Thursday, May 31, 2007

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at D5

They take questions from audience:

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

HP strolls down shopping aisle of the future

By Erica Ogg

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Despite the digitization of nearly everything in our daily lives, the Sunday circular ad for beef and bags of baby carrots has remained. Hewlett-Packard is developing a technology to bring even the banal task of grocery shopping into the Digital Age. At HP Labs here, researchers are developing an in-store kiosk solution called Retail Store Assistant (RSA) that will make shopping for food, clothes and electronics easier for buyers and make selling things easier for retailers.

This is the same lab that invented inkjet printing technology and pocket-size scientific calculators, and it wouldn't seem in-store kiosks are at the forefront of technology, which HP admits. But it's the combination of several areas of HP's core businesses that's new.

"The technology is available," said Mohamed Dekhil, manager of imaging and printing retail applications at HP Labs. "It's a question of how you connect all this together."

HP's Retail Store Assistant
The idea is this: Imagine walking into a grocery store, and instead of bringing your shopping list along, simply swiping a club card or entering a phone number. Any information you've entered online from home (milk, eggs, pretzels, ground beef, apples) will show up on your profile. There will also be special offers tailored to your shopping habits--your club card already keeps track of the fact that you prefer Diet Pepsi to Coke, and that you buy a carton of eggs every other week. The kiosk simply matches your information with retailers' offers to generate the appropriate coupons.

The RSA kiosk will then create a printed list of special discounts and shopping items. On the back will be a map of the store and the location of all items, eliminating the need to comb every aisle of a store. And instead of fumbling for coupon clippings, a single bar code on the printout will track the customized offers and remove items from the shopping list that were purchased.

If a printed piece of paper is too cumbersome, HP says the list and information could also be transferred via Bluetooth technology to a mobile device, like a phone.

While HP stressed that the intent of the technology is about making shopping "a delight" for customers, it's also a way for the company to sell more of what it's best at. The kiosk service combines HP database technology, servers, mobile products, printers and imaging technology.

The RSA kiosk could also be a boon for retailers and marketers. The kiosks can know by the time a shopper has left the store which discounts a buyer took advantage of. That information is gold for marketers looking for demographic data and ways to sell more accurately to individual buyers.

Though privacy advocates may balk at the idea of a retailer monitoring each shopper's purchases--indeed some already do decry the club card concept--HP says its customers will need to have privacy policies available to shoppers so they know what they're getting themselves into. Eventually the kiosks will let shoppers manage what personal data is kept, said Dekhil. For instance, shoppers can indicate that none of their alcohol or medicine purchases be tracked.

The technology isn't available yet, and likely won't be for some time, but HP says it is talking to major retailers, like supermarkets, electronics stores and discount chains about using the technology to make shopping an experience, one that eliminates the frustration of not being able to find a product or a helpful salesperson, and then build customer loyalty to that store. HP says it is currently "in talks" with major retailers to start pilot programs soon.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Stardoll.com: From Little Things Big Things Grow

Stardoll.com: From Little Things Big Things Grow
Duncan Riley
May 9, 04:02 AM
Inspired by a childhood passion for paper dolls, Scandinavian born Liisa started drawing dolls and accompanying wardrobes, uploading them to Geocities. The personal page grew, evolving to Paperdoll Heaven in 2004.

Now calling itself Stardoll.com, the site took $4 million in Series A funding from Index Ventures in February 2006, and $6 million in a B Series round lead by none other than Sequoia in June the same year.

It’s a rags to riches success story that makes Stardoll worth taking a look at, and the space is seeing hyper growth. See our writeup of Zwinky last week.

Stardoll is all about dressing up dolls online.

Stardoll lets users create their own doll or choose from a large collection of celebrity dolls which can then be dressed up in virtual fashions. Every celebrity doll has a wardrobe full of unique clothes and outfits, with new celebrity dolls and outfits released weekly.

Each user is given a page from where they can share the dolls they have created, accompanied with a guest book, diary (blog), friend connections and album.

Most users are girls between the age of 10 to 17 and online safety immediately becomes a consideration. Stardoll adds a layer of anonymity to all accounts. Users can never reveal personal information such as their real name or city of origin on their pages.

Joining the site for the first time, you start with 25 star dollars that can be used to buy accessories for each virtual doll. Accessories range from 1 - 35 star dollars with users able to buy additional star dollars at the rate of 10 star dollars to $1.

They currently sell between 60,000 to 180,000 items per day.

In the background is a team that has grown to 40 people based in Stockholm, with a Los Angeles office on its way. Matt Palmer, former EVP of Marketing for Disney’s Kids Network has been hired to lead the North American push.

Stardoll has 7,144,735 members and is adding 20,000 new members a day, with 5.5 million unique visitors per month.

With its European heritage, languages supported include French, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian and Polish, with a dedicated German .de version recently being launched. 30% of traffic comes from the United States vs. 50-52% from the European Union.

As a destination this won’t appeal to all readers, men in particular working in tech fields, however the numbers speak volumes for their growing success amongst their target demographic. With Sequoia amongst its investors it doesn’t take rocket science to work out that the site looks like a winner.

There’s a positive message as well.

Chasing funding and trying to be the next best thing in Web 2.0 can be hard at times, and even a little depressing. Stardoll shows us that from little things, big things can grow.


Hot or Not Tears Itself Apart, Reinvents

Michael Arrington
Today, 09:00 AM
When James Hong and Jim Young founded HotorNot in October, 2000, they had no real plans for the service to be anything other than a fun site for a few friends. They turned a free low end computer they received for setting up an etrade account into a web server, launched the site from their house in Mountain View, California, and emailed 40 friends. By the end of the day, 40,000 people had visited the site, which now had 30 second load times.

It wasn’t too long before the service was hosted at RackSpace and the users were flooding in to rate user-uploaded pictures of themselves on a scale of 1-10. In January 2001 they added a dead simple dating site. Instead of reading endless profiles and trying to find a connection, users just say yes or no to a given picture. If it’s a yes, the other person is shown your picture the next time they look through profiles. If they like you as well, a connection is made.

The Money Rolls In

Until last month, HotorNot was free until that last crucial stage when two people wanted to meet each other. At that point, one of the members (usually the man, Hong tells me) must have been a paid subscriber, which costs $6/month. Hong says their conversion rate was extremely high - 15% of active users eventually upgraded to premium accounts.

The premium revenue, plus advertising and fees for virtual flowers, soon topped $600,000 per month. Nearly all of that was profit for the two founders, who reportedly pocketed $20 million or so between them over the years. The company has never raised any outside funding.

Hong says they receive 2-3 emails per day telling them about marriages that resulted from an initial meeting on HotorNot.

In the last year though a few competitors have popped up (see yesnomayb, a copy of the business model) and a number of free dating sites also started to eat away at traffic. Traffic started to drift sideways, and the developers were getting bored at doing little more than site maintenance.

Going To A Free Model

That’s when Hong and Young decided to rip apart their business model and remove the requirement for members to have premium accounts to talk to each other. A month ago, the requirement was turned off, and about $500k/month in revenue disappeared overnight. The founders also turned the company into a proper “C” corporation and issued stock options for the first time to all employees.

(I can’t help thinking that if HotorNot took venture financing somewhere along the way, they would not have been able to get their board of directors to agree to this.)

Hong says this lit a fire under the company, which is now running on reserve cash of a few million dollars. So far things look good. Traffic jumped over 60% - 10 million people visited the site in the last month, up from 6 million the month before. Advertising and virtual gift revenue spiked, and the site is now break even even though they killed their largest revenue stream.

Hong and Young aren’t stopping there. They have plans to expand the site greatly and say they will launch new products in the coming weeks.

Whether this works in the long run is yet to be seen. But the company wanted to try something new, and the founders took enough money off the table to be comfortable for life. Entrepreneurs tend to have a screwed up way of measuring risk - the more the better - and these guys are no exception.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Authors like King, Lethem trying comics

By COLLEEN LONG, Associated Press WriterSun May 13, 11:07 AM ET
Author Jonathan Lethem was a big fan of the comic "Omega the Unknown" when he was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, and he was pretty depressed when the superhero vanished from corner store shelves.

Never fear. He'll see Omega in print again soon, because Marvel Entertainment is reviving the comic after 30 years — with Lethem writing the story.

"I was very devoted as a teenager to comic books," said Lethem, who recently finished a tour for his new novel, "You Don't Love Me Yet."

"I drifted to other kinds of reading, but I never lost interest in the medium."

Lethem joins a growing list of novelists such as Stephen King and Michael Chabon, who have shifted to work on comic books as the medium gains critical and academic respect and becomes more mainstream.

Marvel contacted Lethem after his book "Fortress of Solitude," which had some comic-book reverence, and asked if he was interested in doing work in the medium, said Marvel publisher Dan Buckley.

"We wanted to see what he was interested in, and he brought it up immediately," Buckley said. "Bringing this kind of talent to the room is fantastic. He knows how to tell a story, and his perspective is different from traditional comic writers."

Omega's not your average swashbuckling superhero. He's mute, for starters, and has a sort of psychic connection with a 12-year-old boy named James-Michael Starling, who moved to New York City with his family from "the mountains" to improve socialization skills after years of home-schooling. Trouble ensues, of course, and he meets Omega, the last surviving member of an unnamed alien race.

"It was an interesting challenge," Lethem said. "One of the things I concluded very quickly was that it's not a written form. My primary task was to provide amazing things for artists to draw."

The first six issues are in the can, and the series will have a total of 10, like the original, which debuted in 1976. No official release date has been given.

Suspense writer Greg Rucka works on several series for DC Comics, including "Batman," "Superman" and "Gotham Central." He also did a limited series called "52," about a year when Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman temporarily suspended their crusades, and a new superhero called Supernova takes over to save the world. Best-selling author Brad Meltzer worked on the "Justice League of America," for DC, and excerpts of his 2006 novel, "The Book of Fate," were included in the first issue.

Meltzer and his publishers also put excerpts of "Justice League" into the paperback edition of "Book of Fate," the first time a comic book has appeared in a novel, he says.

He believes the medium shouldn't matter, as long as the story is good.

"There has just been so much snobbery that has existed with comic books," he said. "We've got to prove that these things are equal."

Best-selling writer of "Nineteen Minutes," Jodi Picoult is the current author of the legendary Wonder Woman series at DC. She is only the second woman to ever write the series in its more than 60-year-old history. The biggest challenge for Picoult was tethering the character's lengthy past with contemporary issues and her own writing style.

"You don't want to go down in history as the one who ruined Wonder Woman," she said. "She comes with a history, and a very loyal fan base that doesn't want to see you mess around."

Other authors turned their creations into comic-book heroes.

Chabon, who wrote about cartoonists in his Pulitzer-prize winning novel "The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay," chose to turn the novel's cartoon "The Escapist" into a a real graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics. His editor, Diana Schutz, helped him modify his thinking from chapters and sentences to panels. Schutz, a longtime editor, also works with authors Glen David Gold and Chris Offutt.

She said there are tremendous differences in the mediums, and writers often aren't used to thinking about the presentation of a story or the physical representation of their characters. But it can be taught.

"A good writer is a good writer," she said. "It really is just a matter of coming to grips with the different form, the different structure of the medium. Some novelists don't make a successful transition into writing screenplays, that doesn't mean they're not good. It means they can't think pictures very well. And comics are basically still movies."

Similarly, King chose to work with Marvel to develop his "Dark Tower" book series, instead of making it into a film or TV miniseries. The story is part Western, part fantasy and part adventure, and the comic centers on the story of Roland Deschain, a man who lives in a futuristic kind of world, and his quest to find the "Man in Black" and later on, the dark tower.

So far, the title has seen significant commercial success. More than 200,000 copies of the first issue, out in early March, were sold, by far the best-selling non-superhero comic in more than a decade. King hopes comic readers will find an exciting new story in the "Dark Tower."

"I'm a big fan of the medium," King said of comic books. "A different way to tell stories is always exciting. It's like being a kid with a chemistry set."

And comic book publishers are fans of authors with a loyal audience.

"The fan base helps grow the market," Buckley said. "It's an important initiative, bringing the best talent you can to the table and also seeing what new readers you can attract."

Marvel executive editor Axel Alonso said he loves working with novelists.

"They're a known quantity to me," said Alonso, who worked with Lethem on "Omega."

"I've read their books, I get a sense of what their dialogue is," he said. "I come to them for their voice. I'm not looking to duplicate comic books they read as a kid or on the racks. I want their unique style to come through."

And Buckley says there's plenty of space in the comic books to go around, so regular comic book writers and writer-artists shouldn't worry that their jobs are being taken away.

"We're publishing more than 70 or 80 titles a month. There's plenty of room for comic writers, TV writers, novelists, you name it," Buckley said. "The other creators are excited — yeah it's competition — but they understand it's great for us to get our name out there into the mainstream."

Monday, May 07, 2007

How Nokia is selling cell phones to the developing world

How Nokia is selling cell phones to the developing world

by Jack Ewing

Looking for ways to make mobile handsets practical for people living in developing countries, Finnish mobile-phone maker Nokia Corp. (NOK) has trekked to far corners of the globe, from the narrow alleys of Mumbai to the vast slums of Nairobi. The result is a slew of new features especially designed for places with harsh weather and harsher living conditions. One example: The company created dustproof keypads—crucial in dry, hot countries with many unpaved roads, as Nokia executives learned from visits to customers' homes in India. Innovations like those helped generate sales in 2006 of $3.7 billion for Nokia in India, making the company the market leader in the fastest-growing mobile-phone market in the world.

But Nokia's initiatives for emerging markets reach way beyond traditional product innovation. These days, it's also breaking the mold on how it markets, distributes, and sells phones in developing countries. In India, Nokia estimates there are 90,000 points-of-sale for its phones, ranging from modern stores to makeshift kiosks, even more than China's 40,000. That makes it difficult to control how products are displayed and pitched to consumers. "You have to understand where people live, what the shopping patterns are," says Kai Oistamo, executive vice-president and general manager for mobile phones. "You have to work with local means to reach people—even bicycles or rickshaws."

To get a grip on rural India, the company has outfitted a fleet of distinctive blue Nokia-branded vans that prowl the rutted country roads. Staffers park these advertisements-on-wheels in villages, often on market or festival days. There, with crowds clustering around, Nokia reps explain the basics of how the phones work and how to buy them. Nokia has extended the concept to minivans, which can reach even more remote places.

Members of the emerging markets team discovered something on a recent visit to slums outside Nairobi that may help them improve sales to customers without access to credit. Through conversations with slum dwellers, Nokia learned that many people form buying clubs, pooling their money to buy handsets one at a time until every member has one. The members draw lots to see who gets phones in what order. Now Nokia is looking for ways to encourage this form of self-financing. Communal finance is a far cry from manufacturing mobile phones, but Nokia knows it has to try all sorts of ideas if it wants to capture its share of the industry's next 1 billion customers.