Online Holiday Spending To Reach $32B; E-Commerce Sales Already Up 13 Percent

Good news for online retailers this holiday shopping season. According to data collected by comScore, e-commerce spending should increase by 11 percent this holiday shopping season. Already, consumers have spent $9 billion online in the first 21 days of November, which is an 13 percent increase versus the corresponding days last year.

comScore is forecasting that online spending from the November to December period will reach $32.4 billion, representing an 11 percent gain versus year ago. In 2009, consumers spent $29 billion on holiday e-commerce purchases. Last year’s e-commerce holiday spending rose by 4 percent from 2008.

Of course, we haven’t even hit Black Friday or Cyber Monday, which are expected to bring in big sales for online retailers.

The company also surveyed a small group of respondents (500) to measure sentiment around the holiday shopping season. According to the survey, 36 percent of respondents said they are seeing more discounts, sales and promotions. When asked how important free shipping is for making an online holiday purchases, 77 percent of consumers said that this was an important factor.

It’s no surprise that free shipping is popular this holiday season; 41 percent of online retail transactions for the third quarter of 2010 included free shipping. Consumers are increasingly looking to save on free shipping and retailers are responding with promotional offers.

Information provided by CrunchBase


Flash Free: Aviary Hatches A Lightweight HTML5 Photo Editor For The Web

Aviary is very good at what they do. That is, offering relatively powerful tools for amateur artists to edit content online. But all of those tools are Flash-based. And some of Aviary’s partners didn’t like that too much, feeling they were too cumbersome. And some users were interested in the tools, but also wanted something more lightweight. So Aviary went to work, and came up with a new editor built entirely with HTML5.

The project, which they codenamed “Feather”, is an HTML5 photo editor that resides on both Aviary’s site, and can be easily integrated with any third party site. The tool, which appears as a small square widget overlay, allows people to quickly edit photos without Flash. And it gives third-party sites an option for a light tool that their users can use right on the site.

The tool has the core functionality that Aviary felt users and partners would want. These include the standard: Rotate, Flip, Resize, Crop, Redeye, Blemish, Colors, and Saturation. And Aviary threw in a couple of fun ones as well: Instant, Toy Camera, Old Photo, and Retro. These effects give photos looks similar to those found on some of the currently popular mobile photo apps.

But this is just step one for the editor. Aviary plans to add the ability to customize the editor’s theme, add more editing tools, and they’re even going to open source all the code for the tool. Plus they plan to give partners usage statistics.

And the plan is to get the tool working well on mobile devices too. Currently, it works on some but they’re working on making the experience better, Aviary co-founder Michael Galpert tells us. This tool will allow Aviary to build for every platform, he says.

Aviary has lined up some launch partners for the new tool. They include: Digital Youth Network, Everloop, Fashism, HowMutch, Market Publique, Rrripple, Saw You At Sinai, and Shopify.

Aviary is offering the tool for free for anyone to use and/or embed on their site. You can create and customize your own widget here. They will also have some premium features (new effects and functionality) down the road, Galpert says.

Information provided by CrunchBase


Holiday Gaming Greatness For You & Yours


This font doesn’t have an apostrophe, so don’t freak out

It’s high time to recommend y’all some video games for your holiday perusal. Oh, I know my opinions aren’t always appreciated by some of you, but therein lies the beauty: if you wanted “safe” and/or “popular” you could always watch Good Morning America. You know, “Golly gee, this is so much fun!” Balderdash, I say. Balderdash. So let’s get on with this.

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Patent Office Agrees To Facebook’s “Face” Trademark

Dotee Facesphoto © 2009 Kyla Buckingham | more info (via: Wylio)Facebook is just a payment away from trademarking the word “Face.” As of today the U.S. Patent And Trademark Office has sent the social networking site a Notice of Allowance, which means they have agreed to grant the “Face” trademark to Facebook.

All Facebook needs to do is pay the issue fee within three months of today and the “Face” trademark will be issued and be published in the official USPTO gazette and everything.

For all intents and purposes today’s status update bodes well for Facebook’s hold over “Face” usages in “Telecommunication services, namely, providing online chat rooms and electronic bulletin boards for transmission of messages among computer users in the field of general interest and concerning social and entertainment subject matter, none primarily featuring or relating to motoring or to cars.”

While it seems so bizarre that a company should have the right to trademark a word as common as “Face” apparently the USPTO isn’t at all disturbed (what’s with the “related to motoring or cars” restrictions?). Something tells me Facebook won’t have any problem forking over the cash.

Update: A commenter points out that aside from the issue fee, Facebook will have file a Statement of Use and use the trademark on its own in commerce before it has actual legal claim over the word “Face.” Right now it only uses the word “Face” in conjunction with “book,” but that will have to change if it wants to have any right to the trademark.

Information provided by CrunchBase


Android’s App Store For Pornography, MiKandi, Adds Support For Paid Applications

Yes, as Steve Jobs likes to point out, Android has at least one third-party App Store that is dedicated to pornography and other ‘adult’ content. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with Google — it’s made by a company called MiKandi (NSFW). And while it draws plenty of snickering and sneers from the Apple faithful, it capitalizes on a fact of life: a lot of people watch porn. And some of them are willing to pay for it.

Today, MiKandi has released a new version of its adult app store. The company says that it’s been rebuilt from the ground up, and it also includes one major new feature: support for paid applications. Previously MiKandi apps have been free; now developers will be able to generate revenue through a channel other than advertising.

Instead of selling applications individually (and conducting a different transaction for each app) MiKandi is selling a virtual currency that can be used to purchase premium apps. This means that charges can be consolidated under one innocuous-sounding item on a credit card statement, and it also lets MiKandi take advantage of an ‘Offers’ system similar to the ones have been so successful on Facebook. At this point there are no Offers available, but MiKandi says they are coming soon.

Yes, I’m sure some of you are shaking your heads, but remember that there are plenty of premium porn sites on the web, and their ubiquity seems to indicate that they’re making money. Combine that with the impulsive buying mentality driven by the iPhone’s App Store and Android Market, and it’s not hard to imagine that some of these apps could do pretty well for themselves. And MiKandi has 300,000 installs so far, which isn’t anything to scoff at.

If you are eager to give the new MiKandi for a spin, you’ll need to install it from their website (it isn’t in Android Market for obvious reasons). You can get an idea of what the store looks like in the video below, which does not contain nudity but may still be considered NSFW.


Information provided by CrunchBase


Will the Real “eBay of Social” Please Stand Up? (TCTV)

In the venture business being ahead of your time can be almost as bad as being late to a market. But the other great thing about the venture business is there are exceptions to every rule. Craig Denato is hoping that Oodle is the exception to that one. He’s spent more than ten years building a social classified company, powering the marketplaces for Oodle.com, MySpace and Facebook and growing to more than 14 million unique users. It’s backed by some of the smartest investors on the Web like Reid Hoffman and David Sze from Greylock, who both invested in Facebook and LinkedIn so they know a thing or two about the social graph.

Now one of Facebook’s other hot venture capital investors, Accel Partners, has funded Yardsellr which claims it’ll be the “eBay of Facebook;” meanwhile Groupon’s runaway success has made everyone reevaluate social shopping. So what does all that mean for Oodle?

For one thing, the company isn’t slowing down. Last week, Oodle acquired Grouply.com to help people sell things beyond just their friend circles to the friend-of-friend circles. The deal underscores a core tension that has held online classifieds from becoming bigger faster: Do sellers and buyers want trust and relationship or do they want huge marketplaces of buyers and sellers? Because by definition, only buying and selling from people you know limits the market.

Denato joined us to talk about the market, the Grouply deal, why he says classifieds are “social but not viral,” and why he has stuck with building out a market this hard for this long.


Duke Energy And ITOCHU Testing New Uses For Old Electric Vehicle Batteries

Duke Energy and ITOCHU Corp. announced a partnership today through which they will evaluate and test new uses for old electric vehicle (EV) batteries. Once they are too spent for life on-the-road, EV batteries could store power and deliver a charge elsewhere, the companies reason.

EV batteries falling below 80 percent of their original capacity when fully charged will be candidates for replacement and reuse. Duke and Itochu promised to begin their project by testing Ener1 lithium-ion batteries extracted from a fleet of 80 EVs in a Duke Energy facility in Indianapolis.

The automaker GM embarked on a similar initiative with The ABB Group in September, specifically looking for ways to use spent Chevy Volt batteries in the smart grid. One vision of reuse for EV batteries proposed by GM would see them storing power from renewable sources in EV charging stations, which are used to charge plug-in vehicles.

Other ideas (as reported by MSNBC.com and Gas2.org) include using the weakened EV batteries to keep cell phone towers up and running during blackouts, or to stabilize the grid by storing power generated either during off-peak hours or from intermittently available renewable sources, like wind or solar, finally dispensing it during peak demand hours.

EV skeptics believe that production and recycling of EV batteries— at least until battery design and reycling related technology improves— might make electric vehicles more harmful to the environment than the highest-efficiency diesel models. That’s especially if a majority of electricity used to charge EVs comes from non-renewable sources, like coal.

Giving batteries a new life beyond the vehicle, and using them to shift electricity production to renewables as much as possible would quiet many of these worries. At the same time, companies like GM, Duke, ABB Group and Itochu hope that increasing the total lifetime value of EV batteries would ultimately reduce the cost of producing them as well.


Ask a VC: Why We’re Thankful for David Hornik

David Hornik of August Capital has bailed me out in a short week by hopping into the Ask a VC chair that I neglected to book in advance. The timing wasn’t planned, but it’s appropriate. The first time I ever interviewed Hornik, I was still at BusinessWeek and when I asked him to send a headshot he emailed one over where he was dressed like some sort of pilgrim. It was clear back then he was not going to be your average blue-shirt-and-khaki-wearing VC.

You may remember Hornik from a few TechCrunchTV appearances, most notably the five-part Super Angel-VC SMACKDOWN! with Dave McClure. My most memorable Hornik moment was when he dressed like Tattoo (see left) for the first Lobby conference in Hawaii– an invite-only conference he founded that industry superstars, well, lobby to get invited to every year.

Feel free to send follow-up questions on that super angel debate, general advice or questions about Hornik’s investments in companies like Blippy, Stumble Upon or the Six-Apart-and-Video-Egg-combo-platter called Say Media.

We film in about an hour so get your questions in quickly to AskaVC(at)techcrunch(dot)com. Don’t make me make up fictional readers and questions…


Facebook Alternative Diaspora Launches Their Private Alpha With Some Bet Hedging

We’ve been tracking the progress of Diaspora, the open-source Facebook alternative, since before the project even started. That’s because the idea got so much buzz on the crowdsourced micro-funding site Kickstarter, that they were able to turn a goal of raising $10,000 in 39 days into $200,000 from 6,500 backers in the same timeframe. But with such high expectations, you have to deliver. And many expressed doubts that the small team of college students could do that.

After the money came in, the team sequestered themselves for the Summer to work on the project. Despite some hiccups, they were able to unveil the source of the project in September to mixed reviews. Meanwhile, a user-facing alpha launch was promised for October. That came and went, and they pushed the launch to Thanksgiving. Well, we’re two days away from turkey day, and Diaspora has delivered this time.

As the company notes on their blog, the first batch of private alpha invites are going out today. They note that each week they’ll be adding more people to the test, starting with those who contributed to the service’s funding.

Says the team:

We are proud of where Diaspora is right now. In less than five months, we’ve gone from nothing to a great starting point from which the community can keep working. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how people can share in a private way, and still do all the things people love to do on social networks. We hope you’ll find it fun to use and a great way to keep in touch with all the people in your life.

Interestingly enough, it sounds as if Diaspora is heavily predicated on lists, which they call “aspects”. This is interesting because Facebook is going in the opposite direction, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that people on their service don’t want to make lists. In fact, their entire new Groups project is a way to make it so you don’t have to make lists. “We think that aspects are a simple, straightforward, lightweight way to make it really clear who is receiving your posts and who you are receiving posts from,” writes Diaspora.

But the service is also quick to hedge their bets. “It isn’t perfect, but the best way to improve is to get it into your hands and listen closely to your response,” they note about the aspects idea. They then go on to list five things they know they could do better, including: security, better APIs, better documentation, easier upgrades, and cleaner code. Yeah, that’s quite a few major things.

Our work is nowhere close to done. To us, that is the best part. There are always more things to improve, more tricks to learn, and more awesome features to add,” they conclude.

As you can see in the alpha site graphic below, they’re smartly playing towards some of the things people complain about the most with regard to Facebook: choice, ownership, simplicity.


Blekko Partners Up With Search Engine DuckDuckGo

Blekko, the little search engine that could, has just come off the success of hitting one million search queries day and 30,000 slashtags (human curated search topics like /colleges, /vegan, /blogs) created in it’s first week of existence.

Now it has taken a unique “if you can’t beat them, join ‘em” approach to the search and hooked up with fellow market outlier DuckDuckGo, which like Blekko, is a search engine that prides itself on having more relevant results than Google or Bing with the added bonus of not keeping any of your personally identifiable info.

“Both our companies share the same mission of eliminating spam from search so that users get information from the best and most relevant sources on the Web,” said Blekko CEO Rich Skrenta.

As of today Blekko will incorporate DuckDuckGo’s Zero-Click Info summaries on a site by site basis, which can be ironically accessed by yes clicking on “info” in the search results while you’re on Blekko and show up at the top of your query page while on DuckDuckGo.

DuckDuckGo search results will now be powered by Blekko for the following heavy hitting searches: “personal finance,””lyrics,””recipes,””hotels,””health,””colleges,” and “autos.” Blekko itself has been experimenting with auto-applying slashtags to these categories in order to improve queries, for example using the slashtag /health to cull better results for the search “cure for colds.”

DuckDuckGo users will also be able to search for the most recent results with /date, which is actually my favorite feature on Blekko and is especially useful if you’re looking for news articles or blog posts or any thing chronological.

Blekko has come up with some highly original ways to keep users coming back (check out its SEO tools) and I wouldn’t be surprised if DuckDuckGo isn’t the last partnership we see from the well coffered search engine. Says Skrenta“We got a lot of money in the bank [$24 million to be exact] so we’re not going anywhere.”

You can check out our TCTV interview with Skrenta here and our full review of Blekko here.


Minus Makes Photo Sharing As Simple As Possible


It is isn’t often that a web service needs almost no instructions. Minus, part of the minimalist design trend inspired by apps like Glen Murphy’s DropMocks, allows you to drag and drop photos from your desktop into your browser in order to arrange into galleries, edit and share via URL. Yes that’s all it does — Single service web apps are so hot right now.

Founders Carl Hu and John Xie want to eventually expand into documents, music video, and other files, but as of yet the Boston based service is delightfully simple, like a no frills imgur. Start your sharing!

Update: Apparently Minus has been at the center of some not so simple controversy. Heh.


Curated.by Aims To Be The “Smithsonian Of The Web”, But They Need Your Help

Last night was interesting. I was sitting down to do some last-minute research for a post I was working on (this one) when news began to break that North Korea had just attacked South Korea. As usual, news was flowing through Twitter faster than any one source, but I needed a way to filter the noise. Oddly enough, the product I was writing about is perfect for that: Curated.by.

Using Curated.by’s extension, I began flagging tweets that I found to be most useful for the Korea situation. Then I checked the Curated.by site to see that someone else was already way ahead of me (in this case, co-founder Bastian Lehmann), so I started following his curation of the events. It was fascinating to watch a tool go from interesting to useful in seconds.

As its name and all of the above implies, Curated.by is a service that lets you quickly pick certain elements of the web to showcase in your own stream. Right now, this is largely based around Twitter, but the plan is that any type of content should be able to live inside a Curated.by stream. That’s the strategy Lehmann wants to employ to make his service the “Smithsonian of the web,” as he puts it.

Using an extension built for Google Chrome, Curated.by is able to augment twitter.com to add a new “Curate” button below each tweet. Clicking on this button allows you to add a tweet to any Curated.by bundle you’re in control of. (The button can also add a tweet to your Twitter Favorites.) These bundles are found on Curated.by’s site. They’re essentially human-filtered streams of information from Twitter and links from around the web (the links can be added by pasting a story URL on the bundle page). There’s also a bookmarklet for those not using Chrome.

These bundles can then be easily embedded elsewhere on the web, such as in a blog post, to give people an easy-to-follow overview of a topic. In this regard, Curated.by is similar to a company that launched at TechCrunch Disrupt in September, Storify.

But a big part of Curated.by’s idea is also using algorithms to surface topics that you’re interested in. Or, to stick with the Smithsonian analogy, “an algorithm that shows you which painting people are going to stand in front of the longest at a museum,” Lehmann says. And the idea is to let multiple people collaborate on the same bundle to make it the most complete on any given topic.

Today marks the beta launch of Curated.by, which Lehmann says already contains over 1,600 topics and over 25,000 curated links and tweets. The service was one of the initial eight chosen to launch out of AngelPad, a new startup incubator in San Francisco. They formally unveiled their plan at the AngelPad demo day a couple weeks ago.

And the company is already thinking about the business model as they’re preparing a private domain-wide enterprise version of the software to facilitate sharing without a company network. Companies are encouraged to sign up early here.

The company currently has just two people right now (Lehmann and co-founder Sam Street), and have taken just a small seed round of funding from AngelPad.

Information provided by CrunchBase


SkyFire 3.0 For Android Finds A Friend In Facebook

Given the underwhelming past few years in Flock‘s history and the seemingly lukewarm post-launch response to RockMelt, I’m not entirely convinced that anyone actually wants a bunch of social networking stuff tied into their browser. So far, the browsers that pull the bigger numbers are the ones that suck the least, not the ones with the most feature bloat. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Alas, you can’t have a trendy feature without every little guy taking a swing at it. Next up with the bat? SkyFire.


Zynga Is “Extremely Pleased” With Playdom/Disney Litigation Settlement

A little over a year ago Zynga sued rival game startup Playdom for, among other things, misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of contract, breach of the duty of loyalty, tortious interference with contracts, tortious interference with existing and prospective economic advantage and unfair competition. The defendants included four ex-Zynga, then Playdom employees as well.

It’s been a fairly dramatic year of legal maneuvers. The day Zynga filed the lawsuit a judge issued a temporary restraining order against Playdom that prohibited Playdom from using any Zynga data. In March a different judge issued a preliminary injunction against Playdom that prohibited them from releasing a specific game (whatever game that was has been kept confidential). And then in August the big slap down against a former Zynga employee who had been found to have acted inappropriately.

The case continues, but the drama has reached its peak. The court today held one former Zynga and Playdom employee, Raymond Holmes, in contempt and sentenced him to ten days in county jail and a $4,000 fine. Fortunately for Holmes, Judge Mark Pierce then suspended the sentence. That means Holmes won’t do the time unless he continues to, well, piss off Judge Pierce. The full order is embedded below.

What did Holmes do? Lots of things apparently: destruction of evidence on laptop, destruction of Mozy backup, failure to identify other storage devices with Zynga documents and the signing of two false court certificates. The court says Holmes admitted to his improper actions and apologized.

Worse still for Playdom is the last sentence of the court document. It says it’s “appropriate to impose a non rebutable evidentiary presumption in favor of Zynga regarding the meta data lost when Def Holmes erased his hard drive.”

In the middle of all this Playdom got bought by Disney. And so it’s not surprising that Disney has settled this with Zynga before it actually went to trial, they don’t have any emotional investment in the feud.

What’s the settlement? No one’s talking, and Disney for whatever reason is always completely paranoid about specific financial terms leaking out. Just a few bland statements. A joint statement:

“Today, Zynga Game Network, Inc. and Playdom announced that they have reached a confidential resolution of their litigation.” -Zynga and Playdom

And Zynga’s statement with a little more color:

“Zynga is extremely pleased with the final resolution of its trade secret suit against Playdom and various individuals. The settlement reflects the very serious nature of the conduct involved, as reflected by the preliminary injunction, restraining orders, and contempt order issued by the Santa Clara Superior Court. We have great respect for Disney and are thankful that following its acquisition of Playdom, Disney resolved the matter to our satisfaction.” Reggie Davis, General Counsel, Zynga


Greed? No, Video Is Good As Oliver Stone Invests In Startup

Vzaar, an online video platform aimed at SMEs that want to publish video, has been plugging away since 2007, but seemed to go in an odd direction – aiming at eBay sellers who wanted to sex-up their auctions. Needless to say it was the low end of the market and eBay auctioneers tend not want to spend money on a dedicated video platform outside of free ones like YouTube. But after bringing in new management, new CEO Stephen McCluskey, formerly with PA consulting group, has pivoted the company towards a more upstream market and gone out looking for new funding.

Through various twists and turns on that funding road it’s now found further funding – terms undisclosed – through a slightly left-fieldsource, namely Hollywood director Oliver Stone, famous for movies on The Doors, JFK and Wall Street. He’s invested alongside existing investor Sophrosyne Ventures LLP.