups, with 20 of the companies hitting profitability or securing commitments for further funding.

Y Combinator has invested in over 207 startups since summer 2005 and until last year, only invested capital provided by its four founders: Paul Graham, Jessica Livingston, Trevor Blackwell and Robert Morris. The larger fund created last year was designed to expand their war chest to include more startups and investments. Investments are small ($5,000 + $5,000/founder) in exchange for around 6% of equity, and the startups are typically very early, usually idea stage.

Graham tells me that the incubator has expanded significantly since its first session, which has only 8 startups. In terms of scaling the model, Graham hasn’t run into a lot of problems thanks to having the right amount of full-time staff and a healthy group of part-time advisors. He adds that this raises should last the incubator for 2-3 years. The incubator is currently seeing 1,000 applications per session, so the expansion is good news for fledgling entrepreneurs.

There’s good reason for founders to be clamoring to be a part of the incubator. Many of its startups have seen considerable success, including DropBox, Posterous, Loopt, Justin.TV, and Scribd. And several of the startups have been acquired – Reddit (by Condé Nast), Omnisio (by YouTube), Zenter (by Google), ClickPass (by Synthasite) Auctomatic (by Communicate), DivvyShot by Facebook and others.


FTC Unanimously Approves Google-AdMob Deal Thanks To Apple’s ‘Entry Into The Market’

The Federal Trade Commission just announced its approval of the $750 million acquisition of mobile ad network by Google. From the release which is embedded below: “The Federal Trade Commission has closed its investigation of Google’s proposed acquisition of mobile advertising network company AdMob after thoroughly reviewing the deal and concluding that it is unlikely to harm competition in the emerging market for mobile advertising networks.” Google was quick to put up a blog post of their own, praising the FTC’s decision. You can also read AdMob’s statement here.

The FTC has taken a particularly close look at the deal on antitrust grounds and even extended the timeline for the investigation. Google on the other hand, has made a significant lobbying effort for approval.

In its statement, the FTC says that the recent acquisition of mobile ad network Quattro Wireless by Apple shows that the AdMob deal wouldn’t completely eliminate competitors in the space, stating that “Apple is poised to become a strong competitor in the mobile advertising market.” We made this exact same argument a few weeks ago.

As part of its investigation, the FTC reached out to developers of mobile applications to get their thoughts. These developers and even some Admob competitors, publicly said that they support the deal, and some of them believed that the people involved in the investigation were either unqualified or had an anti-Google agenda.

Clearly the process has shown that the FTC seems to have a bone to pick with Google. If anything, Google is on notice that the FTC is willing to challenge any large deals the search giant proposes.

The Federal Trade Commission has closed its investigation of Google’s proposed acquisition of mobile advertising network company AdMob after thoroughly reviewing the deal and concluding that it is unlikely to harm competition in the emerging market for mobile advertising networks.

In a statement issued today, the Commission said that although the combination of the two leading mobile advertising networks raised serious antitrust issues, the agency’s concerns ultimately were overshadowed by recent developments in the market, most notably a move by Apple Computer Inc. – the maker of the iPhone – to launch its own, competing mobile ad network. In addition, a number of firms appear to be developing or acquiring smartphone platforms to better compete against Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android, and these firms would have a strong incentive to facilitate competition among mobile advertising networks.

“As a result of Apple’s entry (into the market), AdMob’s success to date on the iPhone platform is unlikely to be an accurate predictor of AdMob’s competitive significance going forward, whether AdMob is owned by Google or not,” the Commission’s statement explains.

The Commission stressed that mergers in fast-growing new markets like mobile advertising should get the same level of antitrust scrutiny as those in other markets. The statement goes on to note that, “Though we have determined not to take action today, the Commission will continue to monitor the mobile marketplace to ensure a competitive environment and to protect the interests of consumers.”

Mobile ad networks, such as those provided by Google and AdMob, sell advertising space for mobile publishers, who create applications and content for websites configured for mobile devices, primarily Apple’s iPhone and devices that run Google’s Android operating system. By “monetizing” mobile publishers’ content through the sale of advertising space, mobile ad networks play a vital role in fueling the rapid expansion of mobile applications and Internet content.

According to the FTC’s statement, evidence gathered by the agency raised important questions about the transaction. Google and AdMob have competed head-to-head for the past few years, with a notable increase in intensity during the past year. This competition has spurred innovation and allowed mobile publishers to keep a large share of the revenue generated from the sale of their ad space. The companies also have economies of scale that give them a major advantage over smaller rivals in the business, the statement says.

These concerns, however, were outweighed by recent evidence that Apple is poised to become a strong competitor in the mobile advertising market, the FTC’s statement says. Apple recently acquired Quattro Wireless and used it to launch its own iAd service. In addition, Apple can leverage its close relationships with application developers and users, its access to a large amount of proprietary user data, and its ownership of iPhone software development tools and control over the iPhone developers’ license agreement.

The Commission vote to close the investigation was 5-0.


Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz On Stage At TechCrunch Disrupt

This will be fun. Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz will be on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York next week for a one on one “fireside chat” with me. She’ll be coming to the event just after a press conference Yahoo is holding on Monday morning.

She joins AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, Google’s President Worldwide sales Nikesh Arora, AOL founder Steve Case, Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr and other amazing speakers at the event.

We’ll have lots to talk about. Yahoo’s stock price has increased since she took over the CEO role from cofounder Jerry Yang in January 2009, but the company’s valuation is still far short of the $40+ billion that Microsoft offered in early 2008.

I have been one of Bartz’s biggest critics over the last year, chronicling the executive team revolving door, Yahoo’ lack of a coherent product strategy and a few other jabs as well. It says a lot that she’s willing to appear on stage with me and talk about all these issues and more.

There are just a handful of tickets left for TechCrunch Disrupt. We’ll also be livestreaming the entire event for those who cannot attend. You can watch the live feed at disrupt.techcrunch.tv, (link not active until May 24), and get all our coverage of the event here on TechCrunch.


MXit: The South African Mobile Company You Should Know

I’ve been to Africa three times in the last year, twice to Rwanda and last week to Cape Town. But people tell me I still haven’t seen “The Real Africa.”

Rwanda—as I’ve written—has had a major rebuild after its horrific genocide some 15 years ago, and even in the poorest parts of the country boast far better access to water, power and technology than many other emerging markets.  Cape Town was far more sanitized and modern than Rwanda. It didn’t even feel like an emerging market—a true test was my mindlessly drinking the water out of the tap in my hotel room and not getting sick.

Lest I be too fooled the entire continent is so, well, Western, Herman Heunis pulls me right back down to earth. He just came back from a trip photographing wild elephants in his home country of Namibia and holds up the daily paper. The headline screams: LION KILLER TO BE CHARGED. “These are the headlines we get,” he says laughing.

And yet, Heunis’ company, MXit, is the company that Cape Town/Silicon Valley entrepreneur Vinny Lingham said is the most likely to become a billion dollar South African tech company. It is the company that Naspers— the South African media and investment firm famous for making the most profitable Chinese Internet investment in Tencent and one of the most prolific investors in Internet companies in the emerging world—said I absolutely, without-a-doubt had to meet while I was in Cape Town. And it just so happens to be smack in the middle of my somewhat obsessive view that the basic mobile Web in the emerging world is a far bigger business opportunity than every smart phone app in the Valley combined.

MXit is a download for feature phones that allows people—mostly teens in South Africa—to IM in groups or individually without paying data charges and download things like wallpaper, ringtones and games. It has 20 million users and has revenues in the high single-digit millions. That may not sound like much, but remember South Africa only has 50 million people. For comparison sake, India’s well-funded mobile messaging/social network SMS GupShup claimed 26 million users in January– more but not that much more considering how much bigger India is than South Africa. The day before I spoke with Heunis, MXit added some 24,000 new users. He looks disappointed when he looks that number up and adds, “We added 32,000 one day last week.”

In terms of home market penetration, MXit looks a lot like the pre-Facebook MySpace, and that’s not the only similarity. MXit has had a hard time shaking reports that it’s the trolling ground for pedophiles. Slightly-less-concerned parents simply don’t like it because kids spend too much time typing with friends, not enough time on homework. Mention MXit South Africa among kids, and many tell you they can’t live without it. Mention it to adults, and many tell you they hate it. MXit is like MySpace in the mid-2000s—with many of the good and the bad connotations that label implies.

Heunis used to write infrastructure software for mobile operators and every expert told him his idea wouldn’t work. That the non-techy mass market would not know how to download a Web app on a basic phone, especially back in 2005. And the first iteration—a subscription version—indeed failed. But when it came to the free version the company retooled five months later? Yeah, those so-called experts were flat wrong. He compares it to Linux—a kid may spend four days figuring it out but he’s happy to brag and be the one to show all his other friends how to download it. And like any messaging platform, the network effect is huge in this business, especially when you are sending group messages. It’s social media 101: You want to be where your friends are.

Remember the scandal where “MySpace Tom” lied about his age to sound hip? Heunis is older, but he doesn’t have to try so hard. He looks a bit like a younger member of the Rolling Stones, with mad gray hair, a cool brown leather jacket, a white leather studded belt and jeans. (He describes his hair as “like Einstein.” Nah, I vote gracefully aging British rocker.) He’s also a coder through-and-through, which made him unique among companies I met with on my (albeit limited) trip to Cape Town.

Many South African entrepreneurs impressed me with well-thought-out, strategic acumen on things like marketing and strategy, but I met fewer sheer lovers of programming like Heunis. “I have been a software engineer my whole professional life,” was the first thing he told me when I sat down. “It was a traumatic shift to move to running a company. I had to make a decision to remove all the compilers off my machines; software programming is so addictive to me.”

Equally traumatic was early on when bootstrapped MXit was nearing break even, and Heunis had to buy his partner out of the business. “I can’t tell you how many times I drove down that road and said to myself, ‘Tomorrow I have to call everyone in and shut down the company,’ ” he says pointing out of his plate glass window to a beautiful highway amid Cape Town’s wine farms. But like many great startups, death was averted by a growth spurt in the business and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Once he turned a profit in 2006, he decided to take Naspers’ money. The investors have 30% of the South African business and 50% of the international business. (They are run separately.)

He adds it was a fortuitous time to do the deal and emphasizes he appreciates Naspers non-controlling attitude. “The worst mistake a VC can make is invest and then come in and try to run the company themselves,” he says. (Hmm…I could swear I actually left Silicon Valley…)

Heunis gets that his business mix is changing in the next decade as computers, smart phones and Facebook become more prevalent in South Africa. His goal is to become less dependent on ad revenues, zealously eying a company called M-Pesa in Kenya that is part of Vodaphone and has become one of the country’s largest banks—all flowing through mobile phones. He’s also working on an iPad app– rare as iPads are in the South African market. Developing multiplayer games is a big focus too—and no doubt he leverages Naspers’ connections to Tencent, the dominant online gaming company and largest Internet company in China.

Not short on ambition, Heunis’ goal is to have 200 million users worldwide in five years. To achieve that goal, MXit and SMS GupShup may start slugging it out in the country I’m in now—Indonesia. With 240 million people, Indonesia has one of the largest populations in the world and is mostly untapped.

And Indonesians are hungry for mobile apps: in a flash, and without marketing, MXit found itself with a cool one million Indonesian users. It’s a Wild West still in terms of mobile billing and the reliability of the network. But with a comparatively untapped market that’s almost the size of the US, it’s going to be a place where Chinese, Indian and African companies increasingly slug it out. (More on Indonsian Web entrepreneurs slugging for their own market in a future post.)