As Formspring.me Passes 700 Million Questions, Brands Start Taking Notice

Back in January, I wrote about a new Q&A service called Formspring.me that allowed users to have their friends “ask them anything”: sign up for a profile, and anyone can submit a question that you can choose to answer at your discretion. At the time the service had around one million users. Fast forward six months: the service now has over 12 million accounts and users have asked each other 700 million questions.  According to Quantcast, it’s the 61st most visited site in the United States. Formspring has also just launched a preview of its API in private beta, which you can request an invite to here.

As it has taken off, Formspring has started to draw the attention of some major brands — last month, Fiat used it to help launch the Uno in Brazil, and Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort regularly takes to the site to answer fan questions (he’s responded to over 3,000 of them). Red Bull has just launched a new page. As with Facebook Pages, Formspring gives brands a relatively easy way to engage directly with their fans — this could well be the start of a new trend.

The history of Formspring is interesting — it actually started off over four years ago as a service that makes it easy to generate web forms of all sorts. Last summer, the company noticed that a significant number of users were using the service to build out Q&A forms, which was driving a lot of traffic but was also hurting their conversion metrics (none of these users were looking for a premium product). So the company decided to launch a little side project at Formspring.me in November 2009 that would cater specifically to these individuals. A month and a half later, the service had a million users. Now that it’s taking off, the ‘old’ Formspring has been renamed Formstack, and Formspring.me now has an office of 14 based in San Francisco.

The appeal of Formspring.me is obvious: it lets you talk about yourself at great length without coming off as a total narcissist (of course, the success of the service relies on your vanity). Better yet, you can optionally allow users ask their questions anonymously. This anonymity has led to some issues though, spurring reports of teenagers harassing each other through the service. The Formspring team is well aware of these problems, and plans to launch a suite of new features to address them in the near future.

Information provided by CrunchBase


Kinect’s Launch Lineup: Something For Everybody

Microsoft has been touting its Kinect interface for the 360 all morning, and it’s clearly being marketed as a family-oriented device. They demoed quite a few games, covering a lot of territory; gaming rags are already whispering that this is where much of the MS development muscle is going to be applied for the foreseeable future. Not everything is going to be a hit, but among the dozen or so launch titles, there are definitely a few worth checking out, though a lot depends on your gaming tendencies — and age.

Here are our picks for which games will and will not impress buyers when November 4th comes around.

Continue reading…


Sprint Employee Terminated For Leaking EVO 4G Sales Figures

The tales surrounding the launch of the EVO 4G have been intriguing, to say the least. On June 4th, the device launched. By June 7th, Sprint was touting the phone’s sales as mammoth, claiming that it had broken their previous one-day sales records (as held by the Samsung Instinct and Palm Pre) by as much as 3 times. Just two days later, they recanted that story, declaring that they had “erred” in their original estimations, and that the sales numbers were inline with those of their previous top sellers.

There was, however, a bit of the story which we didn’t see: the part where a Sprint employee used the inventory system to figure out exactly how many EVO 4Gs were sold and posted that number online, resulting in a speedy investigation by Sprint HQ and the employee’s immediate termination.

Read the rest at MobileCrunch>>


Microsoft’s Oprah Moment: You’re All Getting Xboxes

Although there was plenty of news coming out of Microsoft today, the most interesting move is their decision to begin shipping the brand new XBox – it’s basically the old XBox with 802.11n Wi-Fi, a 250GB hard drive, and Kinect support – the same week they announced it. It’s not quite same day, but it’s close.

However, another treat came when they announced all the media at their press event will be getting XBox 360s immediately and that they would be showing up at their domiciles and places of business posthaste. Ethical issues aside, this is an interesting marketing effort.

These sort of giveaways are common at developer events (well, actually just Google IO) and I suspect they’ll become more popular in the coming months. Gear is so cheap to build and ship that it almost makes sense to blanket the evangelists with it. Whereas the old model of “selective releases” works for some products – Apple, in particular excels at this – the XBox team is dealing with an entrenched base of hardware users who will be loathe to swap out their old XBox, provided they’re not RRODed.

Read more…


Apple Reverses Block Of Oscar Wilde Graphic Novel’s Gay Kissing


In the last few days, a pair of stories have emerged illustrating the issues with Apple’s App Store and its potential to censor content. The latest was Apple’s blocking of an iPad graphic novel adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. According to a report in The Big Money, the application was barred from the App Store until its author added ugly black blocks to censor the illustrations of men kissing (which included depictions of mens’ buttocks, but no frontal nudity). We’ve just gotten word from Apple that they’ve reversed the decision (they say it was a mistake) and that the application’s developers can resubmit the graphic novel in its original form.

The news comes on the heels of a very similar situation involving a comic adaptation of the classic epic Ulysses called Ulysses Seen, which was blocked from the App Store until its authors removed some illustrated nudity featured in the comic. Apple reversed that block this morning.

Apple representative Trudy Muller explained:

“We made a mistake. When the art panel edits of the Ulysses Seen app and the graphic novel adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest app were brought to our attention, we offered the developers the opportunity to resubmit their original drawings and update their apps.”

This isn’t the first time Apple has run into similar issues — in April it was in hot water for blocking a satirical application created by a Pulitzer Prize winner (it quickly reversed the block as soon as the press caught wind of it).  Apple may not be censoring this content as a matter of official policy, but it’s clear that some of its reviewers are doing it anyway, or are at least unsure about what the rules are. And it isn’t comforting that it took the media spotlight to get these cases reversed.

Image via The Big Money.


Xbox 360 Gets Live Sports In HD From ESPN. Canceling My Cable In 5, 4, 3…

Everyone is busy talking about Microsoft Kinect (the project formerly known as Natal), but to me, some much bigger news just dropped at E3 from Microsoft: ESPN live sports access. Simply put: this was the only thing holding me back from completely canceling my cable subscription. As soon as this goes live, I’m done with cable forever.

No, this live sporting access won’t be entirely free, but it’s one hell of a deal. You simply have be an Xbox Live Gold member (about $50 a year), and you’ll get access to over 3,500 live events a year. In HD. Did I mention it was $50 a year? My cable bill is currently double that — a month.

According to BusinessofVideo.com:

Content includes college basketball, college football, soccer, MLB and NBA amongst others.

It’s hard to overstate just how big this news is for people fed up for cable. A little over a year ago I tried to cancel my cable after being fed up with Comcast’s sub-par (a nice way of saying it) service and absurd prices. I was fine using only my Xbox 360, Apple TV, and computer for all my content for several months. One thing I severely missed though was live sports. As crazy as it sounds, there’s only so many times you can drag yourself to a bar on a weeknight to watch every game you want to see.

So when I moved a few months ago, I signed up for cable again (this time without Comcast, thankfully). Once again, I find the only thing I regularly watch on cable is live sports — so I’m effectively paying $100 a month for that privilege since the cable companies still refuse to do a-la-carte packages where you can choose only the channels you want. With this new Xbox Live ESPN service, I can officially cancel cable — and never look back.

One thing not mentioned in the announcement was the biggest sports league in the U.S.: the NFL. Still, if I only have to drag myself to bars to watch those games, I’ll be a happy camper.

Back in December, when it looked like Apple was on the verge of talking some of the television networks into doing subscription-based TV packages through iTunes, I wrote that Apple may be on the verge of kneecapping the cable industry. Those deals have yet to come to fruition. And so their rival Microsoft beat them to the knee bashing. As long as I can throw that crappy cable box and its piece of garbage remote out the window, I don’t care who destroys big cable’s monopoly, I just care that it’s done.


Flash Ported To The iPod Touch, In A Manner Of Speaking

Sure it looks horrible and the video is awful, but believe us when we tell you that the same guys who created the Spirit jailbreak have ported Flash to the iPhone. The video, apparently taken through the pinhole camera truck the Bloodhound Gang built back in the 1980s to see where they were being taken after a kidnapping, shows a Strongbad clip.

This is obviously a proof of concept in its purest sense – it’s basically a bit of Flash ported to the iPod Touch using some unknown method – but it proves that it’s possible. You can keep your eye on the project by following Comex on Twitter.

Read more…


Gogobot Unveils Plans To Evolve Online Travel, Takes $4 Million From Battery Ventures

Apparently it’s former MySpace exec venture capital funding day. Earlier we announced the BeachMint news ($5 million). And now gogobot, a new travel website founded by MySpace’s former GM International Travis Katz and Ori Zaltzman, the former Chief Architect of Yahoo Boss, are announcing an impressive venture funding of their own. They first hinted about their startup in March.

They aren’t saying much about gogobot now, except that they think online travel is still woefully inadequate when it comes to discovery and that adding a social layer may fix that problem. “Online travel is a $100 billion a year market in the U.S., and there has been very little innovation in this space in the last ten years,” Katz tells me. “We will leverage the social graph to make planning trips easy and fun.”

I’m in! If you know where you want to go and don’t want to extend discovery beyond price comparisons, Trip Advisor reviews and maybe a few pictures and some descriptive text then current services are fine. But let’s say you’re planning to take a month off and want to rent a house somewhere in the world but you don’t know, say, the perfect village and villa in Tuscany to stay (something I’m currently planning for August). “Will you help me figure that out?” I asked Katz. “Yes,” he says, but pointing out that the site isn’t just for long and/or expensive vacations. But for now, he won’t say exactly how it will all work.

Launch is still months away, but whatever they’re planning seems to have impressed Battery Ventures. The venture firm put $4 million into gogobot and principal Satya Patel has joined the board of directors. And former MySpace founder and CEO Chris DeWolfe is an advisor to the company.

Want to know more? Sign up to join the private beta when it launches on their home page. The company, which is based in Palo Alto, is also aggressively hiring – details here.


News Corp. Buys E-Reading Platform Skiff From Hearst, Invests In Journalism Online

News Corp. has just announced that it has acquired e-reader Skiff from Hearst and made an investment in Journalism Online, news monetization venture founded by Leo Hindery, Steve Brill, and Gordon Crovitz. The financial terms of both agreements were not disclosed. Additionally, Jon Housman has been named President of News Corporation’s digital journalism initiatives.

As we’ve written in the past, Skiff is sort of like a Roku box for magazines. The e-reading platform is focused on the representation of magazines in their native format and aims to help move paid subscribers to a different delivery system as quickly and easily as possible.

Journalism Online aims to help news publishers monetize content. Publishers can choose adjust multiple options for paid access. This includes the “metered model” or having to pay for full access. Of course, we know that News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch is a fan of paid content so, the investment isn’t surprising. But’s unclear if an how Murdoch and the company will be integrating Journalism Online’s technologies into News Corp. properties.

In the release, Jon Miller, Chief Digital Officer for News Corp said “Both Skiff and Journalism Online serve as key building blocks in our strategy to transform the publishing industry and ensure consumers will have continued access to the highest quality journalism.”


Free WiFi Coming To All U.S. Starbucks Stores Beginning July 1

At Wired’s Business Conference in New York City, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz announced that the coffee giant is now offering free Wifi to customers beginning July 1.

Currently, you can connect to AT&T WiFi in Starbucks stores, which is free for two hours if you have a registered Starbucks card. And if you are an AT&T customer, you can access connectivity in coffee shops for free. If you’re not a registered Starbucks or AT&T customer, you have to pay $3.99 for two consecutive hours of Wi-Fi access.

Schultz said at the conference that the company aims to launch its own digital network by creating a third place between home and work. Starbucks wants to create proprietary way to give access to new sources of information and content that you can get only at Starbucks. He addded, “The rules of engagement in building a major brand have changed forever. The consumer is so cynical and distrusting of everything, there has to be a level of intimacy and trust.”

Starbucks is partnering with a number of media companies, including Yahoo, for this new digital venture. When you go to Starbucks and log-in to wifi, you’ll be served with targeted content and news. Yahoo will help run the portal and Starbucks is also working with AOL to integrate local content from Patch in the network. And you’ll get free versions of content from WSJ, Zagat, New York Times, USA Today, and free pick of the week iTunes download. Additionally, there will be no advertising on Starbuck’s digital portal.

Information provided by CrunchBase


Online Gambling Company 888 Picks Up Real Dice’s Social Games Studio Mytopia For $18M

Online gambling company 888 has bought the assets of the Mytopia social games development studio from Real Dice. Mytopia, which launched at TechCrunch50 in 2008, is an online social gaming community where people can play casual games together in real time.

The base price is $18 million cash with an additional earn out payment that will be made calculated on the basis of net profit for the calendar year 2011. The total payment to Real Dice for Mytopia’s games is capped at $48 million.

Mytopia sold 12 games in total to 888, which is planning to add microtransactions to the games to monetize the platform. Mytopia also offers a platform that allows developers to write code once and have it immediately distributed and syndicated to various smartphones and mobile operating systems. 888 has licensed this technology along with the acquisition of the social gaming studio.

Information provided by CrunchBase


NPR’s iPad App Downloaded 350,000 Times, New Public Media API Announced

NPR always has among the most popular news apps in the iTunes Store. Its latest iPad app has been downloaded 350,000 times, according to CEO Vivian Schiller, who spoke this morning at Wired’s Business Conference in New York City. Considering that only about 2 million iPads have been sold, about one in six iPad owners have downloaded the iPad app.

Asked whether she minds getting links from Google News, as Rupert Murdoch and other news organizations like to complain apparently do, she responded: “I have no problems with that whatsoever. I am not in the camp of Google bashers, Google sends a lot of traffic to us. We want our content to be as easily discoverable as possible.”

Of course, NPR’s mission is to provide free journalism to the public, so she is not a big fan of paywalls either. As listeners shift to the Web, NPR is committed to following them and serving them there as well. Ignoring consumer preference, she notes, would be a “path to destruction.” She estimates NPR’s Website traffic to currently be around 12 million unique visitors per month.

To the extent that other traditional media outlets talk actually start erecting paywalls and blocking Google, NPR and other open media sites will benefit.

Schiller also announced the development of a new API for public media broadcasters called the Public Media Platform to share news, content, and data among the websites of public broadcasters, such as NPR and PBS. The Public Media Platform (PMP) will be funded by a $1 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The PMP will initially be available to public broadcasters and eventually may open up to other media organizations as well, although it is unclear to what extent commercial media sites or developers will be able to tap into the PMP.


Ex-Slingshot Execs (And MySpace Cofounder) Raise $5 Million For Social Commerce Startup BeachMint

In April, we reported that Diego Berdakin and MySpace co-founder Josh Berman, the two heads of News Corp’s incubator Slightshot Labs, were leaving the company. They haven’t wasted any time in launching their next project: today, less than two months later, Berman and Berdakin are announcing that they’ve raised $5 million from New Enterprise Associates and Anthem Venture Partners for a new startup called BeachMint, Inc.

At this point details on the startup are still a little sparse, but Berman and Berdakin were willing to talk broadly about what BeachMint will be doing. The company will be entering the social commerce arena, with plans to launch a suite of sites catering to individual verticals. The goal, Berman says, is to drive people to curated, authentic choices with recommendations from celebrities and other ‘influencers’— think Kim Kardashian’s association with ShoeDazzle, but for numerous different verticals. Berman also noted that these recommendations will be authentic and may come from people who have less high profiles (it sounds like the sites may tap into your social graph).

The company will be launching its first vertical before this holiday season, with plans to announce it by the end of summer. Each new vertical will have its own brand, but all of the site names will likely incorporate the ‘Mint’ branding (e.g. BookMint or WineMint, though Berdakin was quick to point out that neither of these would be part of the company’s initial launch). Berdakin and Berman are well aware of the established competitors like Gilt Groupe, but believe that there’s still a huge opportunity in online retail spending, explaining that only 6% of retail spending happens online.

The Santa Monica-based company currently has seven engineers building out its product. We’ll have more on BeachMint this summer.


New Archos Tablet Is a Kid’s Toy, Not Suitable for Adults

Product: 7 Home Tablet

Manufacturer: Archos

Wired Rating: 5

Following the rather disastrous reception of its Windows-based Archos 9 PC Tablet, the company is back at the tablet game again with a wholly different approach: A cheap, Android-based tablet with a 7-inch screen.

Stripped to its absolute basics, this is a tablet for the user who expects the bare minimum from his gadgetry. This isn’t a smartphone without the phone — it’s a smartphone without the phone or the smart. Nothing in the tablet takes advantage of the features that even basic Android devices on the market provide. Without multitouch, GPS, an accelerometer, or even a Home button, the use case for the Archos 7 can be frustrating.

Fortunately, the device does offer a couple of key features that make it a shade better than useless, namely a headphone jack and a kickstand so you don’t have to prop it up on your knee.

The OS is stripped down and over a year old, but technically it’s still running Android. That means it has a web browser, an e-mail client, and a few basic applications pre-installed, but nothing that will knock your lederhosen off.

Rather, Archos keeps this device squarely focused on its heritage as a media player, albeit a limited one. Without a hard drive, you’re limited to the 8 GB of onboard Flash memory, expandable up to 32 GB with a microSDHC card. The screen, at 800 x 480 pixels, looks surprisingly good, though the speakers are decidedly not impressive. If nothing else, the Archos 7 is a solid “give it to the kids” media player. Load it up with movies for the car ride or plane and don’t look in the back seat.

If you want to use it for real work, though, you’re in trouble. The touchscreen is almost as buggy and difficult to use as the Archos 9’s, and performance is sluggish. The OS implementation clearly has some issues, too. For example, the device started giving us the “zero battery life” alert after just three hours of video playback, but didn’t actually die until more than 8 and a half hours had passed.

But hey, it’s 200 bucks. If nothing else, that’s extremely cheap for a device with a screen this large. Admittedly the Archos 7 doesn’t do much, but at least it doesn’t pretend to be magical.

WIRED Extremely affordable. Sharp and bright screen. Wi-Fi equipped. Keeps kids quiet better than a ball gag and a roll of duct tape. (Kidding!)

TIRED No hardware features (like an accelerometer) to speak of. Wretched typing experience on old-school resistive touchscreen. Old Android version installed (1.5 not kidding!).

product image

We’re Awarding Goatse Security A Crunchie Award For Public Service

This iPad security breach story from last week continues to spin way out of control, and in our opinion fingers are being pointed in the wrong direction. The FBI is investigating the incident, and a few hours ago AT&T finally communicated with customers to tell them about the breach (I’ve reprinted the AT&T email below).

Here’s what happened: Goatse Security discovered a rather stupid vulnerability on the AT&T site that returned a customer email if a valid serial number for the iPAD SIm card was entered. An invalid number returned nothing, a valid number returned a customer email address. Goatse created a script and quickly downloaded 114,000 customer emails. They then turned all that over to Gawker, after, they say, AT&T was notified and the vulnerability was closed. Gawker published some of the data with the emails removed. Says Goatse: “All data was gathered from a public webserver with no password, accessible by anyone on the Internet. There was no breach, intrusion, or penetration, by any means of the word.”

AT&T is characterizing the incident as “unauthorized computer “hackers” maliciously exploited a function designed to make your iPad log-in process faster by pre-populating an AT&T authentication page with the email address you used to register your iPad for 3G service.”

We don’t see much hacking here, and we don’t see anything really malicious. AT&T was effectively publishing the information on the open Internet, and if there’s an FBI investigation, it should be focused on them, not Goatse. The fact is that Goatse was performing a public service by discovering and publishing the vulnerability – they made the Internet slightly safer by doing so. I agree completely with their blog post responding to the AT&T letter. Unless additional facts come out suggesting that Goatse has used the information inappropriately, such as selling it, or has otherwise done some bad act hasn’t yet been alleged, they are completely in the right here.

In fact, companies like AT&T should offer people a reward for discovering vulnerabilities like this, although they’d probably ask that the information be given to them privately after discovered. But by shaming AT&T publicly other companies may take security marginally more seriously, which is good for users. And AT&T customers need to know that AT&T is so careless about security.

Se we’re doing something we’ve never done before – awarding Goatse a Crunchie award for public service – a beautiful 14 inch tall custom designed gorilla statue celebrating technology. Until now we’ve only given these awards at our annual Crunchies award ceremony.

Here’s the AT&T email:

June 13, 2010

Dear Valued AT&T Customer,

Recently there was an issue that affected some of our customers with AT&T 3G service for iPad resulting in the release of their customer email addresses. I am writing to let you know that no other information was exposed and the matter has been resolved. We apologize for the incident and any inconvenience it may have caused. Rest assured, you can continue to use your AT&T 3G service on your iPad with confidence.

Here’s some additional detail:

On June 7 we learned that unauthorized computer “hackers” maliciously exploited a function designed to make your iPad log-in process faster by pre-populating an AT&T authentication page with the email address you used to register your iPad for 3G service. The self-described hackers wrote software code to randomly generate numbers that mimicked serial numbers of the AT&T SIM card for iPad – called the integrated circuit card identification (ICC-ID) – and repeatedly queried an AT&T web address. When a number generated by the hackers matched an actual ICC-ID, the authentication page log-in screen was returned to the hackers with the email address associated with the ICC-ID already populated on the log-in screen.

The hackers deliberately went to great efforts with a random program to extract possible ICC-IDs and capture customer email addresses. They then put together a list of these emails and distributed it for their own publicity.

As soon as we became aware of this situation, we took swift action to prevent any further unauthorized exposure of customer email addresses. Within hours, AT&T disabled the mechanism that automatically populated the email address. Now, the authentication page log-in screen requires the user to enter both their email address and their password.

I want to assure you that the email address and ICC-ID were the only information that was accessible. Your password, account information, the contents of your email, and any other personal information were never at risk. The hackers never had access to AT&T communications or data networks, or your iPad. AT&T 3G service for other mobile devices was not affected.

While the attack was limited to email address and ICC-ID data, we encourage you to be alert to scams that could attempt to use this information to obtain other data or send you unwanted email. You can learn more about phishing by visiting the AT&T website.

AT&T takes your privacy seriously and does not tolerate unauthorized access to its customers’ information or company websites. We will cooperate with law enforcement in any investigation of unauthorized system access and to prosecute violators to the fullest extent of the law.

AT&T acted quickly to protect your information – and we promise to keep working around the clock to keep your information safe. Thank you very much for your understanding, and for being an AT&T customer.

Sincerely,

Dorothy Attwood
Senior Vice President, Public Policy and Chief Privacy Officer for AT&T