Angry Birds Find Their Way Onto iPhone 4, iPod Touch Cases, Let the Pig Slaughter Begin

So you went as an Angry Bird for Halloween and your kids are getting Angry Bird plush dolls in their holiday stockings. But that leaves nothing for you, the hard-working family provider. Clearly Santa should bring you some Angry Bird merchandise this year, too. It’s only fair. You’ve been a good kid.

Good thing Gear4 just announced a line of Angry Birds iPhone 4 and iPod touch cases that will dress up your device as either an Angry Bird or smug Pig King. Be warned though. While the cases are constructed out of hard plastic and are probably plenty durable, they’re not going to allow you to chuck your phone through plates of glass or wood beams. Yeah, that’s not a good idea although here’s hoping that someone does and uploads the tomfoolery to YouTube.

Both variants run $24.99 each and will probably be one of best things you get this year. Well, that is of course, if you stocking isn’t stuffed with any of these items from our epic cheap stocking stuffers gift guide. But even then, these cases are still awesome as cases can get.






Dennis Crowley Sort Of Confirms They Turned Down A $140M Acquisition Offer

At Le Web 10, everyone saw the awkward expression on Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley‘s face when host Loic Le Meur asked him just how large the acquisition offer was that the company recently turned down.

Le Meur guessed around $140 million (whether that offer came from Facebook, Yahoo or another company wasn’t really mentioned, but they are the likely bidders and the topic of the on-stage conversation was Facebook when the question dropped).

Crowley didn’t deny it, and then went on to acknowledge that number is “ballpark”.

Which means Foursquare turned down a $140 million-ish offer, probably from Facebook, when they’d only raised about $1.35 million in seed funding – they went on to raise $20 million more after the buyout talks died down. Visionary, or foolish? Brave, or bubble?

For what it’s worth: Foursquare just passed 5 million users, and is seeing 2 million check-ins and 25,000 new users on a daily basis.

Information provided by CrunchBase


Foursquare Hits 2 Million Check-ins, 25K New Users Daily

Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley, who ironically got lost on his way to Le Web, just broke some stats about the company on stage at the conference. Crowley said that despite the fact that many people have the perception that Foursquare is at 200 hires, the company is actually just about to hit 40 employees whereas a year ago it was just four people.

These new hires have joined to accomodate recent growth: Foursquare hit over 5 million users last week and is at 2 million check-ins and 25K new users a day, Crowley confirmed onstage. Crowley also revealed that sers are split up geographically between 60% US and 40% international, with the average Foursquare user checks in 3-4 times day.

In perhaps the largest reflection of growth, Foursquare just hired an engineer that only deals with statistics.

Crowley also implied to Le Web founder Loic Lemur that he turned down an offer in the “ballpark” of $140 million, most likely from Facebook or Yahoo. Pretty nifty for something that “wasn’t meant to be a company.”

Information provided by CrunchBase


ViKi Raises $4.3 Million from VC All-Stars to Translate the World’s Video

First it was distribution. Then it was monetization. The next generation of Web entrepreneurs’ make-or-break challenge will be localization and a big part of that is language.

The Web is so powerful today and the valuations are so high, because it is a billion-person-audience and growing. But more of them speak Chinese than English, and critical masses are developing around Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Bahasa Indonesian and other languages. The problem will only get worse as opportunity on the Web grows. Good translation can be incredibly expensive and just slapping Google translate on content isn’t going to be the answer.

ViKi has an interesting, open-source-like solution for video, that could have implications for other kinds of content online too. It acquires the rights to a TV show or movie, and puts it on one of its channels and within the first 24 hours an organized, volunteer community has subtitled the content into twenty languages. In another 24 hours, there’s another 20-languages of subtitles. The company has played more than 1 billion streams of video and its community has subtitled more than 100 million words into 143 languages since its 2008 inception.

Its biggest edge may be its software, which allows easy real-time collaboration between hundreds of contributors, spread all over the world. “You can do a couple of words, go get some coffee and come back and a scene is completed,” says ViKi CEO and co-founder Razmig Hovaghimian. Translators work in teams, get to see their names in translation credits, and get to work on content they feel passionately about spreading to other cultures. ViKi’s software takes advantage of all sorts of ego, game theory, nationalistic and creative levers that push thousands of hard core users to do work that usually costs thousands of dollars per thirty-minute show for free.

I’ve been watching ViKi for a while and today it is announcing a $4.3 million Series A with some big names: Saar Gur of Charles River Ventures, Reid Hoffman of Greylock, Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz, Joi Ito of Singapore’s Neoteny Labs, and some well-placed individuals like Rajesh Sawhney, President of Reliance Entertainment in India and Alex Zubillaga, former global head of digital entertainment for Warner Music.

It’s an intense lineup and each of them was drawn to the company for a different reason, Hovaghimian says. Ito, for instance, was drawn to the Creative Commons-based  community translation, while Hoffman was drawn to ViKi’s potential to open up new markets for video in an incredibly cheap and fast way. And Gur was one of ViKi’s earliest supporters.

The small, eleven-person company has been geographically all over the place– a lot like its army of free translators. It was started at Harvard and is headquartered in Singapore now, with an office in Palo Alto. It moved to Singapore to take advantage of the small city-state’s two biggest strengths: Generous government backing and its role as an easy-to-navigate pan-Asian hub. The founders have spent the last two years doing licensing deals, mostly in Korea, where Hovaghimian’s other two co-founders are from. It’s expanding now with movies from Bollywood, Japanese anime, and South America’s telenovelas– typically doing licensing deals for distribution in every country except the one where the content was made.

What I love about this company is it’s in the middle of everything exciting about the emerging world: The artistic culture that defines it, the language that so often serves as a barrier to exploiting it and the massive opportunity of surging, middle class global eyeballs. It’s going to be exciting to see where this company goes and where it takes its audience.


Marissa Mayer’s Next Big Thing: “Contextual Discovery” — Google Results Without Search

Today at LeWeb ’10 in Paris, France, our own Michael Arrington took the stage to talk with Google’s Marissa Mayer. Mayer recently took a new job within Google. Technically, she’s now the head of consumer products for the company. So what’s she working on?

Well, as we’ve all heard, location is a big part of it. But she’s also thinking about a bigger picture item that Google is still working on. This is what Google is calling “contextual discovery”. This means being able to look at either a person’s browsing profile or their location profile and serving up interesting data to them without them searching for anything. Yes, it’s Google results without the search.

The idea is to push information to people,” Mayer said. She noted that on mobile devices this is particularly interesting because location can provide context. One example she gave was a menu when you’re in a particular restaurant. It would be great to show up and see that on your device — maybe with a bit of social flavor based on what your friends like, she added.

Mayer said they’re still thinking about how the UI for all of this should look, but they have some ideas. It may be a panel in the browser. But on mobile devices it would be different. She said they they have a couple of things they’re currently experimenting with and that we should expect something to come from them in the next year or so.

We’re trying to build a virtual mirror of the world at all times,” Mayer said.

Below, find my live notes of the entire discussion (paraphrased):

MA: So, you now have a new job

MM: We’re calling it consumer products broadly. Local Search, Maps, Earth, Latitude, and all the local products. But it’s also contextual discovery. Take a users location as a piece of context for finding what they want without them actually searching for anything. We have a couple of things we’re experimenting with, but it will be out in the next year.

MA: Why give up search and do something different?

MM: Well I had done it for about 11 years. We’re the number 1 site and number 1 search engine. It was time to try something new. Local is all very related to search, so my knowledge transfers. But now I have engineering on my team. I have 800 – 1000 people working under me. If you include all the various people around the world it’s more like 2,000. “We’re trying to build a virtual mirror of the world at all times.”

MA: Let’s talk more about contextual discovery.

MM: The idea is to push information to people. It’s location in context. Inside the browser and a toolbar, can we look at where people have been going on the web — then we deliver it. But it’s a big UI challenge. In the browser it might be a panel on the right or bottom that complements your browsing. On the mobile phone, it’s where you are in the physical world. We can figure out where the next most useful information is. In a restaurant maybe it’s a menu. Or maybe it’s a social menu. It’s about explicit and implicit location.

MA: Latitude is one of your products. Can we just agree that it’s pretty terrible?

MM: (Laughs) I use it.

MA: But you are an avid Foursquare user.

MM: I am. But Latitude is useful for a smaller group of people. Only a handful of people you’ll want to know where you are at all times. There will be new layers coming on top of it. It’s more useful when more people are on it. And implicit and explicit — yes, the check-in. Maybe that’s in Latitude or maybe it’s in Maps.

MA: You launched Latitude on the iPhone right? We saw it.

MM: It’s close. We’re interested in it. (Laughs)

MA: There are three big acquisitions that Google has been involved in in the past 12 months. Yelp, Twitter, and Groupon. You don’t have to confirm. But why has Google failed to get these companies? Is all the luster gone?

MM: I can’t comment on any instance. But every deal is different. The larger the company, the more complicated the deal is. Slide is an autonomous inside of Google, for example.

MA: What is HotPot — a Yelp killer?

MM: No, it’s a recommendation engine. It’s built into Maps for mobile and Places. You can go to restaurants and rate them quickly. And you make connections with friends or other users like you. We try to produce good recommendations for you. It’s collaborative filtering plus the social component.

MA: Do you remember Buzz? I didn’t mean it like that.

MM: I don’t think Buzz was really similar, this is the new way to rate things for Local.

MA: So Google Social, +1, can you confirm that?

MM: It’s clear that social is important to Google. We need to work on it.

MA: But if you mess up again… Do you just turn into Microsoft while you watch Facebook rise?

MM: It’s clear that it’s really important. We really want to get it right this time. That said, we’re really patient. There’s search, mobile, local, and social. We’ve gotten three right. We’re working on the fourth one.

MA: How does Twitter play into the ecosystem.

MM: It’s an amazing distribution mechanism. And a way to consume information. But it’s more about blasting it out. We use it for HotPot. Foursquare is great signal too — I just checked-in here. I just checked-in there. Twitter is a great product. I use it a lot.

MA: Will acquisitions happen in your group in the next 6 months?

MM: Absolutely. We’re on track for almost an acquisition a week. We do 1, 2, or 3 of those big ones a year. AdMob, ITA, those types of deals are always in the works.

—— Dave Burk, and engineering takes the stage Gingerbread in hand on the Nexus S. ——–

DB: We’ve been working on this device with Samsung for about 12 months. It’s a pure Google experience device. It’s the very best of Google and Android.

MM: One of the key parts is Google Maps for Mobile. Now it’s Google Maps for Mobile 5.0. We have 100 million using Maps for Mobile now.

DB: I can use a multi-touch gesture to get a 3D view.

MM: This is vector maps. So we can smoothly pan and zoom.

MA: What I like about it are the new wallpapers. You’re only selling this is U.S. or UK right? Anyway to get one elsewhere?

DB: It’s only on pre-order in a couple countries. We’ll see after Christmas.

MA: What is you ran Yahoo?

MM: I think Carol has done a lot of smart things. The Bing search deal was smart — we wish it was us. But they’re doing a lot of things to flatten things out and stay relevant.

MA: What about more Google investments? You did Zynga. What about Twitter.

MM: Well gaming makes sense. But other things we’ll have to see.

MA: You’re on the secret committee right?

MM: Yes, The OC. That’s what we call it — the operating committee. It’s about a dozen people who have done a lot with the company. We help operate the company. I’m really proud to be a part of that.

MA: You talk about killing products, investments, right?

MM: Yeah, it’s true. All that stuff.

MA: Anything else?

MM: We’ve had a really exciting week. Nexus S. Gingerbread. Chrome OS. 120 million active users of Google Chrome. And the Chrome Web Store.

MA: Isn’t that a fancy name for extensions?

MM: Sort of, but they’re hosted on the network vs. on the client side. And they’re all HTML5.

MA: What about Chrome OS vs. Android?

MM: I think we haven’t really decided. We see a lot of promise in Chrome OS. We’re looking at it to be on notebooks right now. It’s not even netbooks anymore. And Android is going to tablets right now. But the form factor for either could work for the other. Like Google TV is built on top of Android. And the developer community is helping on both.

MA: What about downloading Chrome OS to my MacBook?

MM: Hard to say. I can’t speculate. Possibly. The big thing is that Chrome OS is super-fast. You open the laptop and it’s ready. I have one waiting for me when I get back.


E-Signature Company DocuSign Lands $27 Million, Expands Management Team

DocuSign, which offers an electronic signature cloud platform, has secured $27 million in third-round funding. The round was led by Scale Venture Partners and joined by Salesforce.com, Sigma Partners, Ignition Partners and Frazier Technology.

In conjunction with the financing announcement, the company said that it has hired Dustin Grosse, formerly sales and marketing GM for Microsoft’s Field Readiness team and the Microsoft Office Unified Communications Group, as its new SVP, chief marketing and business development officer.

The company has also recruited Roger Erickson, formerly SVP of technology solutions and services at Autonomy ZANTAZ – he will join DocuSign as VP of customer success.

DocuSign says it will use the fresh capital to introduce new cloud-based electronic signature technology and services scheduled in 2011 and beyond.

The new investment round brings the total of capital raised by the company to $56.4 million.

Information provided by CrunchBase


4Chan’s Moot Joins Lerer Ventures As An Advisor

Christopher Poole, aka Moot, the founder of 4chan and still stealthy Canvas Networks, is now a venture advisor. He just joined Lerer Ventures, the New York City seed fund started by Ken and Ben Lerer. While he is not a formal partner, he will have the ability to greenlight deals. Poole joins other Lerer Ventures advisors Eric Hippeau (CEO of the Huffington Post), and Jonah Peretti (CEO of Buzzfeed and co-founder of the Huiffington Post). Ken Lerer is the chairman of the Huffington Post, while his son, Ben, is the CEO and founder of Thrillist.

Moot is plugged into the hacker culture in New York City, which Lerer Ventures wants to tap into. He will advise the fund and bring it deals, as well as participate in the upside of the fund. So he’s more like an advisor with privileges. “Like everyone else at Lerer,” says Poole, “I’m primarily focussed on building my company, but I view my participation in the fund as a way to stay current as the world changes and invest in my peers who are doing amazing things.”

So what kind of startups will he be looking for? “I think I’d be drawn to a founder whose story somewhat parallels my own—working on cool stuff from a young age and more motivated by an interest in solving hard problems than the prospect of striking it
rich.”

Lerer Ventures, which is run on a day-to-day basis by partner Jordan Cooper, has been on a tear lately. Overthe past twelve months, it has invested in nearly 30 startups, including BankSimple, betaworks, chartbeat, FluidInfo, gdgt, Greplin, GroupMe, Venmo, and Poole’s Canvas Networks. Sounds like they are just getting started.


My Major Company Mixes Traditional Record Label A&R With Crowdfunding

Described as a fan-funded record label, My Major Company has launched in the UK with a mix of traditional A&R and crowdfunding.

It differs slightly from similar sites, such as Sellaband or the UK’s Slicethepie, in that the acts featured on the site are sourced by the startup’s own talent spotting department first. In addition, fans who choose to invest are essentially buying shares in any future profits made from the artist’s launch campaign as a whole (physical and digital music sales, merchandise, tours etc.), which My Major Company oversees, should they raise the £100,000 stipulated to get off the ground.


PayPal VP On Blocking WikiLeaks: State Department Said It Was Illegal


Milo Yannopoulos’ very first question on stage to PayPal’s VP of Platform Osama Bedier was about why PayPal blocked WikiLeaks payments and froze its account. The question was met with boos from the mostly European audience.

In his answer Bedier made it seem like PayPal had complied with a governmental request to deny service to WikiLeaks, “We have an acceptable use policy and their job is make sure that our customers are protected, making sure that we comply with regulations around the world and making sure that we protect our brand.”

Bedier also said that PayPal’s decision was influenced by the fact that the State Department deemed WikiLeaks illegal in a letter sent on November 27th, a statement that was not followed up on by Yiannopoulos. It is still unclear what exact US laws WikiLeaks is breaking.

When asked about Mastercard.com going down earlier today and whether or not Paypal had fears of retaliation, “One of the signs that you’re a successful payments company is that hackers start to target you, this case isn’t anything different.”

Update: After talking to Bedier backstage, he clarified that the State Department did not directly talk to PayPal and that the letter in question here was actually sent by the State Department to WikiLeaks. I have changed the headline of this post to reflect this statement. Full text of the letter Osama said he was referencing and video of the talk, below:

Text of State Department letter to Wikileaks
Sun Nov 28, 2010 9:11am EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Text of a letter from the State Department to Julian Assange, the founder of whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, and his lawyer Jennifer Robinson concerning its intended publication of classified State Department documents. The letter, dated November 27, was released by the department.

Dear Ms. Robinson and Mr. Assange:

I am writing in response to your 26 November 2010 letter to U.S. Ambassador Louis B. Susman regarding your intention to again publish on your WikiLeaks site what you claim to be classified U.S. Government documents.

As you know, if any of the materials you intend to publish were provided by any government officials, or any intermediary without proper authorization, they were provided in violation of U.S. law and without regard for the grave consequences of this action. As long as WikiLeaks holds such material, the violation of the law is ongoing.

It is our understanding from conversations with representatives from The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel, that WikiLeaks also has provided approximately 250,000 documents to each of them for publication, furthering the illegal dissemination of classified documents.

Publication of documents of this nature at a minimum would:

* Place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals — from journalists to human rights activists and bloggers to soldiers to individuals providing information to further peace and security;

* Place at risk on-going military operations, including operations to stop terrorists, traffickers in human beings and illicit arms, violent criminal enterprises and other actors that threaten global security; and,

* Place at risk on-going cooperation between countries – partners, allies and common stakeholders — to confront common challenges from terrorism to pandemic diseases to nuclear proliferation that threaten global stability.

In your letter, you say you want — consistent with your goal of “maximum disclosure” — information regarding individuals who may be “at significant risk of harm” because of your actions.

Despite your stated desire to protect those lives, you have done the opposite and endangered the lives of countless individuals. You have undermined your stated objective by disseminating this material widely, without redaction, and without regard to the security and sanctity of the lives your actions endanger. We will not engage in a negotiation regarding the further release or dissemination of illegally obtained U.S. Government classified materials. If you are genuinely interested in seeking to stop the damage from your actions, you should: 1) ensure WikiLeaks ceases publishing any and all such materials; 2) ensure WikiLeaks returns any and all classified U.S. Government material in its possession; and 3) remove and destroy all records of this material from WikiLeaks’ databases.

Sincerely,

(The letter is signed by Harold Hongju Koh, legal adviser to the State Department)


Solar Impulse’s Fuelless Plane Is Innovation In Plane Form

Dr. Bertrand Piccard took the stage here at Le Web 2010 to talk about his ongoing efforts to build fuel-less planes with a modest statement, “If you don’t read the NY Times you have never heard of Solar Impulse.”

Solar Impulse founder Piccard comes from a long line of pioneers, his father led the first flight in the stratosphere in 1931. On this Piccard elaborated, “Pioneering spirit is something that everyone else says is impossible, until everyone says it was obvious.”

The idea for Solar Impulse came from a promise that Piccard made to himself that he would complete a flight “with solar power, batteries with whatever, but with no fuel.” Like any risk-taking entrepreneur, Piccard is extremely hopeful about the prospects of fuel alternatives, “We have technology today that allow us to reduce our consumption of oil by at least 50%. And it’s possible.”

The big ideas inspired by the existence of a solar plane is the most important part of the whole project Piccard emphasized. It is an ambitious to say the least endeavor to try to make the world a little less dependent on fossil energy, especially since the price of oil is currently at $88 a barrel. “New technologies are vital for the future, but much more than that. So many people are not pioneers. Relying on habits is what we have to kill.”

Because the construction of the plane was so out of the ordinary,  Piccard revealed that no tradition airplane construction firms would take it at first. In order for the whole no fuel schtick to work according to his calculations, the plane’s body needed to be 64 meters long and 1600 kilos (less than two tons), not an easy project. So he went to people who had no idea about airplanes.

Receiving funding from Omega, Solvay and Deutsche Bank in return for the privilege of getting their names on a side of a solar powered plane among other things, the Solar Impulse team now has over 70 people. One of the primary reasons Piccard is speaking at Le Web this year is to get more people to join the family. “If we don’t invent the future than we won’t make it to the next generation without some disaster.”

Now we have something to show, we have an airplane,” said Piccard. But it’s more than a plane he insists again, “It’s a demonstration of what can be achieved if we manage to think out of the box and implement adventure in our daily lives.”


Rovio CEO: We Have 40 People Working On Angry Birds (Le Web)

In an on-stage interview at Le Web 10 in Paris, Rovio CEO Mikael Hed talked about one of the most popular games ever to hit mobile phones all around the world: Angry Birds.

Our notes:

What’s the story behind Angry Birds?

It started off with a screenshot from one of our game designers. He drew a picture of some really angry-looking birds. He explained the game mechanics behind his idea. I didn’t understand any of it, but everybody really loved the characters, so we started developing a game around it.

Can you share some of the latest numbers?

We’ve sold 12 million copies of Angry Birds to date, and we’ve seen about 30 million downloads of the free app. The majority of revenues comes from the iPhone, and a lot of that is from advertising.

Did the success of the advertising model take you by surprise?

We had a pretty good idea of how well it could do, but I do think the future will hold many more apps that will be getting most of its revenue from advertising. It’s just a great way to capture users for the long term.

On the iPhone, the commercial model works really well – there’s only one shop, you have to register for iTunes, everyone can buy, etc.

There’s been quite a bit of talk about the Android version, about the severe performance issues and so on. Can you talk a little about that? Is Apple right in saying that there’s a huge fragmentation problem? Is it a big issue for you?

Not too much, we’ve done a lot of games in Java over the years, so we’re good at porting our games. It’s familiar to us. But it does take manpower to do it, and in some cases we can’t support all the handsets, because of their respective specifications.

Is it mainly the hardware, or which version of Android the handsets are running?

Everything Android 2.0 and upwards is really good.

What about some of the other platforms? Windows Phone 7 for example?

We’re actively looking at WP7, we have a very good relationship with Microsoft. They just announced our game for the platform a bit ahead of schedule.

What about the Chrome web store?

Chrome is very interesting, and we’re looking at that also.

Would that be an advertising-driven model as well?

It remains to be seen how wide the payment coverage is, but I must say the revenue split is very interesting.

Are you expanding to Facebook at some point?

It’s an interesting time to get on Facebook, so we’re definitely looking at that.

What’s with the Angry Birds toys stuff?

We were introduced to a licensing agency early on, and we thought of ways to use the brand for other things like merchandise. The results so far have been very encouraging.

We’re actually waiting for more toys to arrive from China, and we’re already selling inventory that will only arrive in January or even February 2011.

What’s next for you guys?

Next year, we’ll be moving to consoles. It’s a more traditional business model, but we’re interested in the downloadable games aspect of it. We’re building our back-end system now that will allow people to play the same game from different devices.

There’s also talk about a potential movie deal. What’s the status on that?

We have looked very closely at that, but the issue is that it would take about 4 years for the movie to come out. We could essentially do it anytime, but we’re focused on smaller screens right now.

Is there another game you’re working on?

At the beginning of this year, we were 12 people, 40 now. All of our manpower has gone to Angry Birds so far, but we’re working on new titles, that may or may not be Angry Birds related.

Same model?

Yes, we’ll continue to focus on the quality of the game. We want all of our products to be great.

How are you doing in terms of revenue? Do you need more money to grow?

No, we don’t anymore. We’re very profitable right now, and even with the expansion that we foresee, we don’t expect any problems in paying for it with our current income.

Do you get a lot of interest from potential buyers?

There is a lot of interest, but we’ve been focused on building our own business now.


Road Test: Seeing Green in New Way With Nissan Leaf

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Nissan Leaf

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The Nissan Leaf is more than a very nice car. It is the car of the future we’ve been promised in countless sci-fi movies. It is spacious, smooth and silent, effortlessly whisking you along with only the whir of its electric motor. You almost expect to hear it make that doot doot dootdootdootdoot sound George Jetson’s space car made.

The Leaf is not without its faults, but Nissan is to be commended. The world’s first mass-market mainstream electric car isn’t for everyone, but a whole lot of people who might have never considered an EV ought to. The Leaf is that good.

We hear you back there muttering about range.  Get over it. The feds peg the Leaf’s 24-kilowatt-hour lithium battery at 75 miles, but we consistently saw 80s and 90s during a week of Bay Area driving. We never experienced “range anxiety,” that nagging fear of being left far from home with a dead battery.

The Leaf was our sole transportation for one week. We drove it as often and as far as we typically drive a conventional car and never came close to running out of juice, even though we charged up only at home using a 120-volt socket and an extension cord.

Obviously that kind of range isn’t going to work if you commute from the farthest exurban rings of a megalopolis, and you aren’t taking any road trips in the Leaf. But it’s perfect for urban commuting or a second vehicle. Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn once told us 95 percent of the world’s population drives less than 100 kilometers [62 miles] per day, so the Leaf’s range isn’t the big hurdle that its critics suggest.

Frankly, only an idiot will run out of juice in this car. The Leaf’s remarkable dashboard display clearly and concisely provides comprehensive real-time info regarding how much energy you’ve got, how much you’re using and how far you can go. It will, for example, tell you how many miles of range you’ll lose cranking up the heater or how much you’ll gain switching to eco mode (more on that in a sec).

But wait. There’s more. Push a button and a circle appears on the navigation screen showing how far you can go. Another button displays a list of public charging stations (eight within 62 miles of San Francisco). Pick one and the navi system directs you to it. An idiot light warns you when you’re down to 4 kilowatt-hours of juice.

Keep going and the car will limit your top speed to 55 mph, then slowly reduce your top speed to maximize remaining range. About the only thing this car doesn’t do is tap you on the shoulder and say, “Please plug me in.”

Once you do plug in, you’ll want to do it with a 240-volt line like your dryer uses. That means buying a charging station, which will run you $2,200, but a federal tax incentive covers half of it. (Nissan will help arrange installation and include the cost in your monthly car payment.)

Drain the battery completely and you’ll need 7 hours to charge it. You can use the portable 120-volt trickle charger included with the car but you’ll need up to 20 hours if the battery is dead. That said, we only used the trickle charger and had no problem topping off the battery overnight. The feds say you’ll pay $561 a year for the juice, assuming you drive 15,000 miles annually and pay 12 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity.

One day we’ll have lots and lots of so-called Level 3 DC “Quick chargers” that will let you plug-and-go in as little as 25 minutes. We aren’t there yet, but when we are, the Leaf will be ready. It is 440-volt capable out of the box. Nice.

OK, now that we’ve allayed any fears of range anxiety and told you how long you’ll need to charge up, what’s the Leaf like to live with?

Very nice, actually.

That big honkin’ battery provides juice to an 80 kilowatt (107 horsepower) motor with 208 pound-feet of torque. While those numbers look paltry, electric motors provide all their torque the moment they start spinning. That makes the Leaf snappy off the line. Stomp it and the Leaf moves with the gusto of a V-6 up to about 40 mph. Top speed is limited to 90 mph, and Nissan says the Leaf will do zero to 60 in around 10 seconds or so. Slow, but then this is a compact that weighs almost 3,400 pounds.

A trackball-like gear selector on the center console lets you choose “eco” and “drive” modes. The Leaf feels like a conventional car in drive, with ample acceleration and minimal regenerative braking. We spent most of our time in eco, which Nissan says boosts range about 10 percent. It increases accelerator pedal resistance so the car speeds up a bit more slowly (acceleration eats up a lot of juice) and ramps up regen to return more energy to the battery. You can toggle between the two modes with a flip of the selector; we’d often use drive mode to, say, merge onto the freeway, then switch to eco once we were up to speed.

Speaking of brakes, the regen was unobtrusive even in eco mode, and the pedal lacks the mushiness often experienced in hybrids. Of course the Leaf has ABS and traction control.

Out on the road the Leaf is so smooth, it seems to float. Press the accelerator and you’ll think you’re gliding. There is none of the lag, vibration or noise associated with internal combustion.

The Leaf is so quiet, so serene, it’s eerie. (A speaker at the front of the car emits a low whine up to 18 mph to warn pedestrians it’s coming, and the car beeps like a truck in reverse.) After a week with the Leaf, our conventional car felt crude and primitive.

The suspension is soft and the ride comfortable. A 3,400-pound compact cannot be called nimble, and the 16-inch tires howl when pushed, but we were impressed by the Leaf’s handling. The 600-pound battery is down low between the axles, which lowers the center of gravity. The electric power steering provides decent feel and feedback, though it is a bit slow.

The Leaf is a compact that doesn’t feel compact. There’s loads of room even if you’re over six feet tall, and all that glass gives the interior a sense of spaciousness. There are, however, pretty nasty blind spots at the rear quarters. The seats are comfortable, even in the back. All of the controls fall readily to hand, and the menus for the audio and navi system are intuitive.

This car is packed with features. Cruise control, six-speaker stereo with XM radio, Bluetooth, power everything and navigation are standard. We drove an SL-E, which adds a backup camera and a small rooftop solar panel to trickle-charge the 12-volt battery. It also featured options like floor mats and the “eco design package” with “Zero Emissions 100 Percent Electric” decals on the side to out-smug Toyota Prius drivers.

As we said at the start, the Leaf is not perfect. There isn’t much cargo room, even with the 60/40 rear seats folded down. The interior is awash in plastic, some of which feels cheap. Our car had a light beige interior to keep the interior cool and minimize the use of range-sucking A/C, but it’ll get dirty faster than a toddler at the park.

This car’s biggest problem is the styling. We found it ugly, but it grew on us. After a week, we found it odd but endearing.

There’s a reason for the funky styling. Half the energy you’re using at 55 mph is needed to push all that air out of the way. That’s no big deal when you’ve got a 15-gallon gas tank and a gas station on every corner. But aerodynamic efficiency is paramount to maximizing range. Hence the Leaf’s slippery shape.

There’s another reason for the unusual appearance. The racket created by internal combustion hides a lot of noise created by the wind, the tires and so forth. Lose the engine and the sound of wind passing over the mirrors, for example, becomes obvious –- even obtrusive. Nissan’s designers and engineers had to solve those problems, which explains things like the Leaf’s weird LED headlights. They help direct air flow around the mirrors. It’s the same story with that bulbous antenna.

But to get hung up on the Leaf’s relatively minor faults is to miss the bigger picture. The Leaf is the first in the coming wave of EVs –- pretty much every automaker promises to have one by 2015 –- and it proves that an electric vehicle can be every bit as comfortable and practical as a conventional car. Nissan hasn’t built a remarkable electric car. It’s built a remarkable car that happens to be electric.

WIRED Throw down the shackles of internal combustion. LCD dashboard display provides more info than an Excel spreadsheet. Spacious, comfortable interior.

TIRED This car is not easy on the eyes. Not much cargo space. It’s electric, so range will be an issue for some people. 120-volt charging is slo-o-o-o-o-ow.

Author’s note: Our test model came with a $35,430 sticker price. However after factoring in the federal EV tax credit, the cost drops to $27,930. Many states offer additional incentives.

Photos: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

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Special Ops Watch Is Prepared to Deploy for Any Mission

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MTM Special Ops Vulture Watch

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Naming a watch after an animal that treats a rotting wildebeest as an all-you-can-eat buffet is probably not the best PR move in the world. But with its bright UV backlighting and its trio of deer-in-the-headlights LEDs, we’re blinded by this timepiece’s beauty too much to care about something so trivial as its moniker.

Originally developed exclusively for the U.S. Special Forces (yes!) and other military and law enforcement units, the MTM Special Ops watch is forged from a single block of aeronautical-grade titanium. So, despite its bulky size, the Vulture is surprisingly light.

The torture-compliant exterior plating uses an ultra-premium DLC (short for diamond-like carbon). This only adds to the watch’s macho Hummerish toughness and its eye-appealing fashion-conscious, black-on-black carbon-fiber dial.

But what is truly unique about the Vulture is dual sets of UV and LED lights. Waterproof to 660 feet, thanks to a screw-down case back and crown buttons, the Vulture illuminates the face with a cool purple-blue UV backlight on the first push of the top right button. A second push of this button sets off a retina-searing, “You will confess,” trio of LED lights. These blinders can last up to eight hours on a hiking path, underwater or wherever you would otherwise use a flashlight.

The light set is powered by a rechargeable lithium ion battery rated at 10 years (the watch movement is powered separately by a three-year watch battery). Recharge with a conveniently included USB cable that plugs into a computer or the AC power adapter. With casual use the lights can stay powered on one charge for about a month. Stick the LEDs on for a few hours straight and you’ll be recharging soon thereafter.

While the UV lights make the watch glow like a radioactive fuel rod, they can also be uses to read counterfeit money, bloodstains and other CSI-like marks not visible to the naked eye.

If there is anything to quibble about the Vulture it’s the natural rubber strap, which fits either loosely or as tight as a tourniquet. The watch also is available with a titanium metal watch band, equally black and more adjustable to individual comfort.

WIRED G.I. Joe military-style watch offers brute-strength ruggedness in a light titanium case with particularly bright sets of UV and LED lights. Versatile on land and under 600-plus feet of water. Cleverly uses a USB connection to recharge light batteries.

TIRED Standard issue rubber strap is uncomfortable and a bit too bulky.

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NSFW: Another Year, Another Possibly Depressing Visit to London

Another day – another year, actually – another airport. This time I’m at gate A11 at SFO waiting for my flight to London. My plan was to use the 10 hour flight to write a column about how I’m looking forward to seeing London again but how I’m depressed nervous at the idea of catching up with the state of the city’s tech entrepreneurial scene.

From what I’ve heard from Brit friends who have visited the Valley, it seems that London 2.0 has remained – at best – stagnant since I was last there twelve months ago. In some cases, comically so. This time last year, we were all eagerly anticipating the imminent US roll-out of Spotify – the next big UK-based startup that was going to change the world (see previously Bebo – subsequently killed by AOL – and Last.fm – now set in amber by CBS). Twelve months on and, uh, we’re all eagerly anticipating the imminent US roll-out of Spotiy. And that’s it. As far as I can tell, there’s almost nothing else out of London that’s making even the smallest blip on the rest of the world’s radar.

I was going to write a column about that sad fact. That and the acknowledgement that I’m probably completely wrong about it. How it’s far more likely that I’ve just been stuck in the Valley bubble for the past twelve months, and that, when I get back to the UK, I’ll quickly realize how exciting and vibrant everything really is there, and how many companies are on the verge of making it big.

Or at least that was my plan until about ten minutes ago when I realized two things. Firstly, that I’ve spent so much time traveling domestically in the US that I’d forgotten that international flights don’t offer Wifi; which makes writing and posting a column from 37,000 feet a little tricky. And secondly, that this exact time last year I was taking the same flight, with the same concerns about London 2.0 – and writing the exact same last-minute column about how I was hoping to be proved wrong by the reality on the ground. Spolier alert: I wasn’t proved wrong at all.

For both of those reasons, then – as they make the final call for my flight – I figure it might be a cynically fun idea to simply copy and paste what I wrote last year, with just a couple of adjustments [marked by brackets] to bring it up to date. You might call it laziness, I might call it an ironic underscoring of the depressing rut of London 2.0. Either way, here goes.

It’s depressing how few brackets I need.

Dec 6, 2009

I’m tired. Very tired. It’s a little after 4am San Francisco time – noon GMT – and I’m sitting in the arrivals lounge Heathrow airport, thanking the lord for Boingo hotspots and trying to commit these few hundred words to cyberspace before the daylight finally penetrates my brain and my whole body goes into jet-lag meltdown.

And to think I was so organised 24 hours ago. My column was written – 1000 words on a big subject of the week; a big subject that I now can’t talk about, for reasons I also can’t talk about. Don’t ask.

Still, I’m a professional and there’s no use crying over spilt milk – I’ve spent five [six] pounds on a coffee, opened a fresh Google Document and am all set to write an alternative column on how happy I am to be back in London, and how excited I am for the opportunity to catch up with all the amazing and inspiring start-ups my erstwhile home has to offer.

But therein lies the problem. While I’m certainly happy to be here – it’s my 30th [31st] birthday tomorrow, and there is a party planned – the truth is, I’m just not all that excited about London’s current crop of dot com hopefuls.

When I moved to San Francisco at the start of the year, I promised myself I’d head back to the old country twice a year – mainly to keep my cynicism topped up and to make sure I didn’t lose the accent that your American women find so endearing. But also for a third, more serious reason: I don’t want to forget my roots. The London technology scene is where I cut my columnising teeth, and it’s Brit entrepreneurs that first inspired me to try – and fail – my hand at building a start-up. Whereas Valley entrepreneurs point to Facebook and Google as their inspirations, mine came in the form of Moo, Last.fm and Bebo. Smaller fish perhaps, but each with a uniquely British vibe that somehow made them more fun; more human. Also – say what you like about San Francisco as a technology hub, but the London scene’s parties shit all over the rest of the world.

But recently [last year] something has changed. I noticed it when I last visited back in June [2009] and, in what turned out to be my penultimate column for the Guardian, I  called time of death on London’s start-up scene. Everyone was running out of money, I said, people were getting laid off in their droves, and all the real action is – as ever – in San Francisco. Two days later, Guardian Tech’s freelance budget ran out of money, my column was laid off and I was hired by TechCrunch in San Francisco. QED.

And since then London has only become less relevant as a home for dynamic exciting start-ups. Take ‘Silicon Roundabout’. Last year, Dopplr co-founder Matt Biddulph noticed that a number of high profile start-ups – including Moo, Last.fm, and of course Dopplr – were all based within walking distance of the old street roundabout in East London. He jokingly suggested that the region be renamed ‘Silicon Roundabout’. Today the Old Street roundabout remains but Dopplr – and Biddulph – have left for Berlin, Last.fm is owned by CBS in New York and Moo has opened a US base of operations in Providence, Rhode Island. A similar story is true right across the Capital, with Bebo laying off almost all [all] of its local staff and countless other London 2.0 poster children looking to the US for money or a new base of operations. The idea that a company can thrive – or even survive – in London alone seems entirely implausible; ridiculous even.  Off the top of my head I can’t think of a single exciting web business that has come out of the UK in the past six months. Spotify is the nearest candidate and that was created by Swedes.

Moreover, in the few short months since my last trip back home I’ve gone utterly native in my attitude towards my homeland. I see plenty of my Brit friends when they visit San Francisco, but rather than asking for news from the old country, I’m more likely to ask them when they’re going to come to their senses and move to the Valley. I still visit TechCrunch Europe several times a week – Mike Butcher always does a solid job at covering what’s going on over here – but even there I’ve noticed a curious change in my attitude to what I read. Where once I read TCEU through the eyes of a local – noting new companies and inwardly congratulating the latest Belgian company to secure funding – I now look at European technology news in the way American news channels cover foreign stories about escaped bears. Not to learn anything useful, but rather to amuse myself on how parochial foreigners can be. Oh, bless, the French have launched their own rival to Facebook. Ho ho ho.

Things have got so bad that I’ve even started to mentally turn on my friends who are still toiling away near Old Street. A couple of days ago, one such friend – who I won’t name, sufficed to say he’s CEO of a hot London start-up – emailed me an amazing screed in response to a post by one of my TC colleagues hyping a Valley-based rival. The thrust of my friend’s complaint was that his company has been virtually ignored by TechCrunch.com even though TechCrunch Europe had hailed it as one of the continent’s rising stars. This disparity he blamed on the fact that TechCrunch (US) is only interested in local companies, created by people who happen to be friends of our writers. Six months ago, I’d have agreed with him – I mean, there really no need for ten thousand Pandora stories for every Last.fm post, or four hundred Foursquare plugs for every mention of Rummble. But on reading my friend’s email this week, my first response wasn’t sympathy, but apathy. Mate – I thought – that’s just the way it is. TechCrunch is based in San Francisco and so are most of the companies TechCrunch covers. Those are the rules of the game. If you don’t like it, stop whining and get on a fucking plane.

But the fact is, my friend is right; and I’m wrong. There are hundreds of amazing technology companies outside of the Valley, many of which haven’t taken a penny of American money and are making money hand over fist without a single San Francisco-based user. Just read a couple of Lacy’s recent dispatches from India or China; or a week’s worth of TechCrunch Europe posts and you’ll see that’s true. The problem – my problem – is that living in the Valley has it easy to forget, or care, about them. The skin of the bubble is just too thick and the voices from Europe (and beyond) just too faint and distant.

And so I’ve taken my own advice and got on a fucking plane. In the three weeks I’m in town, I’m planning to meet as many UK-based start-ups as possible, to keep half an eye on what comes out of LeWeb next week, to catch up with friends who are still doing cool things near Silicon Roundabout, to re-avail myself of the kick-ass social scene here – and above all to remind myself that the old country is still home to plenty of new thinking. And then at the end of the month, I’ll return to the bubble – re-energised with cynicism and hopefully slightly less convinced that Foursquare represents the most important thing in the future of the world. I mean, everyone here knows that’s Spotify.

But all that will have to wait until next week. I’ve got a birthday to have first – and right now I just need to get some sleep.

Hello [again] London. And goodnight.


To Date, U.S. Online Holiday Spending Up 12 Percent To $16.8 Billion

comScore just released its weekly data regarding U.S. online spending for the first 33 days of the November and December holiday season and the numbers are still strong following record breaking Cyber Monday and Black Friday sales. To date, consumers have spent $16.8 billion online, a 12 percent increase from the same period last year.

The day after Cyber Monday, Tuesday, November 30; reached $911 million in online spending, making it the third heaviest online spending day on record. Wednesday ($868 million) and Thursday ($850 million) of last week also were strong e-commerce sales days as well.

comScore says that larger retailers are doing particularly well this season, with the growth in spending for the holiday season remaining primarily from the top 25 online retailers. These e-retailers have seen seen their total dollar sales grow 20 percent while small and mid-sized retailers’ sales have been flat. The top 25 retailers have gained 4.2 points of market share to a level of 67.8 percent since the 2009 holiday season.

The company also held a survey amongst consumers on the importance of social media in purchasing decisions. When 500 internet users were asked how much they agreed with the statement “Recommendations from friends on social media sites are a great way to get gift ideas during the holiday season,” 33 percent agreed with the statement compared to 24 percent who disagreed (while 43 percent remained neutral).

While social media is definitely gaining ground as a place for product recommendations, the market is still young and has much more room to grow.

Of course, the rise in spending this year during the holidays isn’t all that surprising considering the slightly better conditions in the economy. And as more and more consumers look online for deals (as opposed to in brick and mortar stores), e-retail sales have risen as well. comScore predicted that total online spending for the season would increase 11 percent to $32.4 billion this year, so we still have $16 billion to go.

Information provided by CrunchBase