Tag Archive: Mobile


WorldMap-War

While iOS games started out as either simple physics or casual simulation titles when the platform launched about five years ago, the bar has gotten steadily higher and more hard-core. Midcore studios like Kabam started to rise in prominence.

Now the iOS platform might be seeing is most hardcore title to date – a very, very massive multi-player title from YC- and Menlo Ventures-backed Machine Zone.

The company, which started out doing text-based RPGs a couple years ago like iMob, is launching Game of War: Fire Age. It’s a title where players build and grow empires, train massive armies, forge alliances with other players to win kingdoms.

The game can handle hundreds of thousands of players concurrently in the same universe, which is not an easy technical feat. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, in contrast, typically handles a few thousand players simultaneously in a single realm. All movement on the game’s map is visible to everyone else.

“We wanted to take the company to the next level and be really ambitious,” said Machine Zone CEO Gabriel Leydon. “We decided to build some things that had never been done before. We had the capital to do it and the willpower.”

Leydon didn’t hire just typical game designers to build the title. He also found people who had experience in scaling massive systems. The game’s user interface is in HTML5 and is rendered natively, allowing the company to handle different screen sizes.

The other really cool thing about the game’s social capabilities is that there is a mechanical turk-like translation system where the players themselves translate chat in exchange for virtual currency rewards. That helps Game of War have really interactive play with a proper critical mass of users who can talk to each other, even if they don’t speak the same language. The in-game chat system helps Game of War get manage slang and gamer speak, which a third-party translation system probably wouldn’t handle correctly. If say, 50 players translate the same words in the same way, then the game will start using that translation automatically.

“It’s like a highly structured Facebook,” Leydon said. “My goal as a game designer was to create a feeling of what it would be to be a king, where you’d have a lot of people under you. You’d have to subjects, wealth and land.”

Assuming say, the game grows to 1 million players, there might only be 20 kings in the game. To reach that level, players have to woo others to form alliances with them. Within those alliances, there are ranks for different officers.

“This is a very hardcore game. This is not Candy Crush,” he said. “This is a complex system with a lot of potential trees of outcomes. If you’re the type of person that’s fascinated by systems like this, then this is for you.”

Machine Zone used to be known as Addmired, and rebranded last year when it took $8 million in funding from Menlo Ventures. Leydon said this is what the company took the round for, even though its older titles like Original Gangstaz and iMob 2 were pretty lucrative early on.


fitBarkVisual

Bored of quantifying your self already? Why not quantify your pet instead? FitBark is a Fitbit style health tracker for your under-walked canine companion. We’ve covered this (frankly) barking mad gizmo before, back in May, when its creators were exhibiting at Hardware Alley at TechCrunch Disrupt NY but they’ve now taken to Kickstarter to raise funds to get the device out in the wild. Again.

It’s actually FitBark’s second attempt at Kickstarting the gizmo. As Gigaom points out, its creators pulled an earlier attempt at crowdfunding the device in order to rethink the business model, scrapping the monthly subscription fee and opting for a fixed price-tag of $69 via Kickstarter or $99 for general retail.

FitBark are after $35,000 to cover manufacturing costs this time around, and are more than half-way to achieving the target with 32 days left to run on the campaign – so crazy or otherwise, this is one hardware startup that’s pretty much a dead cert for its first manufacturing run-around-the-park at least.

Now I say barking mad but that’s mostly tongue-in-cheek, being as FitBark is not the only health tracker angling for pet owners’ cash. Whistle, a startup backed by $6 million in Series A funding, launched a $99 wearable activity tracker for dogs only last month. There’s also Tagg, which combines activity and location tracking by including GPS in its device. So underestimate the pet-owning dollar at your peril.

So what does FitBark actually do? Attach it to your dog’s collar and it tracks daily’s activity levels, sending the data back to FitBack’s servers when your smartphone is in range, or throughout the day if you purchase a dedicated FitBark base station (and keep you pet penned up at home while you’re out). The latter scenario would allow owners to keep remote tabs on their pet’s activity levels when they’re not at home, but unless you own a mansion (or employ a dog walker) your dog isn’t going to be able to do a whole lot of running around without you. FitBark then crunches all the activity data, offering customisable daily activity goals, and delivering the results back to you via an app. So far, so kinda sane.

At its more barking mad fringe, the FitBark also lets pet owners compare – well, they say “unify” – their own fitness with their dog’s fitness/activity. So yeah, boasting that you are fitter than Fido is apparently a thing now…

FitBark is also the first platform that leverages existing APIs of human fitness trackers to bring you a unified view of your fitness level and that of your dog. From the outset, FitBark will seamlessly receive input from your Nike Fuelband, Fitbit, Withings Pulse, or Bodymedia Fit. We’ll look to expand the list as we learn about new open APIs or partnership opportunities. If you’re not only a devoted dog parent but are also serious about tracking your own fitness, you’ll love this.

edge-1-large

Smartphone companies have it pretty rough – they’ve got to sink millions into research and development every year, all in the hope of making their next shiny touchscreen gewgaw the fastest, slimmest, smartest, prettiest one ever. And every year we eat it all up, and take what we’re given.

But Canonical, the folks behind the incredibly popular Ubuntu Linux distro, isn’t your average phone smartphone company. It doesn’t have a huge production budget like Samsung or Apple, so it decided to crowdfund the creation of its first phone. Turns out that’s not the only thing they’re doing differently – Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth is currently fielding questions on Reddit, and he’s expressed interest in having backers of this current project getting some sort of say over what goes in future models.

And thus, Mark may have just come up with the coolest backer perk ever. Quoth Shuttleworth:

“This first version of the Edge is to prove the concept of crowdsourcing ideas for innovation, backed by crowdfunding. If it gets greenlighted, then I think we’ll have an annual process by which the previous generation backers get to vote on the spec for the next generation of Edge.”

In case you haven’t been following the story, the Edge is an awfully handsome concept for a phone that will run Ubuntu and Android and sport a sapphire glass-covered 4.5-inch 1280 720 display, along with the “fastest available” multi-core mobile processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The internet being what it is, Redditors couldn’t help but throw out bits of hardware for Shuttleworth and the Edge team to consider for the current model anyway. IR blaster? A “cool idea,” he says. Wireless charging? Probably not going to happen.

Shuttleworth was pretty forthcoming when it came to lingering questions about the Edge’s design and proposed rollout. As it happens, the team is still having trouble figuring out what sort of speaker system to throw into the thing (my two cents: the closer to HTC’s Boomsound setup the better), but it Canonical has asked potential carrier partners to agree to take note of a set of conditions that should minimize bloatware if the Edge is ever picked up and sold with long-term contracts.

Now this all hinges on the notion that Canonical was right in thinking that enough people would believe in a company that has never made a smartphone before to basically pre-order one for (at least) $675. In a way, this is a perfect move – if the project hits critical mass, everyone gets a phone. If it doesn’t, well, no harm no foul. The crowdfunding movement has given a software company a shot at really making a mark in an industry dominated by giants, some of which are already feeling the pinch because their pricey flagship devices perhaps aren’t selling in the astronomical numbers they were hoping for.

And so far, things appear to be going rather well. Canonical’s Indiegogo campaign only went live three days ago and Ubuntu fans have already chipped in just a hair under $6 million. Of course, there’s no guarantee that sort of traction will continue for any serious length of time – the company has already had to add some less expensive device pricing tiers to keep the campaign from flaming out too soon, and it’s still got a ways to go before it hits the $32 million goal.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, Shuttleworth seems to be tackling nearly every question being thrown at him – no Rampart shenanigans here.)

zynga-logo

Zynga’s revenues for the second quarter of 2013 declined 31% year-over-year to $231 million in the midst of a challenging transition that saw former CEO Mark Pincus hand over the reins to Don Mattrick.

The company had a net loss of $16 million compared to last year’s net loss of $22.8 million during the same quarter (which also had $95.5 million of stock-based compensation expenses). If you account for that then, the company’s net loss was $6.1 million compared to last year’s net loss of $4.6 million based on non-generally accepted accounting principles. Zynga said when it laid off nearly 20 percent of its staff last month that it expected to see a net loss of between $39 million to $28.5 million so this is actually a slight earnings beat.

“We need to get back to basics and take a longer term view on our products and business, develop more efficient processes and tighten up execution all across the company,” wrote Mattrick in the release. “We have a lot of hard work in front of us and as we reset, we expect to see more volatility in our business than we would like over the next two to four quarters.”

Last quarter, COO David Ko said the company was in the midst of a “pause” to re-evaluate its entire game slate and that this decision would be financially apparent in this quarter.

This quarter’s revenue is projected to be even lower in the range of $175 million to $200 million, with a net loss of $43 million to $14 million.

Through the company’s pivot onto iOS and Android, Zynga has had to compete against older and historically smaller rivals from the Facebook platform like King and Kabam. Both of those companies have fared well with King’s Candy Crush Saga bringing it the top grossing spot and numerous Kabam titles in the top 25.

In contrast, Zynga just has its longstanding Poker franchise in the U.S. top grossing 25. Even today, nearly 70 percent of the company’s monthly active users remain on the web.

The losses in Zynga’s user base from not being able to hold onto its core Facebook customers are staggering. The company’s level of daily active users is not much higher than half of where it was a year ago at 39 million this quarter compared to 72 million in 2012. It also saw 187 million monthly active users, down from 306 million users in the same time period a year before.

The company’s launches like Draw Something 2 have also underperformed without any slots in any of the top 100 charts and Zynga’s other big mobile launch, Running With Friends, remains in 45th place in the U.S. top grossing chart. Zynga had six major releases this quarter including War of the Fallen, Draw Something 2, Battlestone, Solstice Arena and Running With Friends.

But older franchises like FarmVille and FarmVille 2 continue to do well as both games have grown combined bookings by 29 percent year-over-year.

Zynga’s struggles in diversifying away from Facebook and missing the pivot to mobile ultimately convinced Pincus to give up the CEO role, although he remains chairman of the board and serves as chief product officer. It’s now Mattrick’s 15th day on the job.

zynga poker

Zynga is giving up what many investors had hoped might be its trump card: a real-money gaming business in the U.S. The company, which has been testing out real-money casino games in the U.K., said it won’t be pursuing a U.S. license after all in its second quarter earnings report today.

Sources tell us this is a decision to focus and not spread the company too thinly between real-money gaming, diversifying onto mobile and maintaining a core on Facebook. If it weren’t for the political and legal complexities of opening up real-money gaming in state after state, the business could have been interesting for Zynga, especially considering how long Zynga Poker has dominated both on the Facebook platform and on iOS and Android. None of Zynga’s social casino games, which use virtual currency, are affected by this. Shares declined 13 percent in after-hours to $3.02.

In the release today, Zynga said:

Zynga believes its biggest opportunity is to focus on free to play social games. While the Company continues to evaluate its real money gaming products in the United Kingdom test, Zynga is making the focused choice not to pursue a license for real money gaming in the United States. Zynga will continue to evaluate all of its priorities against the growing market opportunity in free, social gaming, including social casino offerings.

Zynga has long been exploring real-money gaming. It partnered with operator Bwin.Party to offer titles in the U.K. Then last November, the company took its first steps toward real-money gaming in the U.S. by applying for a “preliminary finding of suitability” from the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

It’s not that this option is forever off the table. It’s just that the company is in the middle of a significant platform transition now, and real-money games – which would probably only be available to players in Nevada at first anyways – could be distracting.

drawbridge-logo-1

Drawbridge, an ad targeting startup backed by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital, is expanding its offerings today with a new feature allowing mobile advertisers to reach consumers with retargeted ads, regardless of whether they’re using an app or on the mobile web.

Founder and CEO Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan said that while ad retargeting (i.e., ads targeted based on your past visits and activity) is possible within apps, things get trickier when you try to cross the boundary between apps and websites: “It’s literally two devices on the same device, separated by an iron wire.” (I question her question use of “literally”, but I think you get the point.) App developers can also try to reengage their users through alerts and notifications, but users can always turn those off.

In order to solve that problem, Drawbridge is “piggybacking” on its core technology. That technology examines user activity to help advertisers identify when multiple devices are likely being used by the same person. That allows advertisers to use data collected on the desktop to target ads on mobile. The company’s two products launched last fall include PC-to-mobile retargeting and mobile app marketing. The mobile-to-mobile retargeting is intended to fill out the mobile marketing product, Sivaramakrishnan said.

Drawbridge has already run test campaigns with e-commerce companies, who were either trying to bring old customers back to the site or to convince current customers to buy more. Sivaramakrishnan said that in a campaign targeting lapsed users, the client reached 100 percent return on ad spend within three weeks. Another campaign targeted active users and reached 100 percent ROAS within a single day.

Advertisers will have a chance to test this out for themselves, Sivaramakrishnan said, because the new capabilities include an A/B testing framework. So advertisers can run part of their campaign with Drawbridge’s retargeting and part of their campaign without it and see which ads perform better.

Earlier this year, Drawbridge announced that it was partnering with TRUSTe to allow mobile consumers to opt out of its targeting. Since then, Sivaramakrishnan said that some users have indeed opt out, but that the rates haven’t been “heavy”.

shine3

Fitbits. FuelBands. UPs. The market for smart, connected activity trackers continues to get ever-more crowded. And yet, there’s not an obvious winner yet.

Misfit Wearables’ Shine is a new entrant in the space and they may have the most beautifully-designed piece of hardware yet. The company behind the Shine is itself a homage to Apple founder Steve Jobs’ famous “Think Different” campaign and the famous 1997 commercial that began with the line, “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits.

Backed by Founders Fund and Khosla Ventures, the company was co-founded by Sonny Vu, who built up a glucose-monitoring business called Agamatrix that had the first official medical device add-on to the iPhone, and former Apple CEO John Sculley. For a small startup, they have an impressively multi-national team with industrial designers in San Francisco, data scientists in Vietnam and manufacturing in South Korea and Japan.

The Shine is a tiny circle not much larger than a quarter that’s made from Japanese metal or aircraft-grade aluminum. It has LED lights beneath the surface that glow through minuscule holes on the metal itself. Those lights form a ring, indicating how far a person is toward completing their activity goals for the day. You tap the Shine twice to see how much progress you’ve made. If half the lights shine, you’re halfway done. If they complete a circle, then you’ve hit your goal.


I had a chance to test it out for a week or so, tracking everything from regular walks to dancing and downhill mountain biking.

Overall, I love the product. It looks like a piece of jewelry in many ways, and while I’m not an industrial designer myself, several other friends who work in hardware were impressed by the make and form of the Shine.

It is not plastic like a Fitbit. Then because it doesn’t have to be worn as a bracelet like the FuelBand or Jawbone UP, it looks a lot more elegant, especially if you’re a woman and want something more discreet. The Shine is comparable in price to its competitors at $99.95. The Fitbit is about $99.95, the Jawbone UP is $129.99 and the Nike FuelBand is about $150.

The Shine has four different accessories: a wristband, a necklace, a watch and a magnetic clip that makes it easy to attach anywhere, from your shoe to your sleeve to your shirt. My preferred accessory was the magnetic clip, but I didn’t have a chance to try out the necklace or watch.

Throughout the day, the Shine tracks how much you walk or run. It also handles sleep, swimming and cycling, but you have to program it. To do that, you tap the Shine three times, and it will recognize whichever activity you set up in the paired app. Unfortunately, like the other activity trackers, it doesn’t handle yoga (and as someone who practices pretty much every day, the Shine and other competing products are missing out on an hour of physical activity).

The tapping is a bit hard to learn. Sometimes I would tap with two fingers and sometimes with three. Sometimes the Shine would misinterpret a few taps as a signal to record a different type of activity instead of showing me my results so far. You can also use it to tell time with different lights glowing to represent the hour and minute hands of a watch.

“The data science to get the double tap is hard,” Vu told me. “There is no on and off button for the Shine and everything is powered by sensors.”

Indeed, the only way to turn the Shine off is for the battery to run out or for you to remove it.

That underscores the huge benefit of the Shine, which is that it doesn’t need to be charged every few days or weeks. It has a simple coin cell battery that needs to be replaced once every four to six months. It’s also waterproof to a depth of 50 meters. I dunked it in a river in the Sierra Nevadas this weekend and it came out fine, but you could theoretically scuba dive with it, too.

The data transfer to the iPhone is also beautiful. You can see how it works below. The Shine uses a simple Bluetooth connection, and the app directs you to place the Shine on a circle on the iPhone app’s screen. Circles radiate outward before the iPhone picks up the activity data in the Shine.


The paired app tells you how many points you’ve achieved in a day. The Shine doesn’t do “steps” because it would be hard to swim in steps. The middle-range goal of 1,000 points per day requires walking for 1.5 hours, running for 35 minutes or swimming for 25. You can move points higher as you please.

Overall, I was really happy with the product. It is just that much more beautiful looking than the standard Fitbit or FuelBand. For women who are turned off by the look of the bracelet trackers, it’s probably the ideal choice.

The Misfit Shine is only compatible with the iPhone for now, which was surely disappointing for Android-using supporters of the Shine who backed it on Indiegogo.

The company had a successful campaign on the crowdfunding site late last fall where they racked up 8,000 supporters in 64 countries, hit their goal in nine hours and went on to raise $850,000. That was nearly nine times as much as they targeted. Like many other hardware startups, Misfit Wearables used crowdfunding more as a marketing strategy than as a capital source. Misfit had no problem raising from some of the Valley’s better-known VC firms, and this product shows why.

iphone4 - profile02

More proof, if proof were needed, that Apple needs a low cost iPhone to get its smartphone momentum mojo back: Cupertino’s share of the global smartphone market fell to its lowest for three years in Q2, according to Strategy Analytics, with just 31.2 million iPhones shipped in the quarter and Apple’s second place ranking declining to a 14% market share – this despite the overall smartphone market growing 47% annually to reach a record 230 million units shipped.

“The current iPhone portfolio is under-performing and Apple is at risk of being trapped in a pincer movement between rival 3-inch Android models at the low-end and 5-inch Android models at the high-end,” said Neil Mawston, Executive Director at Strategy Analytics, in a statement.

Mawston told TechCrunch it’s not just a low cost iPhone that Apple needs to return to growth, although he agrees that is a requirement for Apple to drive extra volume. Cupertino’s top priority should be a new type of flagship to compete with Samsung’s phablets, he said.

“Apple’s first priority should be a premium-tier phablet with a 5-inch screen because that is where the largest new revenue pool is located,” he said via email. “Apple is losing profit share to Samsung partly because of a lack of presence in the phablet segment. Apple’s second priority should be a lower-cost iPhone to win back some of the customers it is losing to cheaper Android models in Asia, Africa and Latin America.”

“A 5-inch iPhone would generate extra value for Apple, while a cheaper iPhone would deliver extra volume,” he added.

Overall, the analyst said smartphone market growth is being driven by demand for 4G handsets in developed markets such as the U.S. and 3G devices in emerging markets such as India. Asian mobile makers, who predominately use Google’s Android OS, are now clearly dominating the surging smartphone market, with Samsung still in kingpin position – shipping 76 million devices in Q2 to capture one-third of all smartphone volumes worldwide in the quarter – and LG, ZTE and Huawei in third, fourth and fifth place respectively.

The analyst described LG as a “star performer”, with its global shipments doubling year-over-year to hit 12.1 million units in Q2 to take a 5% share. “The popular Optimus and Nexus models have been the main drivers of LG’s success. If LG can expand its retail presence and marketing in major countries such as the US or China, LG could quietly start to challenge Apple for second position,” Analyst Linda Sui added in a statement.

Chinese mobile maker ZTE also took a 5% share in the quarter, shipping a record 11.5 million smartphones to take fourth place for the first time, while Huawei shipped 11.1 million handsets to also grab 5% and take fifth.

app ops

As expected, Google officially confirmed Android 4.3 at its event on Wednesday with Android chief Sundar Pichai. Among the new features/improvements in the update are a redesigned camera interface, Bluetooth Low Energy support, performance improvements such as smoother animations, and multi-user restricted profiles. But there’s apparently something else that Google didn’t talk about. Android Police has unearthed a hidden app permissions manager that allows users to selectively disable certain permissions for apps.

The feature is apparently called App Ops, and lets users toggle app permissions – such as location and the ability to post notifications – on and off for individual apps. Android Police notes that a developer has already created an app (available here on Google Play if you have Android 4.3 installed) that foregrounds App Ops, and has been having a play around with it.

The basic idea of the feature is apparently to give Android users more flexibility over what apps can and can’t do, allowing them to choke off battery draining features, say, or rein in irritating notification behaviour. If Google does decide to fully implement App Ops as a user-facing feature, there are potential big benefits here, from a security and privacy point of view, being as it could give users fine-grained control over what each app can do.

Apps they might otherwise have been tentative about installing could presumably be fine-tuned to fit their tastes now – which may also have some developer benefits, if it helps drive overall installs.

However Android Police notes that while App Ops does work, the feature is clearly not ready for the prime time yet – while testing it with the Facebook app they found certain app permissions only appeared in the permissions list once the app had made use of them, for example. Such messiness likely explains why Google has hidden App Ops and wasn’t ready to talk about it on Wednesday. We’ve reached out to Mountain View to ask for its plans for the feature and will update this story with any response.

Another possible complication attached to the feature is user confusion if a user doesn’t realise that the reason a particular in-app feature isn’t working is because it has been toggled off at source. A similar problem can occur on some Android devices with the quick settings in the notification tray overriding the main setting for things like silencing sounds/ringtones. Add in per app permissions and the potential user confusion is enormous. Android Police notes that one way for Google to get round could be to include some kind of system notifications warning users when App Ops is limiting app permissions. Although that would get old pretty quick if users get nagged every time they open an app with restricted permissions.

It is also possible that the App Ops feature has been created by Google to power the multi-user restricted profiles feature it did announced on Wednesday, which allows for parental controls to be implemented on Android devices.

The Android platform also has the most malware activity associated with it of all the mobile platforms, so the App Ops feature could be something Google is lining up to help bolster security concerns attached to Android. For instance, the feature could allow users to block apps from making calls – to kill off premium rate phone call/SMS malware – or trace which apps have been making calls to identify rogue software.

The National Security Agency ended a program used to spy on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a number of other world leaders after an internal Obama administration review started this summer revealed to the White House the existence of the operations, U.S. officials said.

Officials said the internal review turned up NSA monitoring of some 35 world leaders, in the U.S. government’s first public acknowledgment that the U.S. government tapped the phones of world leaders.

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