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snaptwit

Twitter’s entire premise is based on publicness. “Join the conversation in the global town square!” the company likes to say.

But, over the past year, Twitter has come around to seeing the value of being more discreet.

The company plans to significantly update its direct-messaging product in the near future, according to multiple sources, bringing the long-buried feature to the forefront for the first time in years.

Part of the new reemphasis on direct messaging is already here. For weeks, Twitter has been internally testing a setting that allows users to send and receive direct messages from others without needing to mutually follow one another. And, earlier this week, the company began to roll it out to the public in a limited capacity.

But Twitter’s new vision for direct messages will go further. It has kicked around the idea of launching a standalone direct-messaging application separate from the Twitter app, according to three people familiar with the matter. It is unclear, however, what form the final revamp of direct messages will take.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment when asked about future messaging plans.

Twitter’s move comes as a defensive riposte to personal-messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Line and KakaoTalk, all of which have drastically increased in popularity over the past two years. KakaoTalk, in particular, was mentioned as a threat in Twitter’s S-1 IPO documentation, filed earlier this month. To cope with such an increase in attention, other social networks, like Facebook and Path, have also made significant updates to their messaging capabilities.

Twitter paid specific attention to Snapchat, the massively popular ephemeral-messaging service, during its rapid ascent to popular use. Twitter even ran one of its own surveys, according to sources familiar with the matter, finding that people are indeed using Snapchat to engage more with others. And one of Twitter’s updates to Android tablet apps earlier this month borrows heavily from Snapchat’s in-message illustration features.

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Earlier in the year, Twitter also met with employees from MessageMe, another popular mobile-messaging application, according to sources.

Moving private messaging up the food chain hasn’t always been in the company’s plans. At one point in Twitter’s history, employees discussed possibly killing direct messaging off altogether, according to multiple sources, making Twitter a truly public service once and for all. It is said that Jack Dorsey was one of the biggest proponents of the “all-public” version of Twitter.

Instead, Twitter went in a considerably less drastic direction. Under the direction of Dorsey and then product VP Satya Patel, the company launched a complete redesign of its desktop and mobile products in December of 2011, plucking the direct-messaging menu from the home screen and burying it under a separate, less visible menu. Eventually, the idea was that the product could have possibly been phased out.

Besides dealing with a public that wants personal-messaging services, Twitter also must attempt to solve its serious growth problem, one that seems to have alienated the service from becoming truly mainstream. The company hopes that an upcoming redesign will put an end to its retention issues and ultimately boost Twitter’s overall user ranks.

It is likely that we will see both updates before the year’s end, perhaps in time for the company’s much-anticipated initial public offering next month.

iPhone5c-trio

Owners of Apple’s iPhone 5s and 5c will soon be able to have broken displays replaced and other small repairs made to the device while they wait at Apple retail stores.

9to5Mac reports, and AllThingsD has independently confirmed, that Apple is preparing to extend to its new iPhones the same in-store repair program it rolled out for the iPhone 5 this past summer. Sources said that Apple Stores will be equipped to handle most common repairs – cracked screens, bad batteries, etc.

The initiative is expected to begin before the end of the year, and should be a relief to iPhone 5s and 5c users with damaged devices. It’s easier and cheaper to have the broken screen on your unwarrantied 5s replaced than to pay the fee for a replacement device and run through the backup and restore process.

Apple declined to comment.

Tool_time

A handful of times a year, clusters of Twitter engineers will line the walls of the company’s cavernous main hall, gathering around smartphones, monitors or poster board setups. The large, open-air room buzzes with excitement as employees show off the slap-dash project they hacked together over the past four days. It is Twitter’s officially sanctioned “Hack Week” – a time where all bets are off and employees can work on whatever they want.

Project Mixtape, for example, was a way to suggest and send a list of good people to follow for any friends you’ve invited to try Twitter for the first time. Another group’s project involved a small Vine button stuck inside the Twitter app, a quick way to take and tweet videos inside of Twitter proper. And one set of engineers developed a way to play with location-based discovery of nearby users and tweets from people you weren’t following.

Many employees see the event – the Friday that ends Hack Week – as Twitter at its best, a testament to the company’s capacity for innovation.

But some view these days as among the most depressing of the year: A parade of Twitter features that will never see the light of day.

The Problem

Simply put, Twitter has a product problem. Engineers inside the company have long grumbled that there are few direct paths for moving product changes up the ladder at an efficient pace. Twitter’s occasional “experiments,” or ideas for change, sometimes sit in their requisite testing phase with 1 percent of users for an inordinately long amount of time, stagnating without any decision being made to move the product forward or kill it.

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In a nutshell: It’s a product culture that’s basically the opposite of Facebook’s. Where the social giant is willing to “move fast and break things,” sometimes pushing out new features in the span of weeks, changes to Twitter’s core product often languish for months – or even years – in limbo.

While the issue is hardly a new one for the company – product pipeline problems have plagued Twitter for years – the stakes now are especially high; Twitter has to answer to the public markets, as well as to its public user base. Being slow to innovate, or even to iterate, could affect the company’s ability to push its microblogging service deep into the mainstream. And to some degree, it has inhibited the company’s ability to retain talent. Twitter has already lost a number of engineers and product managers who were frustrated by its failure to ship things in a timely manner.

The problem’s origins are two-fold, sources said. The product divisions are messy, with an absence of efficiency and sometimes a lack of clarity around which executive has the last word on whether a feature change is good enough to ship. Many in the organization have also expressed frustrations about working with Michael Sippey, Twitter’s VP of product, whose hesitation on pushing changes through has created problems with some middle managers. (My colleague Peter Kafka interviewed Sippey at our Dive into Mobile conference last spring.)

The other problem is perhaps the larger one: Twitter’s aversion to risk when it comes to its marquee product, the core Twitter timeline. According to sources, some of Twitter’s top people – including a few from the company’s executive ranks – fear any major changes will meddle with the company’s revenue products. These products, in just a handful of years, took Twitter’s revenue from zero to hundreds of millions of dollars.

As one insider put it: “Twitter hasn’t been playing to win. It’s playing not to lose.”

When asked, Twitter declined comment on any current or future product plans.

The Solution?

The situation isn’t hopeless.

Twitter has shown some willingness to change in just the past few months. A few weeks ago, IT pushed out in-stream photos and Vine videos in a major enhancement to the home stream – an area the company rarely touches.

It should be noted, however, that these changes had been ready to go for years, according to sources, born out of an idea called “Project Skyline” – the result of yet another Twitter Hack Week. Due to its existential product struggles, however, Twitter didn’t push the new design out the door until this October.

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The company also introduced a thin blue line to its app recently, an attempt to make it easier for infrequent users to get up to speed on conversations happening between people they follow.

But that, too, was controversial. According to one senior Twitter executive, the company considered killing off the blue line altogether just weeks after introducing it to widespread dissatisfaction. (Whether Twitter will actually go through with killing the conversations line isn’t clear. For now, Twitter swapped the blue for a gray line, one hopefully less obtrusive to users.)

Twitter is also working on its personnel problem. Sources tell AllThingsD that VP Michael Sippey now reports to COO Ali Rowghani on growth and product issues instead of directly to CEO Dick Costolo and the board – an apparent demotion. That may help with some of the complaints around process and expediency. Multiple insiders, however, said this move was a head-scratcher, seeing as Rowghani has little background in growth and product issues. Not to mention that it is atypical for a tech company’s VP of product to report to the COO.

The biggest indicator of a product division shift: Twitter’s upcoming redesign, a makeover which truly attempts to court the mainstream. We’ll hopefully see that, or steps toward it, before the end of the year.

Keep in mind, this “Twitter reinventing itself” story is nothing new. Twitter has already undergone multiple internal reorgs in the span of just two years, removing some product and engineering execs and replacing them with others – all to no avail.

Perhaps, if the product division can truly change its mentality, the company will actually start to live up to its somewhat ironic “#shipit” motto that some employees chant.

As always, though, there’s no guarantee it’ll actually work.

levie-d11

If you haven’t had enough of high profile tech IPOs, there’s word today that another is gaining steam for sometime in 2014, this one in the enterprise cloud computing space.

Box, the fast-growing enterprise cloud computing company that has raised a combined $312 million from venture capitalists and private equity investors, has completed its bake-off of bankers, according to Reuters, and is aiming to raise $500 million in an initial public offering in early 2014. Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and J.P. Morgan Chase will lead the offering.

Box has been hitting all the stations of the cross on its way to an IPO. Earlier this year, CEO Aaron Levie (pictured here from his appearance at D: All Things Digital in May) confirmed to AllThingsD that the company is on track to exceed $100 million in revenue this year. And while he also admitted that Box’s burn rate is typically in the “seven figure per month” range, Levie states that the company’s biggest expense is the sales and marketing people who can, as he put it, “get enterprise deals done.” In January, Levie predicted that Box would have 1,000 employees by the end of 2013, and I just heard from a source today who said that, as of October, it was already north of 900.

At the time, he said that “most” of the $150 million the company had raised in a huge Series E led by the private equity firm General Atlantic was still in the bank. Box first announced it had raised $125 million in the summer of 2012. That round was said to value the company at $1.2 billion. Investors seemed to really like Box, because by January that same round of funding had swelled to $150 million.

Before that it raised $81 million in a 2011 strategic round that included Salesforce.com and SAP Ventures.

Levie didn’t immediately answer an email, and other sources at the company were not commenting in the wake of the Reuters story.

Levie publicly said earlier this year that a Box IPO was likely for 2014, and would follow a series of moves to expand its sales footprint globally. Its first move was to add a sales office in London to go after European business.

moto_g_new

At first sight, Motorola’s new Moto G looks a lot like the Moto X. The biggest difference is one you can’t see: The price.

The Moto G is designed to sell for $179 or less without a contract, hundreds of dollars below the unsubsidized cost of the Moto X, not to mention the Galaxy S4 or Apple’s iPhone.

“The industry had really abandoned five billion people on the planet who were never going to pay $600 for a phone,” Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside said in an interview last week, showing off the device. “This is at literally a quarter the cost of the iPhone.”

Sure, there are Android phones that sell even cheaper, but they typically run older versions of Android, are incapable of running the latest apps, and often lack such things as a front-facing camera.

“There are products that are $70,” Woodside said. “They are just not very good. … We think there is an opportunity to show people there’s a better way.”

Obviously, Motorola had to cut a few things to hit even its price. The screen is smaller than the Moto X, and uses a less-expensive display technology. It also drops the always-on voice recognition, along with support for LTE networks and the active display that constantly pulses with the time and other notifications.

But the Moto G does pack a gigabyte of memory and 8GB of storage, and is running a quad-core Qualcomm chip. Even rarer among ultra-low-end phones, it packs a modern version of Android (4.3 for now, with a KitKat upgrade due soon).

Woodside suggested during his D11 appearance in June that the company saw an opportunity to offer a modern, powerful Android phone for much less than most rivals were doing.

While declining to forecast how many Moto G phones the company might sell, Woodside said that, this year, some 500 million people that will be in the market for a phone at that price point.

“It’s a big opportunity for us,” Woodside said. “We think we’ve come up with something that is going to appeal to lots of people.”

Most of those 500 million people live outside the U.S., largely in emerging markets. In Brazil, for example, where Motorola is debuting the phone, the average yearly income is $11,000. That means that the iPhone and other high-end phones are really out of reach.

“Outside the U.S., it’s a great aspirational device,” Woodside said.

However, Woodside also sees opportunities in the prepaid market; Motorola expects to start selling the Moto G in the U.S. starting in January.

Some European and Latin American countries will get the Moto G almost immediately, with the device launching in 30 countries.”Motorola hasn’t been in a lot of those markets for a long time.”

Woodside didn’t give much indication of where else the company is headed with future products, but suggested that there may be an opportunity to go even lower-end.

“There are a lot of letters that come before G in the alphabet,” he said.

CreativeLive, a site that produces and airs live continuing-education classes, has received a hefty Series B round of $21.5 million led by the Social+Capital Partnership and including previous investor Greylock Partners.

CreativeLive

Screenshot from a CreativeLive class on using photo-painting software

There’s no lack of money going into online education startups these days, but CreativeLive said it stands out from the pack.

“We’ve really taken our own path,” said CEO Mika Salmi in an interview on Wednesday. “Everything else is on-demand video, or in the MOOC (massive open online course) space.” Instead, CreativeLive tries to virtually recreate the notion of a long-form classroom session.

That long-form ratio is reflected in the company’s latest stats: Two million students have watched a billion minutes over the past three years.

Of course, CreativeLive doesn’t throw away the content after it airs; that’s actually where it makes its money. On-demand access to workshops can cost hundreds of dollars. Live videos and rebroadcasts are free.

Further justifying his pile of venture moolah, Salmi said, “The continuing education field is huge, and it’s as broken or more broken than traditional education, because it’s so fragmented.”

Salmi added that the appeal of the Social+Capital Partnership was in part the firm’s self-touted expertise in helping grow audiences for startups. “They are very hands-on,” he said, “and it could be really powerful.”

CreativeLive, which previously raised $8 million, reached profitability earlier this year, but now is spending more than it is making on revamping its platform and expanding the business, Salmi said.

This fall, the company added courses in music and audio, as well as crafting and making.

Several sources confirm that Apple is in talks to buy 3-D sensing company PrimeSense, following a report in the Israeli publication Calcalist. However, those sources stressed that the deal is not yet done, and that its reported valuation would not represent a huge win for investors.

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Calcalist put the value of the deal at $345 million. Sources said that talks are “close” to complete, but are hung up on end-game issues like liquidity preferences – in other words, who gets paid first. One also said the price could be slightly higher than reported, on the order of $20 million more.

Sources noted that the expected value of the deal would not be a big jump over where investors had recently valued the company, which was apparently at about $250 million.

One source with knowledge of the situation said it was “a bit of a letdown, but a decent outcome.” Another called it “the best that could happen, given the circumstances: A big strategic buyer at a decent price.”

But, again, while the deal is expected to close by the end of this week, it is not yet done.

PrimeSense was the original supplier for Microsoft’s breakthrough Kinect gaming device, which incorporated cameras and depth sensors so that players could control games with their gestures. But Microsoft used homegrown technology for the new Kinect that is part of Xbox One.

The original PrimeSense model was oriented around a large stationary sensor, but the company more recently released a smaller generation, dubbed Capri, better suited for mobile uses.

Motion sensing could be valuable for any number of actual and hypothetical Apple products, including wearable devices and televisions.

Apple declined comment, and PrimeSense offered a statement:

“PrimeSense is the leading 3D technology in the market. We are focused on building a prosperous company while bringing 3D sensing and Natural Interaction to the mass market in a variety of markets such as interactive living room and mobile devices. We do not comment on what any of our partners, customers or potential customers are doing and we do not relate to rumors or re-cycled rumors.”

Acording to published funding numbers, eight-year-old PrimeSense had raised relatively little money – but that’s not actually the case. Silver Lake had invested an undisclosed amount in PrimeSense in 2011. A source said the amount of the Silver Lake investment was $50 million, and that there had also been a large secondary sale of shares at the $250 million valuation.

Prior to that, the company had raised about $30 million from venture capitalists including Canaan Partners, Gemini Israel and Genesis Partners.

(Kara Swisher and John Paczkowski contributed to this report.)

ps4 feature

More than one million units of Sony’s latest gaming console, the PlayStation 4, were sold within 24 hours of its Friday debut in the U.S. and Canada.

The company had previously said that about a million of those units were preordered before launch day. The number makes it seem likely that Sony will meet its year-end goal of three million units sold worldwide – a marked contrast from 2006, when manufacturing problems kept a large number of PlayStation 3s out of consumers’ hands.

Some early adopters have reported problems with overheating and TV connectivity, with both problems already receiving derisive nicknames online: The “Red Line of Death” and the “Blue Light of Death,” so-called after the “Red Ring of Death” that plagued early owners of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console.

We’re awaiting comment from a Sony representative reached via email about the hardware glitches. No clear answers to these problems and no estimate of just how many people are affected have yet emerged.

Since Friday, the company line has been that 0.4 percent of the consoles (or 4,000 out of a million) are potentially defective, “which is within our expectations for a new product introduction.”

E-Reader vs. iPad

Q:

My wife started reading e-books downloaded from the library on her iPad 2. Indoors the print is very readable, but it loses some of the sharpness in bright light. Some of her friends suggested the Kindle Paperwhite as a better reader in all types of light. What is your opinion?

A:

All current color tablets use a screen technology that washes out in sunlight and can become almost unreadable in direct, bright sunlight. The Kindle monochrome e-readers, including the Paperwhite, use a different technology that does well in all kinds of light. However, I have never noticed any degradation of screen readability on iPads or other quality color tablets in bright indoor light.

Q:

Is it fair to say that the iPad Air, like its predecessors, is designed more for content consumption than content creation, and that someone who really needs a computer but also wants a tablet (and can’t afford both) would do better with something like the new Surface?

A:

The iPad can be a fine productivity and creativity tool, with or without an accessory keyboard, depending on the app you are using. Business email and calendars, or the editing of office documents, work fine on the iPad, as do many drawing applications. You can even sign legal documents on it electronically. However, if you are looking for all the functions of a PC, a full Windows 8 tablet like the Surface 2 Pro would be a better choice, because it runs all the programs a Windows computer does.

Q:

In the new Mac OS X operating system, Mavericks, it appears it is not possible to sync Notes, Contacts and other data using iTunes via a cable connection. Is this true?

A:

Yes. Apple says: “In Mavericks, OS X syncs Contacts, Calendars and Notes using iCloud.” (That’s Apple’s Internet cloud service.) The company adds that, if you make changes to your data and don’t have access to the Internet, OS X will sync the data the next time an Internet connection is available.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.

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With just over a month left until the Xbox One launch, the rumors about as-yet-unannounced details continue to fly.

Two weeks ago, the word was that the Xbox One’s bundled Kinect camera could be used to harvest lucrative data about console owners and their homes – a claim that Microsoft vehemently denied – while leaving the door ever so slightly ajar in case its policies change.

There appears to be a larger morsel of truth to the latest rumor, sparked by the Dell website and noticed by Engadget yesterday. “With all your favorite Windows 8 apps able to be run on and synced to your Xbox One, now your phone, desktop, tablet and TV can all give you a unified web and entertainment experience,” the page still reads.

A Microsoft spokesperson said that’s not quite true: “The suggestion that all Windows 8 apps run on Xbox One is not accurate,” they wrote in an email.

That’s not a confirmation that any specific apps will work across both devices without additional fiddling on the developer’s part, of course. And the company has said in the past that the similarity between the Windows and Xbox operating systems should make it possible to write Xbox apps that strongly resemble their Windows counterparts. But it leaves open the possibility of universal apps that could help prop up the Windows 8 ecosystem with Redmond’s robust gaming brand.

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