If this Conference Room Table Could Talk… (TCTV)

Earlier this week, we did a post on a new venture firm called Bullpen Capital, and if you checked out the CrunchBase profiles of the three founders you saw a pretty wide depth of experience.

Paul Martino has started four companies, most recently Aggregate Knowledge, and he was one of the first investors in Zynga. Duncan Davidson was most recently managing partner for the Leviathan-like VantagePoint Venture Partners, and founded several companies including Covad Communications– a DSL pioneer that went public and was valued as high as $9 billion. And Richard Melmon’s roots go back to the early Intuit days, through the legendary Regis McKenna, onto VisiCalc and eventually co-founding Electronic Arts. In a relatively young industry, those are some deep venture roots.

Apparently, their conference room table has seen about as much action. In a fun final segment we reminisce with the Bullpen guys. Enjoy!

ShareSquare Gets 150K To Build Out Its QR Code Platform [Invites]

Mobile QR platform ShareSquare launches in beta today with the announcement that they’ve already got 150K out of a 500K seed round under their belt, from angels Paige Craig, John Frankel of ff Assett Management, Jeff Miller and Roy Rodenstein of Hacker Angels.

In the same space as Likify and Mofuse, ShareSquare is a QR Code creation platform specifically for music and entertainment brands. With ShareSquare’s CMS, artists and promoters can deck out branded merchandise like posters, promos, flyers and even bumper stickers with QR codes corresponding to a custom HTML5 web app (see a mockup one for Justin Bieber, to the left).

Fans with a QR code scanner like RedLaser, can then scan the code to check out related content such as MP3s, music videos, contests and, eventually, make purchases.

The ShareSquare CMS also allows realtime placement and by media (i.e. billboard vs. poster vs. sticker) tracking analytics for QR codes as well as something ShareSquare founder Mattias Galica calls “Like Lock,” where fan Facebook “Likes”unveil special access to prizes and exclusive content. Content is monetized through ads.

On a trial run for six weeks, ShareSquare has been working successfully with Hollywood agencies and studios like William Morris Endeavor and Disney. A QR campaign for artist Mitchel Musso reached 2,500 posters, 10,000 packaging stickers and over 181 shopping malls nationwide.

Gallica explains the challenges of the space,“Only geeks recognize what a QR code is. The big challenge in the space is that QR codes have a ton of things that you can do with them. Sharesquare is disciplined enough to focus on two verticals.”

Indeed, taking the entertainment route might be a winning move for the L.A. based company which will also be doing band leaderboards at SXSW, “We’re looking to see what the next couple of months brings us,” says Galica.

Readers interested in taking us ShareSquare on their 500 free invite offer can register here, using the code TCRN500.


My Contribution To AOL’s Q1 Targets. (You’re Welcome, Tim)

Erick’s post listing AOL’s targets for Q1 made fascinating reading, even for a non-employee like me.

Just in case you missed it, between now and March, TechCrunch’s parent company will be concentrating on the following areas…

  • Grow ad sales revenue 20%
  • Double homepage traffic
  • 99.9% reliability for mail
  • Double Patch Engagement
  • Ads/Content Platform + Devil everywhere
  • Recruit top talent
  • Customize office around towns

The first six are all well and good, with “double patch engagement” being of particular interest to the company’s pirate employees. For me, though, the undisputed highlight was item seven: “customize office around towns”.

In case you missed the story, “towns” is some distracting corporate bullshit the company’s forward-thinking vision for grouping together otherwise disparate content categories. And what better way to demonstrate their commitment to the initiative than to customize an entire office around it?

Here, then, my contribution for TechTown…

You’re welcome, Tim.

Ship or Get Off the Pot

On Tuesday Steve Ballmer fired Bob Muglia, and Google fired H.264 from Chrome. The tubes are heated up with analysis of these two seemingly unassociated events, and I figure I’ll mash them together into a counter-intuitive scenario. The unifying driver: Tuesday’s new iPhone 4 announcement from Verizon.

We hear lots about Android these days as a million tablets bloom at CES. But the world we’re hearing about is the one where Apple lives in a one-carrier model. It’s a Model T world where you can have any color as long as it’s AT&T. Every day people walk into any other carrier store and walk out with Android, because they don’t know the difference. Contrary to the pr, the Android sell to the broad market is not about Open v. Closed, or store v. market, or any of the direct feature comparisons.

That’s because the features are comparable, the experience is similar, the sell is based on stepping up to the iPhone experience whether it’s called Kleenex or Cheerios or the supermarket knock off. The knock off becomes the brand. But in doing this jujitsu, Google has created a climate where the knock off is vulnerable to attack if the rules that got them there change. Google having given the carriers a reasonably indistinguishable knock off to sell, Apple can now safely drop the exclusive wedge for disintermediating carrier profit margin havens such as tethering and IM and eventually VoIP.

Snap. Verizon offers iPhone 4. Forget the slight redesign, forget the lack of multitasking between data and voice, forget the pricing models for unlimited, tethering, and video chat over 3G. Now the store brand is competing directly with the actual iPhone. Naturally the pent-up demand by Verizon contractees will blow out the overall numbers. But much more importantly, Apple is free to ship an iPhone 5 across the board, where existing contractees can be marketed to with bundled services, i.e. the new TV, the new Enterprise, the new Office. One device, with the carriers battling for the most attractive rendering of services.

This is where we switch over to Google’s H.264 move. Faced with ship or get off the pot, Google will do whatever it needs to do to establish its platform as a unique and valuable proposition. With H.264 store brand adoption over 50%, Apple has reached the point where its Flash blockade is no longer painful to the majority of iOS users. With a broad non-exclusive base opening up, Apple is free to blow out the market unless something radical is done — destabilize the inevitability argument around Flash-is-dead by a weird combination of OpenFUD and brute force. Never mind that it tells its developers and Chrome adopters to never believe a word Google says about its motivations and reliability of partner strategy.

In effect, Google is broadening its mission statement from “What’s good for the Web is good for us” to “What’s good for the Web and bad for Apple is good for us.” At best, it’s Google water-testing VP8 to gauge its patent liabilities; at worst it’s a weak signal if they reverse course. It suggests a certain thin-skinnedness over the Verizon deal and its bandwagon implications, and underlines the alacrity of the timing (over the next two months) within which Chrome will be crippled. And the short term fix is to continue to support Flash as a way around having to download another plug in. The weird thing here is that this begins to feel like a Google version of a Silverlight play, starting with video and Chrome and then marching through the other browsers via YouTube.

Silverlight is seen by some as the reason Bob Muglia was sent packing, most likely by Steve Sinofsky consolidating power to succeed Ballmer. Muglia and Ray Ozzie were surprisingly in synch around using Silverlight as a stalking horse for embedding Windows in an uber Web OS, disagreeing (or subtly agreeing) only over the timing of the transition. While Ozzie owned the vision and strategy, Muglia owned the execution and a rising revenue base in the Servers and Tools Business. The black helicopter noise suggests Muglia was undermined by the retrenchment around Silverlight he surfaced in an interview with Mary Jo Foley, but here again Apple’s Verizon deal around iPhone 4 and a Verizon iPad threatens Microsoft much more directly by accelerating iOS and damaging both Windows Phone and the MIA Windows tablet.

Just as with Android market success, Ozzie and Muglia’s success at destabilizing private cloud margins for servers and the increasingly irrelevant and collaboration-free Office platform in order to save the company has created an Azure economy that needs to be managed by a new breed of president, or by Ballmer directly. Google has moved way past Microsoft in mobile, and now Apple is moving back out in front of both. Ironically, Ozzie leaving cut Muglia’s legs out from under him, as his P&L looks good compared to everybody else but Sinofsky’s.

In the Ozzie/Muglia era, Microsoft learned how to speak a newer language of openness and resolve to move forward into the cloud. In the Sinofsky/Ballmer era, they get to keep the cloud because they have to, and try and manage their way out of the collapse of their enterprise channel before Office is pulled out from under them. Meanwhile, a new generation of store brand social workers are using a new message bus, with Apple driving the innovation curve around a realtime set of dynamic objects. FaceTime, AirPlay, the Mac AppStore, the Twitter realtime Mac app, and so on.

Once again: Verizon capitulates on behalf of the carriers to Apple. Google, flush with having educated the market across the carriers about the superphone, suddenly shows weakness and collapse of trust messaging by trying to damage Apple via a phony open source/standards gambit. Microsoft, flush with barely being all in on the cloud, fires its cloud chief to appease the old guard’s Ballmer heir by completing the Silverlight coup, papering over its mobile collapse, and rolling back to the state Ozzie had rescued them from. iOS wins 2 out of 3 phone sales, 4 out of 5 tablets, transforms its Mac OS to the new iOS mobile AppStore, and competes head to head with Google and its old Microsoft model. Thanks, Verizon.

Cubeduel: Hot Or Not Meets LinkedIn. Your Darker Side Will Love It.

People sure do love judging their coworkers. And now it’s easier and more addictive than ever.

Meet Cubeduel, a site that launched two days ago and is quickly making the rounds on Twitter. After landing on the site, you’ll be asked to connect with LinkedIn via OAuth. Next, you’ll be presented with photos of two of your former or current coworkers, prompting you to choose who you’d prefer to work with. Click one, and the site will show you another pair. Then another. Vote 20 times and you unlock access to see how other people have ranked you. Yeah, you’re already hooked.

But that’s not all. The site records the votes (which are all anonymous) and tallies them, allowing you to browse individual companies like Google or TechCrunch, to see which employees have won the most ‘duels’ based on votes aggregated from all users. In other words, it gives you a nice, easy to read ranking of the ‘best’ people in each company (more on that later).

The site is the brainchild of Adam Doppelt (cofounder of UrbanSpoon) and Tony Wright (cofounder of RescueTime), both of whom have left the startups they helped found to work on other projects, including this one. Wright says that CubeDuel came together over the course of the last two weeks. Since launching yesterday “thousands” of people have signed up (the site still has pretty poor analytics tools) and over 50,000 votes have been submitted in the last day.

While the site certainly falls somewhere on the evil spectrum, it’s not as bad as Honestly.com, which lets users write anonymous reviews about their peers. Sure, you might end up ranked in the last 10% of your company on Cubeduel, but since there are no comments you don’t have to potentially deal with coworkers insinuating that you’re corrupt or devious.

It’s fun and feels slightly mischievous, but it also has some flaws. One of these involves the fact that you’re compelled to choose between one person or the other, even if you don’t know one of them very well (yes, there’s a ‘skip’ button, but it feels like a cop-out and the site doesn’t go out of its way to say you should only vote for people you’ve actually worked with). As I tested the site I found myself favoring people with whom I’d worked directly, even if I couldn’t really say whether they were a better worker than the other.

There’s also the charm factor at work — if you knew everyone at your last company (and most people liked you), then you’re probably going to fare better than the guy who churns out great code in a quiet corner of the office. Then again, as Wright says, the charm factor is always at work in the workplace anyway.

So why is the site spreading so quickly? Aside from appealing to the darker side of human nature (which is more viral, naturally), Cubeduel prompts you repeatedly to share the site with your friends on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter (part of this is because you need at least four votes before the site will show you your own ranking).

It’s too early to tell if this is just a fad. If it does have some legs, Wright says that the site could figure out some ways to monetize it by packaging data in much the same way that Glassdoor does (he says the site could also let people rank companies they’ve worked at).

AOL’s Q1 Winter Luge Goals Revealed

Around here at AOL/TechCrunch, they tend to keep us out of the loop on corporate strategy because they know we’ll post any old memo we find. So imagine my surprise to find a box with AOL snow globes and first quarter stretch targets sent to my office in New York City (which is not at AOL’s headquarters, by the way, but the same office I’ve always had because, well, they don’t really want me in their building—despite being an AOL employee, I can’t even get an AOL ID to enter unannounced). This box has been sitting around since the holidays, and inside is a little motivational package with five AOL Winter Luge 2011 snow globes and bookmarks/postcards (see photo above).

On the back of the postcards are the company’s goals for the first quarter dubbed “Q1 Winter Luge.” Some of these have been reported before, like doubling homepage traffic, which in and of itself would be huge. But there are others too, including growing ad sales revenue by 20 percent, doubling engagement on the local Patch sites, organizing around “towns” (we are in Tech Town!), recruiting top talent, and expanding the Project Devil ads, which replace clutter on the page with one big ad incorporating different interactive elements like video or maps.

So while the news today was about how AOL is outsourcing sports, health, and real estate—some of the content areas where it is not so strong—the bigger strategy revolves around these goals. While there was no other information in the package other than the cards and the globes, it seems clear to me that these are very much stretch goals but ones worth striving for. In case you have trouble reading the goals in the photo above, here they are—and below that another interpretation of the Winter Luge at an AOL party (photo cropped to protect the not-so-innocent, but note the “AOL 2011″ engraved into the side of the ice luge):

Q1 Winter Luge

  • Grow ad sales revenue 20%
  • Double homepage traffic
  • 99.9% reliability for mail
  • Double Patch Engagement
  • Ads/Content Platform + Devil everywhere
  • Recruit top talent
  • Customize office around towns

Information provided by CrunchBase

HP Also Holding A Second webOS Event On February 9 To Woo Developers

A week and a half ago, we were invited to join HP on the morning of February 9 for an “exciting announcement”. But it appears that they’re now also reaching out to others about another event later that day.

This new invite reads: “HP webOS. The future revealed.” Below that, it lists the same February 9 date, but lists the time as being from 7 PM to 9:30 PM. And it will be in the same venues: Fort Mason Center, Herbst Pavillion in San Francisco.

So what’s this all about? The next line is key: “Please join Jon Rubinstein and the HP webOS Engineering and Developer Relations teams for a special presentation and developer community reception.” In other words, it’s a developer event being held the night after they reveal what they’re doing to reveal at their press event. Makes sense. It looks like HP wants to get to work ASAP.

So what’s actually being announced? Speculation has been that webOS 2.0 would be more formally unveiled at that time. But we also now know that tablets will definitely be a part of the day. How? Because HP EVP Todd Bradley told CNBC as much yesterday. When he was asked a questiona about tablets, Bradley responded that “you and I will talk about that on the 9th.

So, webOS 2.0, tablets, and probably some new phones in the morning to woo the press. Then a developers, developers, developers event at night with Rubinstein to get everyone who will actually have to support the new stuff excited about the future of the HP webOS platform.

[thanks Joseph]

Justin Bieber URL Shortener Bieber.ly Shuts Down After Cease And Desist

Earlier today we wrote about the Justin Bieber URL shortener Bieber.ly, which had the dubious distinction of shortening long URLs to the shorter and more catchy Bieber.ly. About 22 hours after the site, went up developer Elliott Kember emails us to say he received a “Cease and Desist” letter apparently from lawyers representing “His Bieberness.”

The site now reads “Aww, we got lawyered. Ah well, it was fun while it lasted! Unfortunately we’ve been asked to take this site down.”

Phil Sturgeon@philsturgeon
Phil Sturgeon

@jakeencinas @elliottkember You'll have to ask permission from "His Biebiness" for that to happen.

about 7 hours ago via Twitter for MacRetweetReply

Says Kember, “This was pretty much the fastest C&D letter I’ve seen – it only took about 22 hours from launch to email.”

Teen singer Bieber and his over 7 million “Belieber” followers occupy a vast and murky part of the Internet so it’s no surprise that someone from the Bieber camp would put legal pressure on the guys behind the defacto “Justin Bieber URL Shortener.”

What is surprising however, is that the blog “Lesbians Who Look Just Like Justin Bieber” still manages to stay up.

I have (sadly) contacted Justin Bieber’s press team for more information, and will update this post (and start applying to grad school) if/when they get back to me.

Elliott Kember@elliottkember
Elliott Kember

I'm sad to announce that Bieber.ly has been shut down.

On a more positive note – my first Cease And Desist notice! Printing and framing.

about 7 hours ago via Twitter for MacRetweetReply

Groupon China Giving, Like, a Billion Reasons It’ll Beat the Clones

As we noted yesterday and discussed with Groupon COO Rob Solomon months ago, Groupon has been a bit flummoxed over how to enter the difficult but insanely lucrative Chinese market. If you thought the recent acquisitions of sites in Taiwan and Hong Kong were the answer, think again.

Apparently Groupon’s Berlin team– which has been leading much of its international efforts with varying degrees of success– has hired its own team and sent them to China to build something new on the mainland from scratch. (I’d guess a future acquisition might still be in the offing once it gets its China sea legs.)

Now, a source tells us that Groupon China is using “large parts” of that $950 million to aggressively hire for all positions. Check out this posting from a private university job board:

“I do not want to disclose too much information here, just some rough facts:

– Groupon has secured 950mn. EUR, large parts of which are used for penetration of the Chinese market. That means near to endless funding. Compensation is highly, highly competitive.

– The core management team consists of 10 people (including me), all of which (exept me 🙂 ) have worked for Groupon before and/or have experience at leading consultancies / investment banks.

– This is the fastest growing venture of all times. Since we landed here on Sunday we hired 50 employees (middle management level, mostly Chinese McK), by March we’ll grow to 1000 employees.

– We are recruiting on all positions / functions / levels. If you hold a Masters degree from an internationally leading university, have working experience from a reputable bank/consultancy, have startup experience you will be able to join the management team, otherwise we will also find a suitable position for you.

Send me your CVs to [REDACTED] – the sooner the better.

Vice President Groupon China”

Whoa. 1000 employees by March? Groupon clearly isn’t taking some Google-like “we’ll just operate from Hong Kong and that’ll be fine” approach. Groupon is taking on the biggest clone army in the world.

Will the Chicago two-year-old that has broken so many other Silicon Valley records also break the curse of China? I applaud Groupon doing this the hard way by investing in building a team on the ground, but plenty of companies have lost “near endless funding” trying to conquer China. I can guarantee the solution doesn’t just lie with MBAs and consultants. I hope our redacted friend knows what he’s/she’s getting into.

VBS.TV And Reddit Are Leading Us Into The Golden Era Of Information Discovery

Something just happened online that is highly indicative of where we’re headed in terms of new media. Look at these two stories on VBS.TV and Reddit. They are totally independent from each other and nine months apart, but the two sites are presenting readers with unparalleled access to a fascinating story: how an Oklahoman was inspired by a ’60s-era underwater adventure show, went on to work at NASA to develop self-sustaining habitats, and is now developing an undersea colony off the Florida coast. One did the video and the other is hosting a nearly-live conversation with the NASA engineer right now.

It’s stories like this – stories that would once rate a few feature pages in Discover magazine or Omni (remember Omni?) – that are now percolating through the Internet, to our benefit and to the detriment of old media who can’t keep up. Now we get the real story sans any nonsense graphics, anticlimactic taglines or fluff. It’s the future, everyone.

Saying that the Internet is killing traditional media is disingenuous at best. The Internet herself isn’t the antagonist, nor are the traditional media companies that are swiftly making online a priority. It’s the independent sites fueled by nothing but raw passion and curiosity that are transforming news consumption.

VBS.TV picked up the story early last year and produced an 18 minute video about the NASA’s undersea Atlantica Expeditions. Of course the video had the outlet’s trademark high production values and direct-but-honest approach. This is what VBS.TV does. They find an off-beat subject and cover it properly. See their coverage of North Korea. Or the art of nude photography. (NSFW) Or The Aquatic Life of Dennis Chamberland.

This particular video was produced under VBS.TV’s Motherboard.tv channel, where the site’s editor, Alex Pasternack, told me that they focus mainly on “The weird and exciting side of technology.” They discovered this man while searching for a story on undersea living and colonies. It was the perfect fit for Motherboard.tv: a quaint backstory, great shooting location, and a man with words “NASA Bioengineer” on his business card.

This video and blog post were the result of the meeting. National Geographic went on to run a similar story in the Fall of 2010 that explored the subject in a broader sense over multiple episodes, but still (albeit less prominently) features Mr. Chamberland.

This is what VBS.TV and its shows like Motherboard.tv do. During the previous season, just the Motherboard.tv team was outing one featured documentary a week while simultaneously managing a clever website — which follows the same guiding principle but allows for user-submitted posts — that saw 500k unique visitors in December 2010. VBS.TV is a go-to alternative news outlet where this sort of stuff is the norm.

But here we are today when, nearly nine months later when Dennis Chamberland’s son encouraged the NASA bioengineer to do an IAMA on Reddit. Welcome, to the Internet, Mr. Chamberland.

Reddit is famous for their community of honest and curious users. These IAMA posts — Internet speak for “I am a [insert profession or human trait]” — are part of what makes Reddit great. Anyone from random users with an interesting story or celebrities do these sort FAQ posts. The purpose is that Reddit users are then open to ask questions that the IAMA will then answer. Reddit’s effective user moderation system then filters the good from the bad, resulting in an sincere, mostly flame-free, Internet conversation.

It’s this sort of interaction on Reddit, and story production and discovery from VBS, that is driving the Internet past traditional media. Take away the VBS.TV video and this NASA engineer could have still seen similar results and satisfying interaction on Reddit as Internet users crave new and fresh content.

Old media moving to the web and even blogs like us are not the so-called killers of print media. It’s the ability to bypass news outlets altogether and interact directly with the story or subject that will slowly draw attention away from the establishment.

The old standbys did pick up this story. National Geographic did their series on it, but watch it after the Vice video. One is frank, genuine and direct. The other is filled with fancy graphics and lots of filler. Then yesterday, on January 12th, CNN ran the story as part of their partnership with Vice but failed to add anything new to the story.

It’s not just Vice and Reddit. It’s Twitter and Facebook in a broader sense. It’s athletes interacting with fans on Twitter and Sarah Palin’s Facebook soapbox. It’s increasingly easier for the average world citizen to derive their own conclusion about a subject directly from the source and not through a news outlet’s political or corporate filter.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but it’s interesting to note that one man’s quirky job became a meme, then a news topic, then a topic of general conversation. The news cycle isn’t dead, it’s just happening in new places.

Groupon: We’ve Now Saved Users Over $1 Billion (Sort Of)

Groupon, the incredibly popular deal-sharing site that recently raised a whopping $950 million funding round, has just announced a pretty impressive milestone: users have ‘saved’ over $1 billion through the site’s sales.

Groupon’s daily deals often come with steep discounts of 50% or more — Groupon is presumably totaling all of these discounts to reach its $1 billion stat. Of course, the site isn’t exactly saving you money, because its hot deals often lead people to purchase things they wouldn’t buy otherwise (I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my $50 voucher for art supplies).

In any case, that’s a lot of sales.

In December, Groupon walked away from an acquisition offer from Google that was rumored to be around $6 billion. They didn’t waste any time in raising that new $950 million round afterwards.

And if you’re interested, you really can use Heifer to send a llama (or sheep, or goat) to families around the world.

Information provided by CrunchBase

PicPlz Adds Speed, Polish As The Mobile Photo Wars Rage On

As many of you are well aware, I write about a photo sharing service, Instagram, quite a bit. In my opinion, they’ve hit the right combination of speed, utility, and fun within a mobile photo app. And while they’re growing fast, they’re hardly the only player in the space. In fact, there are dozens of rivals in Apple’s App Store alone. Of those, arguably the most direct rival right now is PicPlz. And today, they’re pushing back at their rival with added speed and a revamped user interface.

The latest version of PicPlz, 1.4, which has just hit the App Store brings a UI that has been totally reworked so as to be more obvious to the end user. “The main goal of this release was to listen to and address the user feedback we have gotten over the past few months. The major themes in that feedback were: speed/responsiveness and usability,” co-founder Dalton Caldwell tells us.

And truth be told, those were the two major issues I personally had with PicPlz. But I’ve been testing out the latest version for a bit and it definitely is much improved. In fact, users of Instagram should feel right at home in it now.

The new key features include:

  • New navigation structure to allow fast switching between browsing and photo posting screens
  • Simplified photo posting flow
  • Live thumbnail preview. Quickly see what you’re photo looks like with different filters.
  • Camera now supports “tap to focus”
  • New users can test out the app without creating an account or logging in

PicPlz does have a couple of advantages over Instagram. First and formost, they have an Android app and a solid web presence, while Instagram still has neither. (Though it’s important to note that these changes will be on the iPhone version first and coming to Android shortly.) But the service also allows you to capture and use full-sized images rather than the small ones that Instagram defaults to.

Of course, the filp-side to that is that small images allow uploads and downloads to go much quicker. But PicPlz also has an option to downsize images automatically so they can be shared more quickly.

PicPlz’s new thumbnail preview is also pretty nifty. This shows you what your image will look like before you hit the button to apply a filter (which can take a couple of seconds).

PicPlz and Instagram are also grouped together often because they currently share the same investor, Andreessen Horowitz. But that should change shortly when Instagram closes their new round without that firm’s participation — they’ve chosen to back PicPlz in the space going foward.

Mixed Media Labs, the parent of PicPlz, has always said their true ambitions lay beyond just a photo app. Instead, they’d like to build a series of different apps in the mobile space, each with clear monetization ideas. But first they need to nail PicPlz and version 1.4 is a step in the right direction.

You can find PicPlz in the App Store here.

Call Of Duty Invades The Mac App Store; How It Does Should Be Telling

It has now been a week since the launch of the Mac App Store. So far, the reviews have seemed fairly mixed. While nearly everyone praises the simplicity of the store, and Apple touted 1 million app downloads in the first 24 hours, most also seem to agree that there’s still a lack of killer content. And exactly that’s what it’s going to take for the store to be successful longterm: killer content. And one new app may be a good gauge for such content: Call of Duty.

Specifically, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare has just hit the Mac App Store. Apple wasted little time in featuring it in a main store banner today. To be clear, the game is not new: it was first released in 2007 and then for the Mac in 2008, but the series is hugely popular amongst gamers. And this version of the game alone has sold over 13 million copies.

So how it does in the Mac App Store should be telling. And Apple undoubtedly hopes it will be a big hit. There’s no question that gaming is going to have to be one of the huge categories if the store is to succeed. And they’ll need to convince publishers to put other popular games like Call of Duty in the store.

And if it’s a big enough hit, it may even entice developers to add the Mac platform to their list of must-develop-for systems. Traditionally, Mac gaming has lagged behind both PC and console gaming. But just as we saw with the iPhone App Store, publisher focus can quickly shift if they smell… money.

Speaking of that, Call of Duty 4 sells for $49.99 in the store. That’s pretty typical for games of this nature, but again, this game is old. On Amazon, it’s selling for only $32. So will users pay for the convenient download and simple install on multiple machines? We’ll see.

The game is also massive in size, at over 6 gigabytes, so it’s going to take a while to download even on a fast connection.

And don’t forget that if these more expensive games do take off, Apple’s 30 percent cut could actually mean some significant money.

AOL Outsources Sports, Health, and Real Estate

AOL CEO Tim Armstrong today announced three new content partnerships which effectively will hand over coverage for sports, health and real estate. The partners are Sporting News, Everyday Health, and Move.com for real estate. These will replace AOL’s own properties Fanhouse and AOL Health, whereas AOL Real Estate will remain. (Disclosure: AOL owns TechCrunch).

Armstrong suggested on a conference call that these are not areas that are core to AOL. “The reason we did these deals is because we believe the partners we are working with will be better at doing their core business than we are.” AOL isn’t getting completely out of sports, health, and real estate content. Especially when it comes to local (through Patch) or video, AOL will continue to create videos and articles covering these topics, some of which will appear on the partner sites and some of which will appear in AOL properties.

Outsourcing these content areas is supposed to allow AOL to “double down” on the categories it wants to own, namely local, women, and influencers. Although, health traditionally draws a large female audience, so maybe it’s more of Armstrong cutting his losses and going with the strongest sites.

As far as cost cutting and layoffs go, some Fanhouse employees may lose their jobs, but Armstrong is hopeful that they can be absorbed by Sporting News. The number is to-be-determined and could be anywhere from “zero to dozens.” The brand will continue to exist within Sporting News as part of the deal.

The deals are structured essentially to trade traffic from AOL for content and a revenue-split. “The partnerships are built on our ability to offer the partners traffic. In return for that we are getting content and monetization from the partners,” says Armstrong.

The Move.com partnership is a particularly interesting choice, given the past relationship between the two companies back when Move.com was called Homestore. Yes, that Homestore, the one that sparked a government investigation after the dotcom bubble because of roundtrip transactions where AOL invested in the company, and then Homestore repaid the favor by buying a ton of advertising on AOL. The former CEO of Homestore was convicted of insider trading (a conviction which was later overturned). The company changed its name to distance itself from the controversy. But that was a long time ago. Still, an interesting choice for a partner.

More Evidence That Facebook Is Nearing 600 Million Users

Recently, there have been a lot of questions as to whether Facebook has crossed the 600 million user mark. Goldman Sachs is reportedly telling potential Facebook investors that the social network currently has 600 million monthly active users. But Facebook statistics portal Socialbakers (formerly known as Facebakers until Facebook strongly urged the startup to change its name) pegs Facebook’s user base at 596,372,520 members.

So how did Socialbakers arrive at this number? Co-founder Jan Rezab says that the startup aggregates information from Facebook’s advertising tool. If you try to create an ad via Facebook Advertising, you can choose to target users by location. Facebook will show you how many of its members are in that location. Using that method, the U.S. has 146,591,880 million members according to Socialbakers. Socialbakers then aggregates that data for every country that Facebook is available in each day and adds the user numbers together.

As we wrote in late December, Facebook is currently the third largest website in the world, according to comScore. Facebook drew an estimated 648 million unique visitors from across the globe in November 2010. Of course, Socialbakers is counting registered members and comScore simple counts unique visits (which can include members and non-members).

Socialbakers also reveals that the top gaining countries in the last 6 months which contributed most to this milestone were USA (+20.7 million new users), India (+8.3 million new users), Indonesia (+8 million new users), Philippines (+6.2 million users) and Mexico (+5.8 million new users).

The startup claims this Facebook data is up-to-date. We’ve sent Facebook PR an email and will update when we hear back.

Update: This completely anecdotal, but we received a tip from a reader claiming to be a former Facebook employee, who says Facebook passed 600 million members late last year. Hmmm.

Information provided by CrunchBase