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Sparkcentral Picks Up $4.5 Million To Build Its Vision Of Social Customer Service

TwitSpark announced today that it has raised a $4.5 million Series A round of funding, and changed its name to Sparkcentral. The company’s vision is the integration of social customer service into the mass-scale call centers that large corporations staff with phones, people who answer phones, and angry calls.

Sparkcentral’s focus on enterprise-level clients sets it slightly apart from companies, such as Sprout Social, which cater to outfits that want to publish material, and handle complaints. Sparkcentral wants to focus more narrowly on the customer service needs of large firms.

The company is originally from Belgium, but is now ensconced in the Bay Area. Its new $4.5 million round was led by Sigma West’s Bob Spinner, who put in around $3.5 million. The rest was fill-in from prior angels and other investors. Including its seed round, Sparkcentral has now raised $5.625 million.

Sparkcentral — then TwitSpark — launched its product in September of 2012. In its first year, the company signed up 35 customers, who pay a minimum of around $10,000 per year. Selling to large companies involves long sales cycles, Sparkcentral CEO and founder Davy Kestens tells TechCrunch, noting that they have closed a deal in as little as six weeks, but that the average contract takes longer to settle.

The company has rapidly ramped up its team size since closing its Series A lead investor roughly six weeks ago, growing from six to 16 people in the time period. With its fresh money, Sparkcentral does intend to expand its sales staff slightly (past its recent hiring, of course), but has more of the funds earmarked for marketing efforts and feature expansion.

Sparkcentral wants more customers like Delta, who have large staffs monitoring social channels. Any brand of sufficient size has to play both offense and defense online, monitoring and managing complaints, as well as reaching out to current and potential customers. Sparkcentral wants to answer the first part.

The question the company must answer is simple: Can it grow its customer base quickly enough, and protect its margins while doing so, by providing a social customer service option to large companies. Or, put another way, is there enough market demand for its tailored solution; do companies that have large call centers – the larger the company, the more conservative it is, usually, and always technologically – have the appetite to bake social into their normal customer service operations at scale.

If not, Sparkcentral’s core premise is off, and its cost structure won’t work. That it is has accrued 35 customers in a year can be viewed as initial market validation, but it will be the acceleration of that number that is far more interesting over the next 24 months, after which the company will presumably be hunting for new capital.

Regarding its product, the company expects to have its API completed by the end of the year.

The ROI of social media has always been somewhat dicey to calculate. In the case of Sparkcentral, either it lowers the call volume that companies deal with, or it doesn’t.

Top Image Credit: Geoff Stearns

Wisconsin Gov. Promises To Use Internet Sales Tax To Lower Income Tax

oprah you get a car - you get a tax break everyone gets a tax break and you get

It sounds like a nice idea, if you don’t own a calculator. The governor of Wisconsin wants to give his residents a tax break, using the revenue from a proposed Internet Sales tax to lower the state’s income tax. “I want to make clear, should federal Marketplace legislation become law, my intention would be for any resulting additional revenue be used to provide individual income tax relief for Wisconsin’s taxpayers,” Wrote Governor Scott Walker to members of Congress.

The Marketplace Fairness Act will permit state governments to collect sales taxes from any business that both grosses more than $1M in revenue and has a substantial operating base in their region. Earlier this month, a draft of the bill passed the U.S. Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, but faces tougher opposition in the House, where Republican leadership is concerned that the law will be a logistical nightmare for small businesses.

Although, I wouldn’t get too excited. With 5 million residents in Wisconsin and an estimated $95M in savings, that’s about $16/per person, assuming it would be distributed evenly. If Forrester’s research is any indication, the sales tax would cost the average American roughly $167 per year, so it’s a net loss. If it’s unevenly distributed, a few already wealthy people will be slightly wealthier.

Still, it’s a nice gesture.

Groupon Reports Mixed Q1 Earnings: $601.4 Million In Revenue, $0.01 GAAP Loss Per Share, $4M Net Loss

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Groupon just reported its earnings for its first financial quarter of 2013. The company, which is still looking for a new CEO after the ouster of Andrew Mason in February, posted a $0.01 loss per share but says its non-GAAP EPS excluding stock compensations was $0.03. Its revenue was higher than expected with $601.4 million in sales, compared to $0.02 earnings per share (EPS) on $559.3 million of revenue in the year-ago quarter.

The expectation among financial analysts was that the company would report an year-over-year sales growth of 5.3% and an EPS of $0.03 on revenue of $588.92 million for this quarter (with a high very optimistic high estimate of $618.5).

Last quarter, Groupon reported $638.8 million revenue, buoyed by a strong holiday season, but the company still posted an operating loss of $19.9 million and a loss per share of $0.12.

“We are encouraged by our results, as our local revenues accelerated and our margins improved over the prior quarter,” said Eric Lefkofsky, Chairman and co-CEO of Groupon. “We had record mobile performance as 45% of our North American transactions came from mobile in March, and more than 7 million people downloaded our apps in the quarter.”

One of the main indicators for Groupon’s health has long been gross billings – a reflections of how much money the company has collected from its customers for Groupons it has sold. Last quarter, gross billings increased 24% to $1.52 billion. Gross billing for this quarter was $1.41 billion.

In the last quarter, Groupon also reported that it had 41 million active customers, up 22% quarter-over-quarter and that it was handling about 37,000 active deals at any given time.

Groupon has obviously been through a somewhat tumultuous time recently. The company’s ouster of CEO Andrew Mason after a number of disappointing quarters, however, seems to have brought some stability back to the company. Its share price remains low, though it’s up from its all-time low of $2.60. Currently, the stock is trading at around $5.60.

After Mason’s exit, executive chairman Eric Lefkofsky and vice chairman Ted Loensis were appointed to the company’s newly created Office of the Chief Executive as interim CEOs. The company has yet to announce a permanent replacement for Mason.

Reliance Communications Partners With Twitter In India To Offer Free, Unlimited Access To The Service

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For those in the United States and other locations that are lucky enough to be able to purchase huge data packages for their smartphone, thinking about deciding to “tweet or not to tweet” based on the cost that it could incur is a foreign concept, pun intended. For cell customers in India, it’s a very real situation, and Reliance Communications has partnered with Twitter to bring free, unlimited access to the social network to its prepaid GSM subscribers.

This is yet another example of how important Twitter has become in our daily lives and how integral the communication platform is to locations all over the world. The service be be bundled with live cricket match updates, the most popular sport in the country.

A customized version of the Twitter app has been created, reminding customers that they’re getting free access thanks to Reliance Mobile. If someone taps a link to an outside site, they will be reminded that doing so might incur extra charges.

Reliance is the first operator to partner with Twitter in India, and its Chief Revenue Officer of Wireless, Nilanjan Mukherjee had this to share:

We are delighted to be the first operator to partner with Twitter in India on Twitter Access and offer the first of its kind unlimited Twitter access on our superior network. Our partnership with Twitter in India further strengthens our offering on the social media platform and is in line with our continuous efforts to offer innovative products with incredible affordability for our customers.

Since prepaid cell phones are prominent in countries like India, signing deals like this make the services more attractive. Back to how important cricket is to India’s culture, though. Mukherjee feels like this announcement could cause a “significant shift” of cricket fans to move over to Reliance.

That’s knowing your customers.

[Photo credit: Flickr]

Electronic Arts Cuts Jobs At Montreal Studio Less Than Two Weeks After CEO's Resignation

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Electronic Arts is laying off staffers at its Montreal office in another round of job cuts. The news comes less than two weeks after CEO John Riccitiello resigned, citing the company’s financial underperformance.

EA declined to tell Reuters how many jobs are being affected, but Joystiq reports that the layoffs will affect about 170 employees, out of a total of 300 employed at the studio. The Redwood City, California-based company said in a statement that the Montreal game studio is not closing and that”EA is sharpening its focus to provide games for new platforms and mobile. In some cases, this involves reducing team sizes as we evolve into a more efficient organization.”

EA has been restructuring its business to take advantage of new gaming platforms. Last year its PopCap unit laid off about 50 people in its North American office, after a year of hiring aggressively. At the time, PopCap cofounder John Vechey said the job cuts were part of a plan to focus more on free-to-play and mobile games, and denied speculation that EA was beyond the layoffs. (PopCap was acquired by EA for about $1.3 billion in 2011).

Despite those moves, EA, along with other game makers, has continued to struggle in the face of competition from free games offered on social networking or mobile platforms. When Riccitiello left the company last month, he cited its struggling financial performance: “My decision to leave EA is really all about my accountability for the shortcomings in our financial results this year. It currently looks like we will come in at the low end of, or slightly below, the financial guidance we issued to the Street, and we have fallen short of the internal operating plan we set one year ago. And for that, I am 100 percent accountable.” The company also recently earned the dubious distinction of a “Golden Poo,” awarded by Consumerist readers to the “Worst Company in America,” thanks to its botched SimCity release.

Through The Looking Glass: Hiring Sales People

Editor’s note: Ben Horowitz is co-founder and partner of Andreessen Horowitz. He was co-founder and CEO of Opsware (formerly Loudcloud), which was acquired by HP, and ran several product divisions at Netscape. He serves on the board of companies such as Capriza, Foursquare, Jawbone, Lytro, Magnet, NationBuilder, Okta, Rap Genius, SnapLogic and Tidemark. Follow him on his blog and on Twitter @bhorowitz.

He’s a big bad wolf in your neighborhood
Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good
—Run DMC, Peter Piper

Perhaps the most common mistake that I see a technical founder make when building her sales organization is she applies strategies that worked in building the engineering team to the sales hiring process. This may sound shocking, but sales people are different than engineers and treating them like engineers does not work well at all.

It starts with the hiring process. If you attempt to hire sales people using the same assumptions that worked with engineering, then here are some of the things that will go wrong:

The Interview

A good engineering interview will include some set of difficult problems to solve. It might even require that the candidate write a short program. In addition, it will test the candidate’s knowledge of the tools she uses in great depth. A small portion of the interview may address personality traits, but smart managers will tolerate a very wide variety of personalities to find the best engineers.

A good sales interview is the opposite. You can quiz them on hard sales problems all day long, but only a horrible sales rep won’t be able to bluff her way through the most intricate quiz on how to sell a complex account. On the other hand, great sales people tend to have very specific personality traits. Specifically, great sales people must be courageous, competitive and hungry. They also need enough intelligence to get the job done. That’s the magic formula. Hire engineers with that profile and you’ll fail. Hire sales people who are really smart problem solvers, but lack courage, hunger and competitiveness, and your company will go out of business.

Dick Harrison, CEO of Parametric Technologies, home of perhaps the greatest enterprise sales force ever built, interviewed Mark Cranney, the greatest sales manager I have ever met, as follows:

Dick: “I’ll bet you got into a lot of fights when you were a youth didn’t you?”

Mark: “Well yes, Dick, I did get into a few.”

Dick: “Well, how’d you do?”

Mark: “Well, I was about 35-1.”

Dick: “Tell me about the 1.”

Mark tells him the story, which Dick enjoys immensely.

Dick: “Do you think you could kick my ass?”

Mark pauses and asks himself: “Is Dick questioning my courage or my intelligence?” Then replies: “Could or would?”

Dick hires Mark on the spot.

Ask an engineer that same set of questions and at best she’d be confused and at worst she’d be horrified. By asking Mark those questions, Dick quickly found out:

  • If Mark had the courage to stay in the box and not get flustered
  • That Mark came from a rough environment and was plenty hungry
  • That Mark was super competitive, but smart enough to calculate his answer

Hiring sales people is different.

The Background

When screening engineers from other companies, its smart to value engineers from great companies more than those from mediocre companies. All things being equal, always interview the Google engineer over the Quest Software engineer. Why? Because, as an engineer, you have to be way better to get a job at Google than at Quest. In addition, Google’s engineering environment and techniques are state-of-the-art, so engineers who come from there will be well trained in an environment with high standards.

In contrast, anybody with a pulse can sell a massively winning product like Google Ads or VMware hypervisors, but people who consistently sold Lanier copiers against Xerox were elite. In fact, it might be a good sign that a sales rep was successful at a bad company. To succeed at selling a losing product, you must develop seriously superior sales techniques. In addition, you have to be massively competitive and incredibly hungry to survive in that environment.

The Cost of Making a Mistake

Great engineering organizations strive never to make hiring mistakes as hiring mistakes can be very costly. Not only do you lose the productivity that you might have gained from the hire, but you might well incur severe technical debt. To make matters worse, even when an engineering manager recognizes she’s made a mistake, she’s often slow to correct it, leading to more debt and delay. In addition, building an engineering organization too quickly will cause all kinds of communication issues, which makes slow hiring in engineering a really smart thing to do.

On the other hand, you often can’t afford to build out your sales force too slowly, especially if you have significant competition. Sales people, when compared to engineers, work in relative isolation, so there’s productivity loss, but relatively little long-term debt or fast growth issues. Sales managers generally don’t have issues with firing poor performers, so sales people go fast. I have a friend who was fond of saying, “We have two kinds of sales people: rich and new.”

The Conclusion

Applying engineering hiring techniques to a sales organization is like eating poison ivy to get more green vegetables. You will get the opposite of what you want.

How To Mine Bitcoins

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Mining bitcoins – a process that helps manage bitcoin transactions as well as create new “wealth” – are the new Beanie Babies. Luckily for us, however, bitcoins seem to be going up in value and should maintain their value over time, unlike your mint condition Tiny the stuffed Chihuahua.

But how do you get bitcoins? You can begin by buying them outright, but the market is currently wild. At $188 per coin, the direction of the bitcoin is anyone’s guess right now and, unlike equities, these things don’t split. In short, you should probably mine. But what is bitcoin mining?

Think of it as work done by groups of people to find large prime numbers or trying keys to decrypt a file. You can read a lot more about it here but just understand that for every block mined you get 25 coins or, at current rates, $4,722.25. Currently a single bitcoin is valued at $188, an alarming result that is probably caused by money movements related to Cyprus and a general bubble-like excitement over the platform in general. In fact, many wager that the DDOS attacks on many bitcoin-related services are direct action by hackers to inject instability in order to reduce the price.

As it stands, mining solo is very nearly deprecated. The process of finding blocks is now so popular and the difficulty of finding a block so high that it could take over three years to generate any coins. While you could simply set a machine aside and have it run the algorithms endlessly, the energy cost and equipment deprecation will eventually cost more than the actual bitcoins are worth.

Pooled mining, however, is far more lucrative. Using a service like “Slush’s pool” (more on that later) you can split the work among a ground of people. Using this equation:

(25 BTC + block fees – 2% fee) * (shares found by user’s workers) / (total shares in current round)

While this is simplified, it is basically how the system works. You work for shares in a block and when complete you get a percentage of the block based on the number of workers alongside you, less fees. Using this method, I have been able to raise about $1.50 over the weekend by running a dormant PC. The astute among you will note that I probably used twice that amount of electricity.

Being a neophile, I’m surprised it took me so long to start mining. My buddy Tom explained how to set up a pooled mining account so I thought it would be interesting to share the instructions.

1. Get a wallet. You can either store your wallet locally or store it online. Coinbase.com is an online wallet that is surprisingly simple to set up. Wallets require you to use or download a fairly large blockchain file – about 6GB – so downloading and updating a local wallet may be a non-starter. Like all wealth storage mediums, keeping your bitcoins “local” is probably a better idea than trusting a web service, but that’s a matter of private preference. There is no preferred wallet type and there are obvious trade-offs to both. Privacy advocates would probably say a local wallet is best.

You can download a local wallet here but make sure you keep a copy of your data backed up.

Once you’ve created a wallet, you get an address like this: 1BEkUGADFbrEShQb9Xr4pKPtM8jAyiNQsJ. This, without the period, is a direct way to send bitcoins to your wallet. Make a note of your address. In Coinbase, the wallet address found under linked accounts.

2. Join a pool. To mine in a pool you have to work with a group of other miners on available blocks. The most popular is Slush’s Pool found here. You can also try guilds like BTC Guild as well as a number of other options. Each of the pools is characterized mostly by the fees they charge per block – 2% for Slush’s pool, for example – and the number of users. Pools with fewer users could also have a slower discovery time but pools with many users usually result in smaller payments.

How can you be sure the pool owner doesn’t steal all your bitcoins? You can’t. However, as one pool owner, Slush, notes:

In theory, as the Bitcoin pool operator, I could keep the 25 BTC from a block found by the pool for myself. I’m not going to do this, but I completely accept that people do not trust the pool operator. It is their freedom of choice, and Bitcoin is about freedom.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m using Slush’s Pool and have created three workers. First, create a pool login. Then add workers. The workers are sub-accounts with their own passwords and are usually identified by [yourlogin].[workername]. I have three workers running, currently – one on my iMac and two on my old PC.

You must create workers to mine. The instructions are very straightforward for most services so don’t become overwhelmed. Like any online club, you can dig deeply into the subculture surround bitcoin as you gain experience. I like to think of it as a financial MMORPG.

Also be sure to enter your wallet address into the pool information. This will ensure you get your bitcoins.

3. Get a miner. There are a number of mining options for multiple platforms although OSX users may find themselves in a bit of a pickle. Miners use spare GPU cycles to power the mining operation, much like services like [email protected] uses spare cycles for finding intelligent life. Miners, on the other hand, use these cycles to help handle peer-to-peer processes associated with bitcoins. Thus by doing “work” you are maintaining the network as well.

GUIMiner is the simplest solution for Windows users as it allows you to create miners using almost all standard graphics cards. You can download it here. 50Miner is also a popular solution. Both require you to enter your worker info and pool and they’ll start mining.

Linux users can run miners like CGMiner. An excellent guide to installing a miner on Ubuntu is available here.

OS X users can use DiabloMiner, a two-year old command-line program that will mine using OpenCL. Sadly, it uses deprecated calls to Bitcoin and is quite a bit slower. As a result, you need to run your own proxy, Stratum, that allows Diablo to connect with services like Slush’s pool. Both of these programs usually run without issue on OS X although you may need to install OpenCL for OSX.

To mine I’ve created a script that I run in Terminal that simply runs the proxy in the background and then connects Diablo. Note the last two arguments are necessary for Mountain Lion.

./stratum-mining-proxy-master/mining_proxy.py &
./DiabloMiner-OSX.sh -u WORKERNAME -p WORKERPASSWORD -o localhost -r 8332 -w 64 -na

RPCMiner is far easier to run – you simply click an icon and enter some data – and both have very rudimentary, text-based interfaces. Running Diablo on my iMac has not had much effect on application performance under OS X although it does slow down my Windows 8 machine considerably.

4. Keep your mind on your money. Bitcoins are baffling in that they are wildly simple to use and mine. Speculators, then, would probably be able to throw hundreds of machines at the problem and gather bitcoins like raindrops, right? Wrong. As more bitcoins are found, they become more difficult to find. This profitability calculator will help you understand what you’re up against but understand that this isn’t a sure thing. I’ve run my systems for a weekend and seen a mere $1.50 – enough for a coke – but other users may have improved hardware and methods to succeed. In short, if it costs more to run your hardware than you gain in bitcoins, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Good luck in your journey and enjoy your first foray into this wild and wooly world.

AWS Drops Prices For Windows On-Demand EC2 Instances Up To 26% As Competition Intensifies

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Amazon Web Services (AWS) is dropping the price  of a Windows On-Demand EC2 instances up to 26%, another clear sign of the price wars in the cloud computing market. The news follows Google’s announcement earlier today that it is dropping instance prices by 4%.

AWS says the drop in price continues its tradition of  exploring ways to reduce its costs and drop its prices:

This reduction applies to the Standard (m1), Second-Generation Standard (m3), High-Memory (m2), and High-CPU (c1) instance families. All prices are effective from April 1, 2013. The size of the reduction varies by instance family and region. You can visit the AWS Windows page for more information about Windows pricing on AWS.

AWS has extended its support for AWS in the last month with support for SQL Server AlwaysOn Availability Groups, a beta of the AWS Diagnostics for Microsoft Windows Server, and new drivers for our virtual instances that improve performance and increase the supported number of volumes.

Earlier today, Google opened Compute Engine to developers who subscribe to Google’s $400 per month Gold Support package. The package includes 24/7 phone support. Users can access Compute Engine without the need to talk to sales or an invitation.

Google and Microsoft have consistently been dropping prices over the past several months. In November, Google dropped storage prices by 20%.

For AWS, the price drops are consistent with its strategy. AWS believes it can use its scale, purchasing power and deeper efficiencies in the management of its infrastructure to continue dropping prices.

The market is diversifying and AWS sees a need to extend its dominance in the market. But with Google and new playeers in the mix, it’s unclear  how the strategy will pan out as competitors offer a more high-touch type of service.

SimpleHoney Acquired By Payment Startup OpenCoin

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SimpleHoney, a startup co-founded by Joyce Kim (who was previously CEO of Soompi.com and co-host of the GigaOm show) and Eric Nakagawa (creator of the I Can Has Cheezburger blog), just announced that it’s being acquired by payment company OpenCoin.

That’s the company developing Ripple, an open source payment protocol. In her blog post announcing the news, Kim describes the excitement around new payment options, especially the virtual currency Bitcoin, as “one of the fastest growing movements in tech,” and when SimpleHoney had a chance to join that movement, it couldn’t refuse. She continues:

During our initial conversations with the creators of Ripple, we were impressed by their vision for creating a new payment system that gives consumers freedom and independence. As longtime fans of Bitcoin, my co-founder (a casual miner) and I had ideas of how Bitcoin and other virtual currencies could be easier for normal folks to use. Soon, Chris [Larsen] and Jed [McCaleb], who were looking for a strong consumer-focused team, proposed we join them and roll up our sleeves to start working on the root problem facing consumers in every vertical, from travel to ecommerce.

When Kim emailed me to tell me about the deal, she also said that Ripple isn’t a Bitcoin competitor, but rather “a complementary service that allows for easier conversion and spending of Bitcoin into any other currency.”

SimpleHoney launched in May of last year as a website that recommended hotels based on the user’s personality, then it shifted focus to an easy-to-use wish list app called I Want Wish List. The app, Kim said, “is separate from the deal but we will continue to operate it since it is self-sufficient.”

The four-person SimpleHoney team will be joining the 12-person Ripple team, Kim said. The financial terms of the deal aren’t being disclosed.

SimpleHoney had raised a a seed round from Socialcast and About.me co-founder Tim Young, Mochi Media co-founders Jameson Hsu and Bob Ippolito, former Middleware Company CEO Ed Roman, Causecast founder Ryan Scott, and 500 Startups’ Dave McClure, Nakagawa, and Kim.

ExtremeFliers Releases A Teeny-Tiny Quadcopter That Can Flip In Mid-Air

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We were lucky enough to meet with vernon kerswell at ExtremeFliers, a 20-something inventor with a passion for little flying things. His latest creation, the Microdrone 2.0, puts a surprisingly powerful brain inside a drone that is about as big as a baseball.

The Microdrone has built-in IR sensors as well as a

Google's Unified Privacy Policy Triggers Co-ordinated Enforcement Action - And Threat Of Fines - In Six European Countries

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Google is facing enforcement action — and possibly fines — in six European Union member states after it failed to make changes to its privacy policy following requests by European data protection regulators. The six countries that have today launched data protection investigations into Google’s unified privacy policy are France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the U.K.

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office gave the Verge the following statement confirming it has launched an investigation into whether the policy infringes national law:

The ICO has launched an investigation into whether Google’s revised March 2012 privacy policy is compliant with the Data Protection Act. The action follows an initial investigation by the French data protection authority CNIL, on behalf of the Article 29 group of which the ICO is a member. Several data protection authorities across Europe are now considering whether the policy is compliant with their own national legislation. As this is an ongoing investigation it would not be appropriate to comment further.

Back in February, the French data protection regulator, CNIL, called out Google for failing “to come into compliance” within the four month period set out by the original October report into the policy, conducted by the Article 29 Working Party – and said Mountain View would therefore face additional action. Representatives of Google met with the CNIL-led taskforce last month but, according to CNIL, “following this meeting, no change has been seen” — thereby triggering today’s national actions.

The CNIL’s release states:

It is now up to each national data protection authority to carry out further investigations according to the provisions of its national law transposing European legislation. Consequently, all the authorities composing the taskforce have launched actions on 2 April 2013 on the basis of the provisions laid down in their respective national legislation (investigations, inspections, etc.)

In particular, the CNIL notified Google of the initiation of an inspection procedure and that it had set up an international administrative cooperation procedure with its counterparts in the taskforce.

This latest brush with Europe’s data protection watchdogs was triggered by Google’s action last year to consolidate more than 60 separate product privacy notices into one unified policy. After an investigation, European privacy regulators published a list of privacy recommendations for Google, including suggesting the company should make it clearer to users how their personal information may be used, and how it is collected and collated from different services. They also wanted Google to offer users an opt-out. It is these recommendations that Google has apparently failed to comply with, resulting in today’s actions.

Google provided TechCrunch with the following statement regarding the latest stage of the CNIL-led action: “Our privacy policy respects European law and allows us to create simpler, more effective services. We have engaged fully with the DPAs involved throughout this process, and we’ll continue to do so going forward.”

It’s unclear whether the European action contributed to the departure of Google’s director of privacy Alma Whitten, announced yesterday.

Funny Or Die's Steve Jobs Movie Trailer Looks To Strike A Perfect Balance Of All Hype, No Substance

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iSteve Exclusive Teaser Trailer from iSteve

Steve Jobs was a rare CEO in that he inspired myths and legends not just among employees, but also among the general public. An executive whose name is recognizable to people not involved in his industry is a rarity, and believe it or not, Funny or Die’s upcoming iSteve biopic may be the movie that best captures his exaggerated, cartoonish public reputation.

Funny or Die has released a first teaser trailer for the film, which spans between 60 and 75 minutes and yet was shot in just five days, and the first look is basically a montage of every cliché, buzzword and melodramatic (and possibly fictional) turning point in the life of Steve Jobs and the history of Apple. It almost looks like the famous Reality Distortion Field made into a movie, which in many ways might be more appropriate than a belabored, intense, wordy drama like the one we’ll get from Sorkin, or the equally mythical by less fun take from the team behind the Kutcher iJobs flick.

The iSteve movie debuts April 15, and already enters the record books as the longest film project ever produced by Funny or Die. Based on this trailer, it looks like the script, which took three days to write, has a lot going for it, but it’s hard to lampoon something consistently for over an hour, so I’ll reserve judgement until I can finally see how well they’ve actually pulled it off.

Circuit Playground Is Adafruit's Educational Series For Helping Kids Learn About Electronics

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Adafruit, the DIY electronics website and marketplace, is espousing the popular strategy of “get em’ young” with a new live action short video series broadcast on YouTube. The series, called Circuit Playground, takes an alphabetical approach to teaching kids about the basics of circuits, components and concepts that will come in handy if the tots watching have aspirations of becoming electrical engineers, or just of building their own hobby projects at home.

The inaugural episode covers amperes, the unit of measurement for electric current flowing through a circuit. The co-hosts are Adabot, an adorable robot puppet helping keep the kids entertained, and Adafruit founder Limor Fried, providing easy-to-follow, but not patronizing explanations of the concepts involved. The intro features a number of animated characters representing circuit components, and there’s even a special guest appearance from André-Marie Ampère, after whom the ampere is named, so there’s an element of science history in the mix, too.

At less than 5 minutes, you also won’t have to keep your kids focused too long to take in the message. And if you’re a big kid who might not be all that well versed in the basics of circuits and electronics, you’ll probably learn something, too.

Famo.us, The Framework For Fast And Beautiful HTML5 Apps, Will Be Free Thanks To “Huge Hardware Vendor Interest”

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Famo.us, the Javascript framework designed for building crazy rich (yet super fast) interfaces in pure HTML5, is making two announcements out of the HTML5 Developer Conference in San Francisco this morning: the framework will be free to developers thanks to a few “huge hardware vendors” taking interest, and it’s getting a physics engine.

We’ve written about Famo.us a time or two before, but for those who missed it: Famo.us was started in 2011 by Steve Newcomb, just 3 years after his language processing company Powerset was snapped up by Microsoft for $100M and rolled into Bing. While it confused a few of the judges when it debuted at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012, Famo.us went on to raise a four million dollar Series A just six months later.

In a way over-simplified nutshell: Famo.us pulls off a whole lot of clever trickery to allow web developers to tap the GPU of a device (be it that of a computer, smart TV, tablet, or a phone) for calculations, no plug-in required. To the developer, that means being able to build interfaces that are simultaneously richer and faster. To the end user, that means super snazzy user interfaces without having to install any plug-ins.

Though it’s still in Beta sign-up mode, Steve says they have around 27,000 developers waiting to start building.

Check out a demo of a Famo.us-powered UI below (or check out http://www.famo.us yourself.):

So with a few million dollars raised, how will Famo.us start bringin’ the money in?

They could charge developers. For-pay frameworks aren’t unheard of, though they tend to be the exception. That’s not Famo.us’ plan, though. As of this morning, Famo.us has confirmed that their framework will be free to developers for “as many … apps as you’d like, for as many users as you’d like”.

Instead, Famo.us is relying on the interest of a few huge hardware vendors who are looking to Famo.us to power their UI on future devices. They’ll build (or help build) the UIs, then charge the vendors for licensing. Additionally, Famo.us will offer optional enterprise add-ons (think analytics, or the ability to record/replay user sessions to see how they navigate your design).

Exactly which hardware vendors have taken an interest here is currently under strict lock-and-key — but we can certainly narrow it down a bit. There are only so many “huge” hardware companies with the financial swagger to make something like this worthwhile. Apple is out (they’re all about native code, and that’s probably not changing anytime soon), so it’s likely one of the other giants.

Finally, Famo.us is also announcing that their framework, which has thus far been focused solely on rendering, has picked up a physics engine along the way. Steve says they set out to find a physics engine that fit three criteria: it had to be fast, it had to work on mobile, and all of the data had to render to the Document Object Model in a way that left it Google-friendly. When they couldn’t find one that matched all of the above, they decided to build their own.

It may seem strange for a framework that’s meant primarily to be used with interfaces to offer up physics functionality — it’s not a game engine, after all — but it makes sense: when you’re working with objects being thrown around in space (be it 2D or 3D space) it’s hugely advantageous to be able to work with forces that parallel the real world, like mass, gravity, and drag.

Plus, it fits hand-in-hand with the way Steve explained Famo.us to Anthony just last month:

“We built a shitty game engine which is basically the best app engine ever built”

Treasure Data Projects 500 Percent Growth This Year, Launches New “Plazma” Distributed Database

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It’s only been six months since cloud data warehousing company Treasure Data launched its services, but they’re already reporting some impressive growth figures.

Treasure Data achieved month-to-month profitability last year, and they’re well on track to achieve a 500 percent increase in revenue this year. They’ve also amassed 50 high-profile clients, which include a leading social gaming company, a mobile advertising platform based in France, and some other Fortune 500 companies – unsurprisingly, Treasure declined to name names.

Treasure Data is basically a massive warehouse in the cloud for companies to store their data. Big companies like IBM, Oracle, and Teradata offer data services as well, but with their rates going as high as $5 million, that’s not something every business can afford.

Treasure Data, on the other hand, costs $1,500 to $2,500 a month with a year-long commitment. That’s a low enough price point for companies that can’t afford or do not have the resources to roll out services of their own.

They’re also launching a new distributed database called Plazma, which offers significant improvements over HDFS (Hadoop Distributed Files System). Plazma is significantly better than HDFS precisely because it’s more efficient and is able to compile and parse data at a much faster rate.

“The reason we did this was for robustness, reliability, and performance,” says Kiyoto Tamura, VP of Product at Treasure Data. “Hadoop distributed several problems around reliability, and we knew we could do better.”

With Plazma, Treasure Data boasts that their systems are processing more than 300 billion data points every day.

Compelled To Forever Wander, The Nomad Is An Espresso Machine That Gathers No Moss

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It’s not as compact as an Aeropress, but the Nomad looks like a solid way to get an espresso shot from a small device. The tiny machine, which is currently on Kickstarter, boasts the same principles used in full-sized espresso machines. The Nomad is just a lot smaller, more efficient, and doesn’t require any power making it rather portable — hence the name.

The company is looking for $100,000 on Kickstarter. Pledge $165 to pre-order a Nomad. It’s available in black and green. I’m in for one.

As the videos show here, the shots seem smooth and proper. By using pressure from dual micro chambers, the Nomad can apparently achieve the same results as a full-size lever espresso machine.

To me the Nomad doesn’t seem all the portable but rather movable. I doubt I would throw this in a backpack like I do with my Aeropress, but it seems perfect for a roadtrip. If the small Nomad can make a fine shot of espresso, which it seemingly can, it could quickly become a must-have for small kitchens and the like.

[Darrell "Wordslinger" Etherington contributed to this post]

Adults Text While Driving More Than Teens, Says Survey

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It’s often been assumed that teens are one of the main culprits in the texting-while-driving epidemic in the U.S. It makes sense — teens are new drivers, and thus more reckless, and they also happen to be expert texters.

However, a new study funded by AT&T finds that adults actually text while driving more than kids. The study was taken from a pool of 1,011 consumers.

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According to the survey, nearly half of all adults text while driving, whereas slightly fewer (43 percent) of teens admit to texting while driving. Perhaps worse, 98 percent adults who text while driving admit that they know it’s wrong but they do it anyways.

The survey was put together as part of AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign. If you’ve bought a phone from AT&T in the last year or watched any television, you know what I’m talking about. The It Can Wait campaign shows heartbreaking stories of young adults and teens who’ve become disabled or lost a loved one due to texting while driving.

According to the National Safety Council, the number of adult drivers (180 million far outweighs the number of teen drivers (around 10 million). And the Center for Disease Control says that there are an average of nine people killed in texting-related accidents each day, with 1,060 injured in texting-related crashes.

Since texting occupies your eyes, hands, and mind, it’s considered one of the most dangerous distractions on the road, and elevates the risk of a crash to 23 times worse than driving while not distracted.

Texting is the issue at hand now, but as technology continues to evolve there will be even greater distractions at the wheel. Google Glass comes to mind, though we’ve already seen action taken in some states to prevent Glass-related accidents.

Alchemist Accelerator's Second Class Highlights 9 Enterprise Startups In Flight Data Tech, Learning Management And More

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I’m at Citrix corporate headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., for the presentations by the nine members of the second class of the Alchemist Accelerator group. It’s quite an eclectic class for the B2B accelerator.

The Alchemist Group is a new, venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage enterprise startups. Backers include Cisco Systems, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Khosla Ventures, SAP  Ventures and US Venture Partners. The group has its roots out of the Harvard Club in San Francisco and targets technical co-founders and students from Ivy League and other high-caliber universities.

Here are the nine presenting today:

  • Tylr Mobile: Enterprise-ready mobile work platform connecting familiar tools like email with relevant data and processes in your business. 
  • Sourcery: Simplifying sourcing and ordering for food businesses. The company is replacing legacy enterprise software systems with user-friendly, cloud-based and mobile applications, bringing the food industry into the 21st century.
  • Eduora: Learning management system focused first on the end-user: unifying disparate campus applications in one interface, building enterprise-class university products that users love.
  • Zipongo: Payors subscribe members for personalized meal plans, savings on healthy groceries and rewards for buying ‘GO’ foods.
  • Chronon: Flight data recorder technology that captures the entire execution of JVM and replaces the need for traditional log files.
  • MightyHive: Consumer Marketing Automation — automates, optimizes, and measures advertising cross-channel using data that is only available to an enterprise class application.
  • Purple: Mobile customer engagement platform that enables businesses to acquire and engage customers by leveraging Apple’s passbook and other upcoming mobile wallets.
  • Stratio: First portable infrared sensors at >1000x lower cost, greater than six orders of magnitude lower power, and more than 4x higher resolution than current technology, enabling personal health monitoring in smartphones.
  • MonkeyBook: Instant, effortless, and fun digital and print memories. They replace human memory-making with crowdsourced stories from social data.

I’ll have more from the event later.

Spanning And Mozy Team Up, A Storage Marriage With Investment Questions Galore

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Last week, Spanning, a Google Apps backup service, announced a $6 million investment from an unnamed strategic investor. Today, Spanning and Mozy, a storage provider owned by EMC, announced a partnership to market and sell each other’s offerings.

Oh, so many questions about this very conveniently timed relationship. We do know that Google is not an investor. Last week, I reported that Spanning Founder and CEO Charlie Wood said there is a sacred trust between Spanning and its customers. Spanning backs up Google Apps data for its customers on Amazon Web Services. To back it up on Google would just not be right. Taking an investment from the search giant would not be right, either.

So, is EMC an investor? Wood reiterated he is bound to Spanning’s agreement and can not disclose the name.

But I am free to make my own conclusions. I can’t say if EMC is the buyer or not but the timing is pretty good. The two services have a symbiotic relationship. Mozy is recognized for its storage technology, which they sell a lot into the small business market. Spanning’s back up service is also popular with SMBs. Storage and backup are staples of EMC. The storage giant has backup technology that runs the gamut from mainframes to mobile devices. Spanning gives Mozy and EMC a window to address Google Apps customers. For its part, Spanning is looking for leverage points. Both EMC and Mozy can provide that capability.

Further, who else would make a $6 million strategic investment and then stand by while Spanning goes and frolics in the storage world with Mozy and EMC?

Make your own judgement but my bet is on EMC as Spanning’s strategic investor.