waderoush writes: To corrupt the old Churchill quote, e-mail is the worst form of communications, except for all the others; it's one of the only pervasive, non-proprietary standards for communicating across organizational boundaries. But that doesn’t mean we’re stuck forever with our overloaded Gmail and Outlook inboxes. For the first time in a couple of decades, it’s possible to imagine workplaces where teams coordinate their work not primarily over e-mail, but instead using alternatives like task management systems (e.g., Asana), file sharing systems (Box), advanced calendar systems (Tempo), or Facebook-style social feeds (Yammer). A deep-dive article in Xconomy today looks at such attempts to redefine the atomic unit of work, and at startups like Handle that aim to make old-fashioned e-mail more productive and pleasurable. Big, successful companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google have stopped depending on e-mail alone to get things done, argues Dustin Moskovitz, the Facebook co-founder who now helps to lead Asana. ‘The secret sauce of why these organizations do so well and grow so quickly,’ he says, is that ‘they have figured out the way groups should organize.’
waderoush writes: Hardware is Silicon Valley’s new religion. Bits and atoms aren’t so different after all, the creed goes; just as the cost and complexity of starting a software company has drastically declined over the last decade, it’s now becoming much cheaper and easier to start companies that make physical things. But talk to almost any real hardware company, and you’ll discover that the promised land is still some distance away. Sparse, a San Francisco product design startup, learned that the hard way. The company raised $66,000 on Kickstarter for its uber-cool theft-proof bicycle lights, but it took more than a year to deliver the first units to backers, thanks to a string of unforeseen manufacturing and supply-chain snafus. ‘We had all the t’s crossed and all the i’s dotted and still there was a big daily surprise,’ says industrial designer Colin Owen, Sparse’s co-founder and CEO. Today Sparse is shipping and profitable, with a vision to ‘change the face of mobility’ for urban cyclists, but its story illustrates just how high the bar still is for aspiring hardware entrepreneurs. Says Owen: ‘I wish there was more of a handbook for these things, but the biggest hiccups were very localized and unpredictable.’
waderoush writes: Don’t laugh. As the cost of housing spirals out of control on the San Francisco peninsula, neighboring metro regions like Sacramento are beginning to look more attractive to startup founders who prefer a Northern California lifestyle but haven’t worked in the Silicon Valley gold mines long enough to become 1-percenters. Today Xconomy presents Part 1 of a two-part look at innovation in the Sacramento-Davis corridor and efforts to make the region more welcoming to high-tech entrepreneurs. In Sacramento’s favor, there’s a talented workforce fueled by a top-20 university (UC Davis), space for expansion, proximity to the ski mountains at Tahoe, and a far lower cost of living — the average house in Sacramento is selling for $237,000, compared to $909,000 in San Francisco. The downsides include a shortage of local investment dollars and a lower density of startups, meaning there’s less opportunity for serendipitous collaboration. But locals say recent efforts to boost the local high-tech economy are working. ‘I really feel like we are in a renaissance area,’ says Eric Ullrich, co-founder of Hacker Lab, a Midtown Sacramento co-working space.
waderoush writes: If Silicon Valley is in a bubble — which it is – how will it finally burst? Where is the bubble’s membrane being stretched so thin that it’s in danger of tearing open and letting the real world rush in? This commentary from Xconomy picks five real places around the San Francisco Bay Area embodying tensions, imbalances, injustices, or dangers that could escalate into a show-stopping crisis for the technology economy. One is Bank of America’s former headquarters in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District; another is an elementary school in Oakland that happens to sit on the Hayward Fault. ‘If we can identify the fractures that threaten to destroy the innovation machine, we might be able to patch them up and keep the system going for a while longer — and maybe even point it in a smarter direction,’ the piece argues.
waderoush writes: In April 2012, former Snapfish CEO Ben Nelson provoked both praise and skepticism by announcing that he’d raised $25 million from venture firm Benchmark to start the Minerva Project, a new kind of university where students will live together but all class seminars will take place over a Google Hangouts-style video conferencing system. Two years later, there are answers – or the beginnings of answers – to many of the questions observers have raised about the project, on everything from the way the seminars will be organized to how much tuition the San Francisco-based university will charge and how it's gaining accreditation. And in an interview published today, Nelson share more details about how Minerva plans to use technology to improve teaching quality. ‘If a student wants football and Greek life and not doing any work for class, they have every single Ivy League university to choose from,’ Nelson says. ‘That is not what we provide. Similarly, there are faculty who want to do research and get in front of a lecture hall and regurgitate the same lecture they’ve been giving for 20 years. We have a different model,’ based on extensive faculty review of video recordings of the seminars, to make sure students are picking up key concepts. Last month Minerva admitted 45 students to its founding class, and in September it expects to welcome 19 of them to its Nob Hill residence hall.
waderoush writes: A blog post at OLPC News last week went viral with the claim that the nine-year-old One Laptop Per Child project, the effort founded by MIT Media Lab Founder to distribute inexpensive laptops to millions of children in poor nations, is dead. Media outlets quickly controverted the assertion, but the response from the OLPC Association itself was brief, saying that its mission is ‘far from over’ and citing ongoing projects to distribute laptops in Central America. In a more lengthy Q&A this week, OLPC chairman and CEO Rodrigo Arboleda says the organization has achieved many of its goals, including demonstrating the value of the ‘Constructionist’ 1:1 learning philosophy originally espoused by Negroponte. With 2.5 million laptops distributed so far, the OLPC vision is ‘on track to being fully realized,’ Arboleda says. He sees ‘commercial greed’ and a ‘status-quo mentality’ within ministries of education and teachers’ unions as the main hurdles holding back faster progress.
waderoush writes: Despite legitimate concerns over sky-high rents, Ellis Act evictions, Google Bus traffic, and the like, the San Francisco Bay Area is perhaps the most prosperous, comfortable, enlightened, stimulating, and generative place to live in Western history. For satisfying parallels, you'd have to look to a place like Florence and a time like the Renaissance, argues an Xconomy essay entitled From Cosimo to Cosmos: The Medici Effect in Culture and Technology. Today's coder-kings are working to reinvent economic structures in much the same way Renaissance painters, poets, architects, and scientists were trying to extend the framework they'd inherited from classical Greece and Rome. And in the role of the Medici family, long Florence's most powerful rulers and art patrons, we have people like Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, and Seth MacFarlane. Wait, what — Seth MacFarlane? Yes, the reboot of Carl Sagan's Cosmos starring Neil deGrasse Tyson (itself a tribute to the rise of science) wouldn't have happened without the involvement of a California media mogul. It's true that Silicon Valley can feel like Dante's Inferno if you're stuck in traffic on 101, or working 70-hour weeks as a code monkey at a doomed startup. But 'It would be unthinking, and ungrateful, to overlook the surplus we’re reaping from the tech boom,' the essay argues.
waderoush writes: Niantic Labs, a startup inside Google, released its augmented-reality game Ingress to the public in December. What game creator John Hanke wasn't expecting was how much it would influence players' offline lives. Linda Besh, who was recently named one of the game's top five players in the world, credits Ingress with changing her life. The Detroit resident quit her job as a financial analyst after the game helped her uncover her desire to lead and build communities. 'I had it in me to be a leader, but I felt I didn’t have the pedigree...With Ingress, I didn’t need anyone’s approval, so I was able to break out,' says Besh, who's known inside the game world as Portalyst. As Niantic prepares to release the first iOS version of Ingress later this year, efforts to augment reality through location-based games are ramping up.
waderoush writes: At age 76, British painter David Hockney is still exploring new ways to capture the world as our eyes really see it. He's suspicious of photography and its constraints — 'it’s all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops, for a split second,' he has said. And yet he's an avid early adopter of newer technologies such as iPad sketching software and high-definition video, if they'll help him explode old notions about the business of reducing three dimensions to two. Hockney 'chooses to work in video and in digital media, rather than just watercolor or acrylic, because those tools are better for forcing the viewer to think about the problems of depth and point of view,' argues this review of the just-completed show 'David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition' in San Francisco.
waderoush writes: An Xconomy column today suggests that Google is getting too big. When the company was younger, most of its acquisitions related to its core businesses of search, advertising, network infrastructure, and communications. More recently, it’s been colonizing areas with a less obvious connection to search, such as travel, social networking, productivity, logistics, energy, robotics, and — with the acquisition this week of Nest Labs — home sensor networks and automation. A Google acquisition can obviously mean a big payoff for startup founders and their investors, but as the company grows by accretion it may actually be slowing innovation in Silicon Valley (since teams inside the Googleplex, with its endless fountain of AdWords revenue, can stop worrying about making money or meeting market needs). And by infiltrating so many corners of consumers’ lives — and collecting personal and behavioral data as it goes — it’s becoming an all-encompassing presence, and making itself ever more attractive as a target for marketers, data thieves, and government snoops. ‘Any sufficiently advanced search, communications, and sensing infrastructure is indistinguishable from Big Brother,’ the column argues.
waderoush writes: If you’re a human searching the Web for the answer to a homework assignment, a health problem, or a trivia question, you need help sifting through billions of pages for the most relevant and reliable one. That’s the problem Google solved back in 1998 with Page Rank, laying the groundwork for a search, advertising, and mobile empire. But today, the challenges involved in organizing the world’s information and making it useful (to quote from Google’s own mission statement) are very different. A growing percentage of Web traffic isn’t from humans at all — it’s from automated agents that only care about specific parts of Web pages. Think of Instapaper, which provides simplified views of news articles, or Siri, which can check the weather or find open tables at a restaurant. To do their jobs, these bots need to understand the inner structure of Web pages. And that’s what Diffbot is helping with. The seven-man startup in Palo Alto, CA, uses computer vision and machine learning to recognize and classify the components of Web pages. Developers at hundreds of companies, from Digg to Onswipe to Pinterest, are tapping Diffbot’s four existing APIs to grab and repurpose specific data from news articles, images, product pages, and home pages (APIs for 16 more page types are in the works). At the same time, Diffbot is building its own global index of structured Web data. Once it's complete, it could become the substrate for a new economy of what CEO Mike Tung calls 'mini-AIs' that create new knowledge from old knowledge. 'Once we have all 20 [page types], we will essentially be able to cover the gamut, and convert most of the Web into a database structure,' Tung says.
waderoush writes: One of the problems that kept PR2, a two-armed humanoid robot developed by Menlo Park, CA-based Willow Garage, from succeeding commercially was its $400,000 price tag. But as it turned out, only a handful of the 40 or so universities that own PR2s ever developed applications that use both arms. That’s one of the reasons why UBR-1, a mobile manipulator robot from Willow Garage spinoff Unbounded Robotics, has only one arm. And that, along with many other engineering decisions and technology improvements, will allow the startup to sell its robot for just $35,000 (it's designed for materials-handling tasks in places like warehouses, elder care facilities, and supermarkets). ‘With robots, feature creep is so much more present than in some other fields,’ says Unbounded co-founder and CEO Melonee Wise. ‘There is always this desire to make a Swiss Army knife. But you have to make compromises, and those compromises directly impact the capabilities as well as the cost of the robot.’ One roboticist told Unbounded: ‘Your robot is so inexpensive that if I needed to have a second arm, I’d just buy a second robot.’
waderoush writes: In a critique of Bitcoin, innovation journalism scholar David Nordfors argues that the peer-to-peer cryptocurrency is a commodity, rather than a true currency, and that the wild, speculation-driven fluctuations in Bitcoin's value against government-backed currencies make it useless as a practical means of exchange. 'Bitcoin might be a robust technology. But the Bitcoin market is crazy,' writes Nordfors, who compares the run-up in Bitcoin's value to the Dutch tulip mania of the 1600s. 'Let’s treat Bitcoin as what it is—an impressive technology, a financial experiment, a social phenomenon, but hardly the basis for a new digital economy.'
waderoush writes: Anki gained instant fame as the robot-car company that launched at Apple’s WWDC in June. Its iPhone-controlled racing game hit Apple stores in October, and the company is hoping it will be a holiday hit. But while Anki Drive offers offers a novel physical/virtual entertainment experience for kids and their gadget-loving parents, being a toy company ‘is not our vision,’ says co-founder and CEO Boris Sofman in this combined company profile and product review from Xconomy. Anki Drive is planned as the first in a series of new consumer-robotics products that are intensively AI-driven, as compared to the mechanically sophisticated but relatively instinctual or behavioral robots exemplified by iRobot’s Roomba (which is probably the most successful consumer robot to date). The common characteristics of Anki’s coming products, in Sofman’s mind: ‘Relatively simple and elegant hardware; incredibly complicated software; and Web and wireless connectivity to be able to continually expand the experience over time.’
waderoush writes: 'Dear Cable TV Subscriber: I don’t think I’ve ever told you how grateful I am,' Xconomy editor Wade Roush writes in a tongue-in-cheek commentary this week. 'I haven’t paid a cent for cable television since 2009. Yet I have on-demand access via the Internet to a growing cornucopia of great shows like Game of Thrones, Homeland, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, at reasonable à la carte prices. And it’s all because you continue to pay exorbitant and ever-increasing monthly fees for your premium cable bundle (around $80 per month, on average). After all, your money goes straight to the studios and networks that produce and distribute all the expensive first-run programming that I’m perfectly happy to watch later at heavily discounted prices. So in effect, you’re subsidizing my own footloose, freeloading, cord-cutting TV habits. I don’t know how to thank you!'