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Unleash Seth Rogen On North Korea ... Via BitTorrent!

Sat, 12/20/2014 - 17:45

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Seth Rogen, The Interview, Sony

North Korea goofed. By attacking and threatening Sony until it yanked its Seth Rogen film, The Interview, the nation-state turned a minor, hare-brained movie into a cause for freedom and anti-terrorism that everyone now wants to see. 

Some wacky schemes for alternative distribution have started coming out of the woodwork. A BitTorrent spokesperson, trying to goad Sony Pictures Entertainment into distributing the video on its file-sharing platform, said it's the "best way for Sony to take back control of their film.” 

See also: U.S. Intelligence Implicates North Korea In Sony Hack

Another idea has the U.S. government buying the rights and releasing it online directly. A North Korean defector even wants to send the movie into his former homeland via balloons. 

The method of distribution may not be evident, but one thing seems crystal clear: This movie's not dead yet. 

A Torrential Affair Could Make Strange Bedfellows

Rogen and James Franco must be shocked to find themselves unwitting poster boys for freedom. They'd be even more surprised to learn all the wacky ways people want to send their flick out into the wild. Across the political spectrum, everyone from George Clooney to the Wall Street Journal's edit page thinks The Interview ought to be set free online.

Doing so via BitTorrent would be a striking move. Hollywood studios hate torrenting, since it tends to fuel piracy of movies, music, games and software. The peer-to-peer file-sharing system pulls data from different computers and servers before stitching them together. With no single source, it's tough to pin down. 

But what made it a slippery piracy tool could work in the movie studio's favor, in this case. 

See also: FBI Warns Of Malicious Software Following Sony Attack

BitTorrent has been trying to remake its image, going after artists and other clients who need some form of legitimate file distribution. Partnering with Sony to strike back against terrorism would do wonders for its credibility.

The representative outlined just how the would-be partner could use the platform:

"Bundle has a self-publishing platform that anyone from Sony can use: https://bundles.bittorrent.com/publish. Using the paygate option, Sony are able to set the price for the film and release it widely without implicating anyone or exposing any third party to a terrorist threat.”

If Sony Won’t Do It, Maybe Obama Should

Given the way Sony caved so completely to terrorist threats that may or may not be real (denying, of course, that it was caving all the way), it may not want to put its name on any distribution mechanism. So the Wall Street Journal's editorial board thinks the U.S. should.

President Obama made his disappointment with Sony plain, saying the studio "made a mistake” by caving in and pulling the movie. But it’s not as simple as that. Even though Sony says it backed off because the major theaters cancelled, it's hard to overlook the fact that Sony Pictures is a branch of Sony Corporation, one of the biggest conglomerates in Japan—a country with its own tense relations with Pyongyang. 

Either way, the POTUS wants to go where Sony feared to tread, promising some sort of response from the U.S. 

The WSJ editors think it should involve the federal government buying the movie rights and releasing the film online itself. With confirmation of North Korea’s involvement in hand, thanks to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the president may even feel justified doing it. 

The move would be pretty cheap too. If the U.S. foots the bill for the film's whole production cost, that $44 million expense still comes in far below the $6 trillion spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—making for the cheapest and easiest counterstrike to terrorism ever. Making it free would guarantee an enormous viewership. 

Not Caving

Of course, the one audience left out of that online blitz would be North Korea’s own people. The dictatorship keeps tight control over the news and entertainment permitted to reach its citizenry. 

One former North Korean says he knows how to breach that echo chamber: Park Sang Hak, a defector living in South Korea, already sends balloons north with USB drives filled with films, TV shows and other videos about life outside the Hermit Kingdom. He’s a thorn in the side of Kim Jong Un’s regime, which considers him “Enemy Zero” and has already tried to assassinate him. 

In a plot fit for a movie, Park says he wants to load the memory sticks with The Interview, sending Seth Rogen’s high jinks right into Pyongyang’s front yard. 

Sony previously said it had no plans to release the movie. Then Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton appeared on CNN on Friday, defending his company by telling Fareed Zakaria it did not “cave.” The same day, Sony issued a statement saying the company had been "actively surveying alternatives to enable us to release the movie on a different platform.

"It is still our hope that anyone who wants to see this movie will get the opportunity to do so," the statement read. 

That will probably happen. Because if Sony can't do it, at least a lot of others appear to be working on it. 

Lead photo courtesy of Shutterstock; balloon photo by Shaun Fisher; all others courtesy of Sony Picgtures Entertainment

Now You Can Add Stickers To Facebook Messenger Photos

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 20:21

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Web

Now you can festoon the photos you share in Facebook Messenger with stickers, the company announced Friday.

See also: Facebook Makes Messenger Mandatory

Called Stickered For Messenger, the “lightweight” new feature will be available for Android beginning Friday and “soon” for iOS. Just in time for the holidays, it will include some festive sticker packs for Christmas and New Year’s.

Stickered For Messenger links to your Facebook Messenger account so you can send decorated photos to your friends directly. The app doesn’t support other messenger platforms, but since the photos then save to your camera roll, you can share them with other platforms indirectly through that route.

It’s unclear if Facebook got its inspiration from the East, but there’s no denying that the stickers-on-photos thing was mastered in Asia first and popularized by Asian messenger apps like LINE. A free chat app, LINE makes its revenue from selling sticker packs to users, a model that Facebook would be wise to emulate here.

Photo via Facebook

Big Companies Are Still Struggling To Buy A Big Data Clue

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 19:17

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Data science remains the surest ticket to Big Salary nirvana. If only it paid equally large dividends for the companies paying those salaries. Part of the problem stems from getting enough qualified people into a market desperate for answers.

But part of the problem stems from asking the wrong questions in the first place.

Big Love For Big Data

Given the furor over Big Data, it's not surprising to see companies clamoring to hire people with data science expertise. As LinkedIn's annual analysis of 330 million user profiles shows, statistical analysis and data mining skills top the charts as the hottest of hot skills in 2014, with Big Data-related talents accounting for a third of the top-15 hottest skills. 

See also: LinkedIn Reveals The Top 25 Job Skills Of The Year

Source: LinkedIn

Given the law of supply and demand, it's not surprising that data scientists make so much money. How much? Over $123,000 per year, on average, with that number sharply rising each year for the past several years.

Students are hoping to satiate that demand, with record numbers of MBA and engineering candidates rushing to become certified data scientists. (Which, as Mitchell Sanders writes, is somewhat silly, given the unique blend of skills needed to do data science well.)

Over time, as Gartner analyst Alan Duncan posits, salaries will even out. For now, however, the tools and knowledge needed to master modern data are so arcane that companies need to put out big money to have any hope of getting value from Big Data.

Big Delays For Big Data

Which may be one reason so many companies are sitting on the sidelines. 

Given this influx of Big Data talent, it would be reasonable to assume more Big Data projects are being launched and delivering real value. This assumption, however, is wrong.

See also: Why Data Scientists Get Paid So Much

While not "hard" data, Gartner analysts Merv Adrian and Nick Huedecker have been tracking Hadoop deployments through surveys of webinar participants over the last year. As Adrian writes, this survey data indicates that Hadoop deployments, the poster child for Big Data, have been "slow to grow so far." 

While he concedes a growing number of pilots as organizations experiment with Hadoop, he points to "no dramatic growth in substantial projects undertaken so far, or substantial additional projects being added to the same cluster and driving growth."

In other words, Hadoop and, by extension, Big Data, is lumbering along.

This back-of-the-envelope analysis finds support in various other studies that suggest that roughly 70% of organizations still aren't doing much with Big Data. Part of this derives from a talent shortage. 

But part also stems from confusion as to which tools to use, and how. As Bloomberg project lead Matt Hunt insists: "At Bloomberg that we don’t have a big data problem. What we have is a 'medium data' problem—and so does everyone else." Hunt suggests that tools like Hadoop are the wrong tool for the right job: They assume scale that most companies don't have.

As such, it's not clear that hiring a rock star data scientist will solve anything. Except, perhaps, if they come with enough training to know when to not use popular but improper tools.

The Big Data Cog

Regardless of tools, as Pam Baker highlights, Big Data often depends on little people like you or I to input it into systems correctly. As she describes, this is wishful thinking at best. And when the data going in is garbage, the resulting analysis will be, too:

If the small data is wrong or missing, the big data analysis is off the mark, too. And small data today is a complete and utter disaster nearly everywhere I look.

Even if we assume perfect data input, it's still the case that we analyze the data through the lens of our own biases, something that is simply impossible to avoid. Throwing more data at our biases doesn't remove the problem. It amplifies it.

We are the ones asking questions of our data. We are the ones deciding which data to keep, and which to query. We, in other words, are Big Data's biggest hurdle. 

Maybe paying data scientists more money will solve this. Maybe training a new generation of data-savvy students will help, too. 

But it's also time that we took a deep breath and acknowledged that while data can and should influence more of our decision-making, it's not an infallible god that will always steer us correctly. Because the data is ultimately all about us, and our own abilities to master it.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock

Twitch Plays Pokemon And The Year In Crowdplaying

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 19:11

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Editor's Note: This was originally published by our partners at Kill Screen as part of Kill Screen's Year In Ideas series.  

Twitch Plays Pokemon is one of those ideas that should never have really caught on the way it did. Type a command into an endlessly scrolling barrage of Twitch.tv comments, look over at the tiny GameBoy emulator at the left of the screen, and if you’re lucky, you might just see the avatar do what you asked. This was never how things really went down, though. 

With thousands of TPPers at their computers fighting to have their commands heard, most inputs would never actually register with the computer. This was the video game equivalent of closing your eyes, making a wish and then throwing your penny into a volcano.

For more stories about video games and culture, follow@killscreen on Twitter.

Still, the offbeat social experiment caught on like gangbusters. The original run lasted two weeks, attracted millions of viewers, and, by its end, had become a bona fide cultural phenomenon.

The problem with Twitch Plays Pokemon is that it was pretty much a one-time deal. The stream is still ongoing, constantly cranking through new Pokemons on a 24/7 basis, but the channel will never again live up to that first run, and there’s no reason why it should. Twitch Plays Pokemon may have been the most impressive crack at “crowd-play” to date (its 2013 predecessor Salty Bet was more of a savage curiosity), the interactive element felt about as exciting as stuffing a million people into a Ford Pinto and making them drive from LA to San Francisco. 

It was nice that the Internet had found a way to pat itself on the back, but nobody wanted to spend another day fumbling through Start menus and walking around in circles.

Still, necessity is the mother of invention, and even something as convoluted as Twitch Plays Pokemon can become interesting when it confronts the Internet with a big enough challenge. This was a prime opportunity for creative ingenuity, and after a while the act of observation completely eclipsed the act of play. Viewers became scribes, interpreting the abstract messages of a volatile dot matrix oracle.

See also: Cartographic Survey: The Year In Video Game Maps

For Twitch Plays Pokemon, there was no better place to make direct contact with the chaos than the naming menu, which allows players to nickname the creatures they’ve caught. The Twitch chat scribes would wait anxiously while the cursor flicked through letters like a roulette wheel, only to emerge with some unintelligible moniker along the lines of “ABBBBBBK(” or “JLVWNNOOOO.”

Watching the Twitch chat accelerate in the aftermath of a nicknaming was not unlike gazing into a supernova. When the Twitch roulette eventually landed on the nickname of “AA-j” for its new Zapdos, the cultural arbiters of TPP went to work, searching desperately for meaning in this random message. A few interpretations of the name “AA-j” stuck, but some of them—like “Battery Bird”—felt freakishly apt for an electric-type Pokemon whose name started with double A’s. 

This was magic, as if the Internet had convened to paintball a Pollock and inexplicably came back with a Bruegel. What had started as an ambitious exercise in futility became an impromptu oral tradition complete with sad goodbyes, avian messiahs, and one almighty Helix Fossil to reign over them all.

Tiny Cogs In A Fascinating Machine

The world post-TPP became a mosh pit of half-baked attempts to rekindle the magic of that first run. Between Overwolf’s CrowdPlay app, Dead Nation’s Twitch-integrated spectator voting system, and marginally successful TPP spin-offs like Fish Play Street Fighter, it looked for a minute like these oddities could actually catch on as-is.

See also: Want To Learn About Game Design? Go To Ikea

What all these attempts failed to do—and which Twitch Plays Pokemon could only pull off once—was to embrace the constrictive input system as a grand metaphysical force. Through some form of digital blood-alchemy, viewers found a way to humanize a mode of interaction which, by its nature, had obliterated the impact of individual participants.

One of the earliest forms of crowd art was a surrealist technique called cadavre exquis—“Exquisite Corpse.” An artist would draw out a body part and then conceal the majority of whatever she’d just drawn. From there, she’d pass it on to another artist, who would expand on the original by attaching new body parts of their own. The result was an Exquisite Corpse: A grotesque and deformed mess of flesh and phalanges, with legs jutting out from necks and toenails growing in nostrils.

Any Exquisite Corpse with more than two artists took on the guise of anonymity. While a contributor’s distinct style might betray the occasional limb, most idiosyncrasies would blend into the whole of the cadaver. In this sense, the Exquisite Corpse was a meditation on the unsettling byproducts of artistic and collaborative dissonance.

Twitch Plays Pokemon worked its magic in a similar way. Instead of contributing to some grand vision, participants became tiny cogs in a fascinating machine. By embracing this conceit, TPP became a bizarro reflection on the chaos of the Internet in 2014.

This undermining of the collaborative mechanism flies in the face of most crowd art, which has traditionally sought to incorporate scattered talents into a greater whole. For the performance of his original composition “Lux Aurumque,” Eric Whitacre gathered up a 2,000-person virtual choir, whose members each recorded their vocal parts on webcam. 

With the audio and video edited together (a process that must have taken days to perfect) the final product is a haunting work whose tenor takes on an ethereal, almost synthetic quality. As the vocal median approaches an uncanny perfection, the only thing to keep the song grounded is a slight discrepancy in cutoffs, with hundreds of discernible plosives ending each phrase.

Along with projects like Janet Echelman and Aaron Koblin’s interactive sky tapestry Unnumbered Sparks and the irreverent Star Wars Uncut, Whitacre’s virtual choir represents a more human-centric brand of crowd spectacle. If you were to take these works and hone in on one specific part, you’d be able to pick out distinct stylistic voices from within the work itself. Instead of constructing a monolithic culture to surround it, the work creates its own internal style from individual expressions.

Don't Trust Neanderthals Behind The Controllers

Contrary to what Twitch Plays Pokemon might suggest, it’s the people-centric experiences that will help crowd-play make the biggest splash. Robot Loves Kitty’s weird and ambitious project Upsilon Circuit takes some cues from TPP by allowing spectators to vote on player upgrades, but differs in just about every other regard. As a game show-meets-RPG, a couple participants actually sit behind a controller and play the game, with viewers guiding their path to either assist or sabotage their efforts.

See also: Call Of Duty Doesn't Understand Grief—But Who Does?

This approach is way more Whitacre than Exquisite Corpse, but brings a ton of problems that Twitch Plays Pokemon never had to worry about. By disempowering individual players, TPP had flipped the script on would-be trolls, making them an essential part of the creative process. Often, the most chaotic inputs would produce the stream’s most memorable and heart-wrenching moments.

But for Upsilon Circuit, which attempts to give every player a tangible sense of control, trolls have more to work with. Instead of letting the chaos unfurl naturally, they end up relying on player cooperation. If Upsilon Circuit is ever going to work out like a game show, it’ll have to find some incentive to keep contestants coming back until they lose.

For the freeware project please be nice :(, Aran Koning extrapolated this idea to its natural extreme, putting his tiny development team at the complete mercy of players. As the game’s central mechanic, the first person to beat a new version of please be nice :( gets to recommend a new feature. As part of the deal, Koning and Co. have to develop that feature, bless their hearts.

See also: Sweden's Sexism Test For Games Is A Great Idea

As of now, please be nice :( is a broken, meme-riddled, lumbering mess of mechanical non-sequiturs, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe please be nice :( is a cautionary tale that we shouldn’t trust the power-hungry neanderthals behind the controllers. At the very least, after more than 100 iterations, the individual footprints that stomped this poor game into the ground have also made it instantly recognizable. There’s nothing else quite like please be nice :( , and some respite in knowing that there probably never will be.

For now, the ideal path for crowd-play seems to take the middle road: Don’t give players too much power, but don’t diminish their impact, either. As of now, progress on this front is a bit of a slow burn. Way ahead of the pack is EVE Online, whose in-game world is almost completely controlled by players, but can only uphold its flexibility by way of a prohibitive learning curve. The rest have tended to lag far behind, using crowd influence—and not crowd-play—to give their worlds a bit of human depth.

By displaying the current progress of other players on the map, Inkle’s interactive adventure game 80 Days enforced the challenge of global circumnavigation as a high-stakes competition. Elsewhere, Hello Games’ upcoming No Man’s Sky lets players explore the universe, tacking their names permanently onto the planets they discover. These are a far cry from crowd-play proper, but with online infrastructures to build and trolls to worry about, the genre will have to crawl before it can sprint.

See also: Four Things I Learned While Writing A Book About Super Mario Bros. 2

Twitch Plays Pokemon’s stroke of genius was to sidestep these technical limitations through its comically arcane input system. By harnessing the Internet’s collective imagination, the stream showcased all the weird, glorious potential of crowd-play even as it proceeded to to make a mockery of the idea itself. 

With an Internet-sized dose of creative ingenuity, the stream became both a defining cultural moment of 2014 and an experimental look into the future of the video game medium. It’ll be a long and gradual climb before we establish a crowd-play platform as compelling asTwitch Plays Pokemon; the real challenge will be to make it stick.

More From Kill Screen

For more stories about video games and culture, follow@killscreen on Twitter.

Lead image by Jordan Rosenberg

The New Spambot-Free Instagram Is Now Worth $35 Billion

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 18:13

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You've got to clear out the crap in your life if you want to have room for prosperity. That's just good feng shui! And look how well it's worked out for Instagram.

More than 18.9 million fake users vanished from the photo-sharing service between Wednesday and Thursday as Instagram actively deleted spambots, the New York Times reports. And voila! On Friday, Citigroup issued a note valuing Instagram at $35 billion. 

That's a heck of a return on the $1 billion Facebook paid for the company in 2012. Still, the nearly 55% percent boost over Citigroup's previous valuation—$19 billion—likely isn't the total result of the recent Instagram Rapture that depleted celebrity Instagram accounts which attract advertisers with high follower counts. Instagram announced last week that it now has more than 300 million users excluding the deleted spambots—rapid growth that now makes it bigger than bigger than Twitter, with 284 million users.

Like Twitter, Instagram will soon verify its famous users, which might take some of the sting out of the 3.5 million followers Justin Bieber lost to the Instagram rapture, or the 1.3 million Kim Kardashian lost on her account.

Being verifiably famous on Instagram means big money for photo-sharing celebrities willing to endorse brands through the social network. It also means a black market in fake Twitter followers in the form of spambots that can be purchased for a price.

Trouble is, spambots can't be manipulated into buying stuff a Kardashian says is cool. Still, the industry of shadow followers hasn't spooked Citigroup, which projects Instagram has the potential to earn as $2 billion annually for Facebook. 

 

Flickr Listens To Community, Stops Printing Creative Commons Art

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 15:24

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Flickr has halted a new service that let people print wall art of any Creative Commons image it hosts, the company announced Thursday.

Called Flickr Wall Art, the program allowed prints of your own photos, photos of “licensed artists,” and anything from the community’s vast pool of Creative Commons art. This last group of images raised ire within the Flickr community.

See also: Flickr Develops Photo Books; Coffee Tables, Beware

“[M]any felt that including Creative Commons-licensed work in this service wasn’t within the spirit of the Commons and our sharing community,” Flickr VP, Bernando Hernandez wrote, adding that Flickr was “sorry we let some of you down.”

The company will issue refunds to everyone who has purchased Creative Commons art through the service, and will limit prints to users’ own art and that of “licensed artists.”

Photo via Flickr

LinkedIn Reveals The Top 25 Job Skills Of The Year

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 15:00

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Looks like 2014 was the year of the data scientist, judging by LinkedIn’s "25 Hottest Professional Skills of 2014" report. 

The social network people use to impress their peers and future bosses, LinkedIn knows very well what skills recruiters search for on its site and which particular talents get people hired. So it analyzed the data in more than 330 million member profiles to figure out which skill was the most in-demand.

Globally, the winner is—drumroll, please—statistical analysis and data mining.

That makes perfect sense, if you take into account the other big trends this year and the intense load of data they’ll accumulate about us.

Data, Data Everywhere—But What Does It Mean?

This year, several emerging technologies got their sea legs.

Smart homes got some juice, thanks to acquisitions by Samsung and Google, and Apple’s splashy HomeKit announcement. Wearable devices, and their continually evolving health and fitness tracking features, also leapt to the foreground this year. Meanwhile, TV streaming officially graduated from geek hobby to a mainstream obsession—so much so that the TV tracking experts at Nielsen decided to monitor online television viewing too.

That’s just for starters. All of these innovations and more will lead to a new high in data aggregation, the likes of which we have not seen before. And someone has to make sense of it all. So companies have been vying for the folks who can do just that. Big, sexy articles by the likes of Forbes, Harvard and Time magazine probably helped the cause, ratcheting up the profile and appeal of occupations that, until now, remained largely behind the scenes. 

Of course, that’s not the only area to ponder. LinkedIn also singled out 24 other "hot" skills in its list.

The 25 Hottest Professional Skills Of 2014  
  1. Statistical Analysis and Data Mining
  2. Middleware and Integration Software
  3. Storage Systems and Management
  4. Network and Information Security
  5. SEO/SEM Marketing
  6. Business Intelligence
  7. Mobile Development
  8. Web Architecture and Development Framework
  9. Algorithm Design
  10. Perl/Python/Ruby
  11. Data Engineering and Data Warehousing
  12. Marketing Campaign Management
  13. Mac, Linux and Unix Systems
  14. User Interface Design
  15. Recruiting
  16. Digital and Online Marketing
  17. Computer Graphics and Animation
  18. Economics
  19. Java Development
  20. Channel Marketing
  21. SAP ERP Systems
  22. Integrated Circuit (IC) Design
  23. Shell Scripting Languages
  24. Game Development
  25. Virtualization

My, how times change. Last year, LinkedIn reported that the top skill in 2013 was social media marketing, followed by mobile development. Now, last year's winner doesn’t even appear on the chart, and mobile development fell to #7.

Also, take note, developers: While programming skills remain important to employers, the Perl, Python and Ruby coding languages took a tumble, from #4 to #10 now.

But The U.S. Has Its Head In The Clouds

The LinkedIn report also offers a country-by-country breakdown of its report. Notably, statistical analysis and data mining came in second on the U.S. list, beat out by cloud and distributed computing.

Other trends LinkedIn spotted:

  • Recruiters are in demand globally. Recruiting was in the top 20 across most of the countries we examined. In Brazil, it even came up as the 2nd hottest skill....
  • STEM specialties dominate hiring priorities. It’s hard not to notice that most of the skills that made the list are related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)....
  • Marketing is back in vogue. Interestingly, another quite popular profession on the list is marketing. The focus this year was on SEO/SEM specialists, campaign managers and digital marketers....

Consider this a capsule view on the recruitment year that was, and a preview of what employers will clamor for as the new year arrives. 

Lead image by smi23le

Starbucks To Square: It's Over

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 14:00

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You won't be able to pay for that latte with Square.

Starbucks will soon no longer take Square's mobile payments in its stores, unwinding a key aspect of the partnership the companies announced in 2012.

On Wednesday, Square sent an email to some users of its Wallet app announcing that it was "retiring" Wallet. It's now rolling a key feature of Wallet—one that let users check into a store and pay by announcing their name to a cashier—into its newer Square Order app. The new feature is called Tabs, but it works similarly to Wallet.

Just don't expect to run up a tab on Square in Starbucks.

"Starbucks is not adopting Square Order in our stores," says Maggie Jantzen, a spokesperson for Starbucks. "We opted to build our own mobile ordering solution, leveraging our own mobile app and world-class loyalty program."

Starbucks is currently testing that app in its Portland, Ore., stores.

Wallet was also the payment method that Square offered in Starbucks stores. Instead of paying with their name, though, Wallet users had to use the app to pull up a scannable code. As such, Square Wallet wasn't any more convenient than the existing Starbucks mobile app, and had the disadvantage of not letting users earn reward points for free coffee.

Square had already pulled Wallet from Google and Apple's app stores earlier this year, but it had continued to support the app for people who had already installed it on their phones. That meant that Wallet users could still pay in Starbucks—if they wanted to.

When Square fully retires Wallet—it hasn't set a date, but its emails to Wallet users suggest it's coming soon—the existing app will stop working and Order will be the only option for paying with your mobile phone at Square merchants. And Square's time as a mobile-payments provider to Starbucks will come to an end.

Hey Now, Hey Now, Don't Dream It's Over

Square doesn't seem to want to declare the experiment over.

"Starbucks continues to be a partner of ours and we continue to process their payments and work closely together," says Johnny Brackett, a Square spokesperson. "We have nothing to share regarding Starbucks offering Order."

It's true that Square and Starbucks will continue to do business together—just not in the area of mobile payments. 

When customers pay with plastic credit or debit cards in Starbucks cafes, Square processes those transactions. It's purely a back-end payment-processing deal: Starbucks doesn't use Square's custom card-swiping hardware. At the time, Starbucks said it would save money by switching from Bank of America Merchant Services to Square, which led many payment insiders to believe Square had agreed to financially disadvantageous terms to win Starbucks's business.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz joined Square's board in August 2012 and left it in October 2013. Since then, he's announced that mobile payments is a key business for Starbucks, and the company is considering offering its system to other retailers—putting it in competition with Square.

Photo by calleephoto

Cartographic Survey: The Year In Video Game Maps

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 17:49

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Editor's Note: This was originally published by our partners at Kill Screen as part of Kill Screen's Year In Ideas series.  

Open a map in one of this year’s big video games and you’ll see mostly blank space. Sometimes it’s pitch dark outside the bubble of detail around your landing in the world. Sometimes the landscape is sketched out but not yet colored with icons, which spread wherever you set foot. We don’t ask how our character draws the map, or why, in a modern setting, she would ever need to.

For more stories about video games and culture, follow@killscreen on Twitter.

Though not common to all games, these conventions are instantly recognized. Beating the game means illuminating the map. Maybe it dates back to Wizardry-era dungeon crawls and the age of graph paper mapping, a tradition carried on in this year’s Persona Q and the re-released Elminage Gothic (which makes players buy consumable maps to spot-check their location.) But however they started, dark maps were everywhere in games this year.

The map of a game like Grand Theft Auto V or Far Cry 4 works more like a memory than a pocket reference. The real work of navigation is usually done by floating icons onscreen, distance counters, and GPS overlays; the skin of the map grows in as you chase symbols. The characters of GTA V should be able to see every corner of Los Santos just by glancing at their phones. Instead they do the legwork themselves, filling in the city like a giant scratch card.

GTA V: A Clean Guide To A Complex World 

The form of a map tells us about a game’s ambitions, or at least helps us guess. In the latest GTA our slowly expanding vision suggests the series’ new emphasis on progression, as does the return of San Andreas’ character stats. That wasn’t always Rockstar’s focus: in 2008, Niko could survey the whole layout of Liberty City as soon as he got off the boat. Franklin has to turn on the lights in his hometown block by block.

In a year of overcrowded maps, GTA V gave us a clean guide to a complex world. The skeleton of the city is laid out like a monochrome negative, but the black-bordered gray roadways have more pop than their predecessors in GTA IV or Watch Dogs, and the arterial lines twine together with elegance that puts real maps of Los Angeles to shame. Icons are kept small and sparingly colored, making them easy to match with the relevant protagonist (green for Franklin, light blue for Michael, orange for Trevor). The irrelevant symbols even shrink when you’re playing another character.

GTA’s real achievement is using multiple viewpoints to help players build a layered mental map of the area. At one point in Kevin Lynch’s seminal 1960 study, "The Image of the City," he mentions that L.A. residents could vividly describe to him the areas surrounding their home, but got progressively more vague when envisioning a journey downtown. (Lynch contrasts “formless” L.A. with Boston, where residents could clearly describe the city center.) 

See also: Want To Learn About Game Design? Go To Ikea

If not for GTA V’s character-swapping, players might remember little except their safehouse and the city’s two poles, the Del Perro Pier and the Vinewood sign. But our leaps between different homes and perspectives literally give each district its own character: we learn the alleys around Franklin’s first place in Strawberry/Crenshaw, then the sloping roads behind Michael’s mansion in Rockford/Beverly Hills, then the shortest path to the ocean from Trevor’s place in Vespucci/Venice Beach.

Outside of GTA—which is, technically, a 2013 game that happened to get an essential remaster—recent “open worlds” have been dispiritingly similar. The maps of Assassin’s Creed Unity, Shadow of Mordor, Far Cry 4, and Dragon Age: Inquisition are all cut from the same cloth. Each is filled in progressively as the player claims structures that double as fast travel points: AC’s Viewpoints, Mordor’s Forge Towers,Far Cry’s Outposts and Radio Towers, and DA:I’s camps. It’s the template Ubisoft popularized.

Assassin’s Creed:  A War Between Mathematicians And Realtors

If GTA V was the best of this year’s maximalist maps, then Assassin’s Creed Unity was by far the worst—a clownish bleed of distractions over plots of ghostly buildings shipped in from Chengdu. Synchronizing a new map section reveals a mass of hexagons with magnifying glasses or scrolls or shields inside, GPS flags, medals inside transparent circles, staircases, orange hexagons containing various symbols, fast-forward icons, chests in four different colors, houses colored red or black, and hexagons with houses inside them. 

It looks like the record of a war between mathematicians and realtors. And it barely even works. Overlapping icons obscure fast-travel points until you change filters or zoom in and tease out the edge of what you’re trying to click on. Once, my mission icons disappeared on every filter setting. But the flat map does have a tilt function, which I imagine is a comfort to the lunatic who created it.

Mordor steals AC’s ideas, but at least it improves them. Its markers get more space to breathe and can be sized up at a glance: red shields (orc events), yellow shields (story), white shields (challenges), and blue Forge Towers. It beats AC at the little things, like the sharper snap your cursor does when it rolls over an icon, the crisper borders around each district, and the fine outlines of walls provided in place ofUnity’s hazy tofu shapes. Apart from the scratchy Ithildin symbols, it doesn’t look very Tolkienesque; then again, neither do the zipline stealth kills. Mordor is a playground, and its map takes care to keep things simple.

 See also: Call Of Duty Doesn't Understand Grief—But Who Does?

Both games lack distinct areas and routes—in Kevin Lynch’s framework, they lack “imageability.” The lines of fast travel cut up the land and prevent you from holding continuous strips of scenery in your mind. The sensation of traveling isn’t accelerated but removed. After many hours with the game, I didn’t remember much of Unity except the player’s base at the Café Théâtre; Mordor is a blur outside of one stronghold (Tol Crossing?) that I kept finding target orcs in.

The intensity of a mental image, Lynch pointed out, comes from continuous use. He broke down our impressions of an area into paths, edges, nodes, districts, and landmarks, calling paths the “predominant” organizing feature in most cases. That may be why the worlds of Unity and Mordor are so forgettable: they’re all nodes and no paths. Even if you don’t abuse fast travel to turn swaths of the map into flyover country, you can hold down a couple of buttons to make Arno or Talion barrel past almost any enemy and launch themselves over any barrier, taking the shortest line from point A to B. There’s no starch in either game to stop players from walking all over it. (The one inconvenience I remember in Unity is the Seine, which sometimes made you look for a bridge.)

Compare that to the mindfulness of the Los Santos resident, who takes his life into his hands whenever he crosses the city. Steering a vehicle around poles and pedestrians, weaving between trucks and into oncoming traffic, glancing from the mini-map to the street: these are all complex tasks that challenge us to balance speed and caution and draw on our memory of the area as well as the map. We learn the city road by road, rather than having entire districts dropped on us at once. The result is a lasting after-image of the area that we can call to mind weeks or months later.

See also: Sweden's Sexism Test For Games Is A Great Idea

The maps of Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition amend AC’s template, but never go too far afield. FC4’s map may be the year’s most colorful, having seemingly absorbed every pigment absent from GTA’s negatives and Mordor’s blueprints. The splashy look suits the franchise’s celebration (ostensibly, interrogation) of tourism, also seen in the gold boxes that surround chapter titles like the National Geographic logo. Even the names of places have their own energy: Satish’s Sad Room, Great Drought Chorten, Kalinag Returned, and so on.

The main novelty of FC4’s map, outside of fiddling like the division of Viewpoints into Outposts (fast travel) and Radio Towers (map illumination), is the prominence of animal ranges. Giant rhinos and wolves are a larger-than-life presence on the landscape of Kyrat, and the knowledge that you’ve wandered into “badger country” tends to have more weight than being told that you’re in Faubourg. By suggesting each animal’s territory rather than marking it outright with a dotted line or glow, the map introduces welcome ambiguity to a game that is otherwise about driving between icons while listening to the worst radio station that has ever been created or imagined.

If you prefer the dotted line, Inquisition is there for you, drawing purplish search zones all over its map in an unmistakably Azerothian touch. If the ground wasn’t oversalted with lost shards, Dragon Age would be a capable mashup of the Ubisoft map and World of Warcraft. But the former doesn’t need another imitator, and the latter deserves to be copied more. In WoW, quest-givers move to new zones in pursuit of their own goals, the landscape is transfigured by story events, fast-travel points are generously spaced, and every wilderness sometimes holds rare mobs that give you a reason to visit. In Inquisition and in most of its open-world cohorts, the map is static.

See also: Four Things I Learned While Writing A Book About Super Mario Bros. 2

Inquisition’s maps are finely illustrated, though, and an area cleared of icons wouldn’t look out of place printed inside a fantasy hardcover. It’s one of the only navigation aids I saw this year that avoids a technical, schematic appearance—even the terrain of FC4 looks like a grainy satellite capture when you zoom in. DA:I doesn’t maintain the extravagant detail of its War Table map on its blown-up area maps, but I doubt anyone expected it to.

A few major games this year escaped the influence of the Ubimap. Grimrock II carries on the old practice of step-by-step, tile-by-tile exploration, and its directions and riddles require actual study of one’s surroundings. (Kentucky Route Zero and Grimrock II sometimes feel like the last two games in the world that still trust you to find an old oak or take the second left after the crossing without marking it with a beacon visible from space.) As mentioned above, Persona Q gets even closer to the days of manual mapping, though it saves everyone graph paper by providing a digital grid.

Alien: Isolation: One Of The Most Tactile Digital Maps Ever Made

The real map of the year wasn’t of a dungeon, though it came from another game where every step counted. It was even laid over a grid. Of course I mean the lovably antiquated, closely packed, curiously aqua-colored widescreen schematics of the Sevastopol in Alien: Isolation, which are always on the verge of being snowed in by the inches of static piling at the base of the screen.

See also: Hatsune Miku Is Here To Destroy Everything You Love (And Hate) About Pop Stardom

I have no doubt that it’s one of the most tactile digital maps ever made. Just listen to the snap and whirr of unseen reels as you zoom—not in one continuous motion, but shuddering between two fixed positions. Listen to the plonk of the new button used to switch floors. For once, the map isn’t just in your head. Ripley collects it personally, pulling new layouts from glowing terminals around the station.

And sometimes this analog masterpiece is wrong, apparently by design. One of the game’s peak suspense sequences later on, for instance, makes you explore an altered area of the ship where your map critically misleads you. But it’ll occasionally lead you astray even before that, sending you to the wrong floor or to a vent that’s not there. The magical thing is that I think sometimes the map wasn’t even at fault. I was just livid that it left me room to make my own mistakes.

The mission of many game mapmakers is to destroy ambiguity. Isolation infuriated people by restoring it. In Isolation, you are only human and your map is only a map. You look at the map and make a plan, and sometimes your plan is only a guess. No onscreen marker stops you from taking the second right instead of the third, even when the second right means death. The gap between our memory of the map and the reality of it becomes a space for fear to grow.

Since no actually qualified individuals seem to be rating the year’s maps, it falls to me. Alien: Isolation receives every award. Best Map Design. Best Map Font. Best Adapted Map. Rookie of the Year. Thanks, Creative Assembly. Carry these accolades in your head, like an image of Michael’s driveway.

More From Kill Screen

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Pigs Fly And VMware Vaults Into The Top-3 OpenStack Vendors

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 16:34

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OpenStack can make for strange bedfellows.

If any one vendor served as the proprietary bogeyman to motivate the creation of an open source private cloud stack, it’s VMware. For more than a decade, the virtualization giant owned the core infrastructure of Global 2000 data centers, only to have the industry fight back in 2010 with the non-profit OpenStack Foundation. As the industry rallied around open-source OpenStack, proprietary VMware looked to be reeling.

That was then. This is now.

Today VMware is emerging as a serious champion of OpenStack, pivoting quickly to prove that they were not going to be the next victim of Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma.” With few customers lining up to use vCloud Director, VMware has augmented its otherwise proprietary approach with OpenStack. 

VMware also found an unlikely OpenStack champion: Mirantis, the last remaining private pure-play OpenStack vendor. Mirantis was the first OpenStack vendor to announce support for VMware’s hypervisor technology, vCenter. 

Boris Renski

Today, the two companies published a Mirantis OpenStack reference architecture for VMware vCenter Server and VMware NSX. Publicly available for download, Mirantis OpenStack lets customers deploy and control workloads that run on VMware vSphere in their VMware vCenter Server clusters within Mirantis OpenStack. 

I spoke with Boris Renski, Mirantis co-founder and CMO, and board member of the OpenStack Foundation, to understand his company’s coopetition with VMware and how he thinks the virtualization giant will fare with OpenStack customers.

ReadWriteI thought VMware was the enemy of OpenStack–the proprietary private cloud solution?

Renski: I can’t speak for VMware, but I can assure you that from our perspective as the largest standalone OpenStack vendor, we take VMware very seriously. They recognize that their sophisticated customer base wants to get more value out of their investments in VMware while also wanting the flexibility of working with alternative open source cloud solutions like OpenStack. Big companies are not going to allow a single vendor to determine their computing fate. When Pat Gelsinger, the CEO of VMware, gives a keynote address at VMworld committing the company to OpenStack support, it sends a message that they’re here to stay. 

Every infrastructure vendor does “OpenStack something” today. I separate those vendors into two buckets: ones who have a real OpenStack strategy backed by an engineering investment and ones who use OpenStack as a checkmark in their marketing story. 

The more I work with VMware, the more it becomes clear to me that VMware Integrated OpenStack is a strategic move that follows customer demand. This motivates our announcement today, where we have made it easier for VMware customers to run OpenStack alongside VMware’s solutions.

RW: The same Gelsinger who moans that , "We all lose if [applications] end up in these commodity public clouds" like Amazon Web Services and, presumably, OpenStack," right? Let's get real. VMware is battling at the technology level to ensure that customers continue to embrace its ESXi hypervisor technology to fight for market share.

BR: I’ll concede that, powered by the KVM hypervisor, OpenStack indirectly competes with ESXi. 

But it’s important to remember that cloud infrastructure has two very different use cases. One is the systems administrator use case. Systems administrators want to manage process, policy and security while provisioning infrastructure to their internal customers. Historically, both VMware and Red Hat designed their solutions with the systems administrator use case as their focus–VMware with vCenter and Red Hat with RHEL Virtualization.

The other is the developer use case. Developers don’t want to deal with the systems administrators or processes; they want direct, self-service access to their infrastructure. Both VMware and Red Hat are effectively using their existing “system administrator” offerings to wedge themselves into organizations to go after developers. The key difference is that VMware is a standard for at least 60% of systems administrators, whereas the RHEL Virtualization footprint in the enterprise is virtually non-existent.

RW: It makes sense that an enterprise would look to a company like Mirantis for OpenStack software and support, given that you're a core contributor and have been selling your own OpenStack distribution into the Global 2000 market now for more than a year with some noted successes, like the $30M Ericsson deal earlier this year. From your perspective, why would an enterprise customer look to VMware for OpenStack? Wouldn't they more likely turn to a “known” OpenStack vendor like Mirantis or Red Hat?

BR: Actually, I think VMware will overtake Red Hat in OpenStack sales in 2015. In fact, I doubt Red Hat will manage to stay in the top three in OpenStack revenues and workloads managed next year. Mirantis is seeing great customer traction, and we aim to keep the lead (grins). I predict we will be followed by HP and VMware. 

Yes, VMware. How has VMware vaulted into the top ranks so quickly? 

The main reason OpenStack is so popular is because it enables one to leverage existing infrastructure investments. For example, if you already have storage from NetApp, a load balancer from A10 and vCenter licenses, you can layer OpenStack right on top and have yourself a cloud. This works great for Mirantis because we have no ulterior infrastructure agenda. It poses a problem for vendors who have to compete with existing infrastructure investments. 

Enterprises invested a lot more in VMware infrastructure than they did in RHEL. They will have no reason to switch to “RHEL Integrated OpenStack” when it functions as a rip-and-replace of VMware with no less lock-in. VMware Integrated OpenStack will be a shoo-in.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Everything We Know About Wannabe YouTube Killer Vessel

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 15:25

Categories:

Web

New Web video startup Vessel plans to challenge YouTube in 2015. And with the might of Hulu chief executive Jason Kilar and chief technology officer Richard Tom standing behind it, Vessel could even have a chance.

The target of speculation since July, Vessel released an update on its progress on Wednesday that suggests the site will finally open up “early next year.”

Until then, here’s everything we know about the startup so far:

Vessel Will Offer Ad-Free Subscriptions

It’s hard to imagine the people behind Hulu providing ad-free video, but that’s exactly what’s happening here. If you’re tired of watching your favorite YouTube vloggers like Shane Dawson and Ingrid Nilsen with ads, Vessel will provide a place for you to watch them ad-free and sooner than everyone else for a monthly subscription of $2.99. It will accomplish this by signing contracts with stars that grant Vessel exclusive rights to their videos for a period anywhere from three days to a month.

But Really, Vessel Is A Service For Vloggers

For something like Vessel to turn a profit, it needs the support of video bloggers, including some of YouTube’s recognizable stars. So Kilar has emphasized that vloggers who use Vessel will earn about 20 times more than they do on “ad supported sites,” such as YouTube. “During the early access period on Vessel, we estimate that creators will earn approximately $50 for every thousand views,” the Vessel update states. Meanwhile, YouTube pays creators around $2 per every thousand views.

Vessel Will Take Advantage Of Existing YouTube Beefs

Creators on YouTube only keep 55% of their earnings. For years now, vloggers have been nagging YouTube to pay them more while exploring alternate revenue options. This is making it easy for Vessel to reach out to YouTube’s top 100 to 200 content creators to offer them deals. YouTube hasn’t had to pay content creators more because there wasn’t any incentive. That could make it easy for Vessel to profit heavily off of the stars YouTube made big.

"Despite the many positive things that the Internet has made possible in media, to date there hasn't been a clear path for most of these talented creators to build sustainable, enduring businesses on the basis of their video storytelling alone," Kilar wrote. "We believe that media can, and should, do much better."

Vessel isn’t even out yet, but YouTube should be getting worried. While Vessel doesn’t poach stars away, it could snag viewers. After all, if they’ve already watched stars’ content on Vessel, there’s no reason to watch it on YouTube or anywhere else.

Photo by Vessel

Amazon Rolls Out One-Hour Delivery Service In Manhattan

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 14:31

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Web

Imagine if you could order something you desperately needed, and get it delivered a mere hour later. That’s the reality of Prime Now, the service Amazon is rolling out in parts of Manhattan today and several additional cities in 2015.

See also: Amazon Reportedly Hitting The Bricks With A Store In New York

Customers who use Prime Now can have toys, books, and essentials like paper towels and batteries delivered to their doorsteps within sixty minutes for $7.99. Additionally, if users opt to wait a grueling two hours for their Prime Now delivery, shipping is free. Prime Now will be available from 6 AM to midnight, seven days a week via Amazon’s new Manhattan hub.

This isn’t the first time companies have attempted to bring one-day shipping to New York. The failed Kozmo.com and Urbanfetch attempted the same in the late ‘90s, and were both out of business by 2001. Fifteen years later, Amazon might succeed where they failed based on sheer size and experience. After all, Amazon has already offered same-day delivery in New York and other cities for years.

Will your city be next? Amazon hasn’t revealed anything yet, but said it will notify users when information is available through the Prime Now app.

Screenshot via Amazon

How Zendesk Reluctantly Staked Out A Customer-Support Empire

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 14:00

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ReadWrite's Inside Tech series takes a close look at the workspaces and office culture of companies creating new technologies.

Mikkel Svane, the CEO of Zendesk, nervously runs his hands through his luxurious, dark mane as he tries to explain how he got here.

He's sitting in a light-filled conference room overlooking Market Street in a still-rough part of San Francisco, on the top floor of a building. He's just a few blocks away from a hotel where he remembers waiting for a phone call that never came from venture capitalists who rejected his pitch to invest in Zendesk, then a nascent Danish startup offering Web-based tools for customer support.

He kept coming back to San Francisco, though, and by 2009, he'd made it his and Zendesk's home. He was so determined to put down roots here that he spent two years without getting in an airplane. He and his cofounders, Alex Aghassipour and Morten Primdahl, embraced the city's scrappy startup lifestyle, an adventure Svane chronicled in his new book Startupland.

Zendesk engineers in San Francisco spin their chairs around to talk.How To Expand Without Expanding

Svane eventually had to face the gates at San Francisco International again. By 2011, Zendesk was growing explosively fast, and it couldn't hire enough engineers in San Francisco.

Zendesk's first stop was Svane's old stomping grounds in Copenhagen. Since then it's spread to Melbourne, Australia; Dublin, Ireland; London; and recently Singapore, through the acquisition of a live-chat startup called Zopim in April. It's also set up a second American customer-support base in Madison, Wisconsin.

Along the way, it managed to go public in May during a rough patch for the markets, and has nearly doubled in value since then to $1.8 billion.

What Svane's been trying to preserve, now that he's the CEO of a public company with more than 800 employees, is the simultaneous sense of looseness and rootedness he found when the company first moved to San Francisco. How can it share one culture across continents—without adopting the kind of bureaucracy he hated back in the days when he worked as a consultant in Denmark?

One of Svane's key hires was Adrian McDermott, now the company's senior vice president of product development, who joined Zendesk in 2010. One of his first challenges: finding more developers familiar with Ruby on Rails, the framework Zendesk's founders had used to build the product.

Go Home, Young Entrepreneur

"By 2011, every person in San Francisco who could vaguely code Ruby had multiple job offers," McDermott recalls. "You began to ask yourself, is our growth as a company going to be constrained by our ability to hire hipsters in San Francisco?"

At Zendesk, Jesper Christiansen chats with Saroj Yadav while Adrian McDermott looks on.

So the company took on hipsters in Copenhagen instead—codeslingers like Jesper Christiansen. (Ruby on Rails has strong ties to Denmark—its creator, David Heinemeier Hansson, is Danish, and previously worked for Svane at another company.)

Christiansen transferred to San Francisco this summer, but he recalls Zendesk's early days of being a multinational as rocky.

"The time difference is hard for us," says Christiansen. "It's something we struggled with in Copenhagen. You got some introduction to the codebase and then we were on our own. You didn't have that person you could ask for help."

Engineers in San Francisco would roll out changes to the codebase—and then expect their colleagues in Copenhagen to stay up to fix bugs.

"It wasn't as big a deal for me because I was single," says Christiansen. "Some of my coworkers definitely suffered more than I did."

Zendesk Jockeys

The solution was to break up Zendesk's product into pieces that each office would own, so that no one would have to wake up their colleagues at midnight. Copenhagen now manages Zendesk's self-service support tools, for example, while the Dublin office is taking over mobile apps and Zendesk's voice-support product. Zopim, the Singaporean acquisition, is continuing to run its chat product. Zendesk now has engineers organized into 23 "scrum teams."

Wenchao Ng, Yang Bin, Jason Smale and Hoang Trinh work on the Zopim-Zendesk integration. (Photo courtesy of Zendesk)

Zendesk also stopped trying to have one global engineering-management meeting, says Jason Smale, the company's director of engineering for Asia Pacific in Melbourne, Australia. Finding a time that worked for Europe, San Francisco, and Asia was impossible—it meant the Australians stayed up until 2 a.m. So instead, San Francisco takes turn hosting a call with Europe and Asia, and someone takes notes for the other teams.

Having multiple offices also made it hard to track what teams were working on in their latest sprints, or work cycles.

"Team projects and details were all over the place," McDermott recalls. "Rather than having a common tool to manage all their progress, the Danes decided to film what they were working on, Dogme style, with cell phones. The Irish team was taking photos of their Post-It scrum board. And the Australians had gone surfing."

McDermott and his engineering managers did, however, eventually decide on a single tool for sprint planning—a relatively rare intrusion into the autonomy of teams.

Going With The Flow

There are some other companywide standards. Zendesk uses Yammer for casual chatter—where you might learn about colleagues' birthdays or kids—and Flowdock for work-focused chat within teams. And employees do a lot of videoconferencing.

Trans-Pacific conference calls now involve Australia, Singapore, and San Francisco.

There's not the same making-it-up-as-they-go feel Zendesk had in its early days. In Startupland, Svane recounts how he hired Amanda Kleha away from Google to work on product marketing—and then sent her to the Apple Store on her first day after forgetting to get her a laptop.

That kind of thing doesn't happen anymore. It can't, given Zendesk's pace of hiring: It's doubled its staff in the past year.

"Half of the team has been with the company for less than a year," says Svane. "You need healthy processes, structures, communication, to be able to scale. It's about certainty, when you start with a company, there's an onboarding process."

Despite Svane's personal aversion to planes, he now embraces flying his employees around (to his CFO's chagrin). Every new employee comes to headquarters in San Francisco—and does a stint answering emails in Zendesk's own customer-service operation. Others go from office to office to work on projects, or relocate to a different office around the world.

McDermott and colleagues meet over sushi at headquarters.

Beyond an emphasis on simplicity in design and kindness in interactions with customers—traits Svane and his cofounders packed in their bags with them when they first moved from Denmark to America—there's little emphasis on doing things in a unified "Zendesk way." 

Instead, Svane and McDermott look for independent thinkers, especially when starting up new offices. They also look for cities that, like San Francisco, have an entrepreneurial culture. It's as far from the consulting world Svane once worked in as he can make it, while still running a fast-growing, multinational company with hundreds of employees effectively.

"One principle that I like is leaving enough room for interpretation," says Svane. The company's business processes are "not fully baked yet," he says, retaining "a certain element of ambiguity."

He points to Zendesk's decision to open up an office in Madison, Wisconsin, as an example of the company's go-with-the-flow decisionmaking. Zendesk had hired two support employees from Madison, with a plan to relocate them to San Francisco. Suddenly they needed to hire more people, and the Madison hires had friends who were ready to join. The next thing Svane knew, that team had turned into a 60-person office, and now serves as Zendesk's primary customer-support center.

No corporate planner would pick Madison: It's not a hub for a major airline and most flights involve changing planes. But once Svane suffers through the flight there, the quiet college town reminds him of Copenhagen. It's a pleasant place. Very Zendesk, in its own particular way.

San Francisco photos by Owen Thomas and Stephanie Ellen Chan for ReadWrite; others courtesy Zendesk

A Yoga App Kicks MyFitnessPal Off The Top Of The Charts

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 11:48

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ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.

If you obsessively track App Annie's rankings for top health and fitness apps like I do—okay, I'm probably alone in this habit—you'll have seen a familiar pattern: MyFitnessPal and Fitbit trading the top ranks, with a handful of pregnancy trackers and workout apps rounding out the top 10.

That changed over the past week when FitStar launched FitStar Yoga, the sequel to its popular Personal Trainer. 

FitStar Yoga hit the No. 1 spot shortly after it launched on December 11, and has held that position for most of this week. FitStar's original app, by contrast, had a slower debut; the iPad version briefly hit No. 1, while the iPhone version never claimed that spot and peaked at the No. 3 spot earlier this year.

Alexis McDowel, a FitStar spokesperson, said the app reached the No. 1 spot organically—meaning the company didn't spend money on app-install adds or other paid promotions. Instead, it benefitted from prominent placement in Apple's App Store, some publicity, and email and other marketing to existing FitStar users.

One of the things I've puzzled over in my ReadWriteBody columns is what exactly makes a hit fitness app. There are a number of workout apps focused on outdoor cardio; these run trackers suffer from a certain sameness.

See also: Running In Circles: I Can't Pick The Right Running App

Both the original FitStar app and the new yoga app, produced in conjunction with yoga expert and book author Tara Stiles, have a remarkable level of fit and polish. The app seamlessly weaves video clips together into a custom-generated workout. I've tried other apps that attempt to do this, and they suffer from maddening audio glitches or crashes that ruin the experience. Other simpler yoga apps are stable, but they just display a library of poses, without any interactive or personalized features. The extent to which FitStar nailed the basic mechanics of a fitness app can't be underestimated here.

There's also the undeniable popularity of yoga, and Stiles' own following. Those can't hurt its downloads.

A 3.5-star rating, held down by some users reporting crashes, suggests FitStar has some work to do. (FitStar's original app now has a solid 5-star rating.) While I experienced some glitches, I was testing a beta version, so I can't speak to the build quality of the final version. If FitStar's technical team can work those out, it has a good shot at maintaining its lead in the charts.

Building The Perfect Yoga App

FitStar's engineers should be loose and limber by now. The company put its team of engineers to the test, including CTO Dave Grijalva, who can now do a mean crow pose, a tricky move where you balance on your arms. Getting actual experience with yoga led them to rethink some aspects of their original app—for example, the way it constantly asks participants to rate the difficulty of a move so it can adjust future workouts.

"With yoga, it's all about flow," says Grijalva. "We can't interrupt it constantly."

See also: Why FitStar Decided Its Workout Algorithm Needed To Shape Up

FitStar also had to rethink the structure of its app. Instead of just showing a series of moves, FitStar had to film and organize the transitions from one pose to another. In total, FitStar recorded 300 poses and 1,400 transitions with Stiles and other models.

Grijalva had to write a custom software tool to generate a schedule for the video shoots in order to get them all done in time. It took 25 minutes on a beefy Amazon Web Services server for that program to run.

His team also had to translate the innate logic of yoga—which poses made sense in which sequence—into a set of rules its software could follow.

"The gap was huge," says Grijalva. "We would have her give us a sequence and have her talk through the logic. She was doing it instinctively and we would reverse engineer how to do it. I don't think any of us appreciated how hard it would be to do yoga sequence generation."

Even the music—an important part of yoga sessions—is custom-generated for each workout.

The result is remarkable. In my limited testing, I found the FitStar yoga workouts pleasantly challenging. I'm probably going to stick with my local Bikram yoga studio, because the heated room and social environment are difficult to replicate with an app, and I don't like to exercise at home in my small apartment. But if I were the type who liked to exercise at home, FitStar Yoga would be a natural choice. It's also appealing as a hotel-room workout when I travel.

The app, available on iOS, is free—but you'll need a $4.99/month subscription to unlock personalized yoga workouts.

Screenshots via FitStar

Street View Comes To Google Cardboard

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 11:06

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Samsung's Note 4 is too big for Cardboard, though you can hold it in manually. But Samsung has its own Gear VR headset, and larger versions of Cardboard also exist.

Two cheap thrills, made better by joining forces: Google Cardboard now works with Google Maps to offer virtual Street View tours. 

To check it out, you’ll need the latest updates for the Cardboard and Google Maps apps, both of which are free and downloadable from the Play Store. You will, of course, also need the DIY virtual reality goggles—literally constructed from a cardboard sheet outfitted with lenses.

See also: Google Cardboard Gets Software Development Kit For VR Apps

Launch Google Maps, turn on Street View and then double-tap the "look-around" icon at the bottom, right. The display splits into two, signaling that it’s in VR mode. Put the phone in the box, and then peep the virtual streets. You can even turn your head left or right, and watch as the view pans around. 

The new capability isn’t so much a feature as an "Easter Egg”—a hidden surprise buried inside the software to delight users. Google tipped its hand in a Google+ blog post that explains how to access Street View’s new stereoscopic VR mode.

Of course, you won’t get the full VR experience. Cardboard clearly can’t do the sort of head-tracking required to let you walk around, only pan around. But it’s still very cool, considering the experience comes from your phone and a corrugated paper box.

To view out other cool projects, like the new Hobbit VR Experience cardboard app, launch the main Cardboard app and tap “Get Cardboard Apps.” You can also visit Google’s new dedicated section in the Play Store. Then hold tight, because a lot more will likely flood the store, now that there’s a software development kit available for it

Your virtual tour of Middle Earth, thanks to The Hobbit VR Experience

No Google Cardboard? No problem. You can grab one of these $20-$25 cheapies here. 

Developers of all types are going after virtual reality projects in a big way now, from media companies, game makers and retailers to educators. Many of them will probably wind up making things for Google's cheap VR item, just to give a taste of what they’re up to. In that way, this goofy little face box could be the year’s most exciting development in virtual reality. Sorry, Samsung Gear VR. 

Photos by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite

Square Is Resurrecting Wallet, Its Pay-By-Name Mobile App, And Giving It Away

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 09:30

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Wallet, the pay-by-name app that payments company Square introduced in 2011 and discontinued earlier this year, is back, according to an email Square sent to users Thursday.

Square is "retiring" Wallet but its putting its key feature—the ability to pay in stores by saying your name, without taking out a wallet or even your phone—inside Square Order. And it is offering the service to merchants for free—a powerful lure as powerful competitors like Apple, Amazon, and PayPal court the same retailers.

Square Order, an app Square introduced as it discontinued Wallet, allows for customers to place orders ahead of time to pick up in stores. That app is now adding a feature called Tabs, which is picking up where Wallet left off as a way of paying without having to swipe a card.

Johnny Brackett, a Square spokesperson, confirmed the change to ReadWrite, saying that a "subset" of Wallet users had received the email.

"There’s been a lot of talk in the Valley about Wallet failing," Brackett says. "Wallet didn’t fail, but it did need to evolve."

Current Square Wallet users can access the feature by downloading Square Order and logging in with their existing accounts. Other curious users may be able to add the pay-by-name feature by entering a promotional code, TABSPREVIEW, into their apps. In a test, a ReadWrite colleague who had not previously used Wallet was able to add the feature to her Order app using that code.

Square Order now lets customers open virtual "tabs" to pay for purchases.New Life For An Aging Innovation

At the time Square introduced Wallet, it was seen as a true innovation in payments, fundamentally changing the payment experience. It made for a great demonstration, and won Square a lot of publicity, but it failed to catch on with consumers, who were used to swiping credit cards.

One issue with Wallet may have been its profitability. Square charges most merchants a 2.75% fee on transactions, while it pays varying rates to banks and credit-card processors. On most transactions, it makes a healthy profit, but on smaller purchases, it may lose money.

See also: Companies, If Not Consumers, Clamor For Apple Pay

Rules set by Visa and MasterCard treat transactions like Wallet as similar to online transactions, where a plastic card isn't swiped. These so-called "card not present" transactions carry higher fees, which means that Square was more likely to lose money on Wallet transactions.

When Square replaced Wallet with Order, it seemed to have an answer: Initially, Order transactions would carry the same 2.75% fee, but that fee was supposed to rise to 8% on July 1, 2014.

According to Brackett, the fee increase for Order never kicked in. And the company quietly cut the charge on Order transactions to 0% in recent months.

Pay-by-name transactions in Order will also cost merchants nothing for the time being.

A promotional code unlocks Square Order's new Wallet-like pay-by-name feature.

"We found a way to reduce the cost to zero," Brackett says. That's the cost to merchants, not the actual cost of the transactions. Brackett didn't elaborate on how the company is handling the cost of such transactions, but it is likely that Square is bearing the cost of fees imposed by card processors and banks in the hopes of getting merchants to adopt Order. It's also possible that Square is getting some assistance from partners; JP Morgan Chase and Visa are investors in the company.

Square is also giving away in-store marketing materials, like posters, coffee sleeves, and vinyl banners.

Courting Consumers, After Taking A Break

The new push to get merchants and consumers to adopt Order is a surprisingly aggressive move for Square on a couple of fronts. 

First, Square had largely deemphasized marketing its consumer products in recent months, focusing its website and public-relations efforts almost exclusively on reaching merchants. Second, Square had also emphasized profit-making moves—like the higher rate it initially planned to charge for Order transactions—amid reports that it was aggressively spending the money it had raised from investors.

See also: Square Beware! Amazon Goes In For The Kill

According to Brackett, Order is being led by Gokul Rajaram, a high-profile product expert Square hired away from Google last year, suggesting it has now become a high priority for the company to reach out to consumers again.

One casualty of the move to eliminate the old Wallet app: Square's partnership with Starbucks for mobile-app payments. While Square continues to process credit- and debit-card payments for Starbucks, there's no way to make phone payments with Square Order. (Square Wallet never allowed for pay-by-name payments at Starbucks stores; instead, Wallet displayed a code that baristas scanned.)

The ability to pay with your phone at Starbucks via Square will go away when Square pulls the plug on the old Wallet app, in other words—unless Square gets Starbucks to sign up for Order. That appears unlikely, since Starbucks is introducing order-ahead functions to its own app, which it is currently testing in Portland, Oregon.

"We have nothing to share regarding Starbucks offering Order," says Brackett. Maggie Jantzen, a spokesperson for Starbucks, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Square's move comes as it faces increasing competition for ways to pay in stores. Apple Pay, a tap-to-pay system currently limited to Apple's newest smartphones and tablets, is signing up more banks and merchants. And PayPal, which copied Square's pay-by-name feature in its mobile app, is aggressively marketing the feature in stores and on billboards in San Francisco and other cities. PayPal is also letting merchants add mobile payments features to their own apps; it recently signed up Burger King, for example. Amazon has also introduced a product, Local Register, which is undercutting Square on pricing by charging merchants a slightly lower fee of 2.5% on transactions.

In October, Square raised $150 million in fresh financing. It's clearly determined to put some of that new money to use getting merchants and consumers to embrace its Order app.

Photo by Adrian Cleave for ReadWrite

Tech Hiring Is Poised To Break Records In 2015

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 17:32

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There has never been a better time to be in software, and the hiring trends prove it. According to Dice.com's semi-annual report, tech hiring is at unprecedented levels. For tech professionals, this means that now is the time to ask for a better, higher-paying job. 

Which may not actually be what developers want.

Tech Hiring Is Eating The World

Forget partying like it's 1999. As software becomes essential to the operation of all business, tech professionals are seeing their stock rise to record-breaking levels, as Dice.com's December hiring report reveals.

To wit:

  • 75% of recruiters anticipate hiring more tech professionals in the first six months of 2015 than the last six months of 2014, up from 70% in June 2014;
  • 72% of companies are planning to expand by more than 10% in early 2015, up from 68% in June 2014 and 65% in December 2013;
  • Because of this demand, 64% of hiring managers report having candidates ask for more money (up from 61% in June 2014); and 
  • 40% of hiring managers report an increase in "take this job and shove it" voluntary departures, a 6-point jump from June 2014. 

These are unprecedented levels of hiring for Dice's semi-annual survey, and suggests, yet again, that software is eating the world. After all, most of these jobs aren't being posted by Silicon Valley startups. Instead mainstream enterprises are desperately seeking software talent. 

Money Can't Buy Me Love

Despite the competition for talent, money ultimately may not be what tech professionals, and especially developers, want most. Companies seeking to entice developers should pay attention.

See also: How To Avoid The Community Of Open Source Jerks

Ruurd Keizer, for example, asks why developers don't make millions of dollars (of course, some do). The answer, he notes, is that "great developers love what they do ... simply playing with new technologies and writing awesome code." Greg Kroah-Hartman, a top Linux kernel maintainer, says it this way: "As for a hobby, it's a real problem, my hobby became my job so then what do I do for a hobby?"

The problem for developers, however, is that in a larger enterprise, they're buried under layers of management that can't recognize just how potent their contributions are. Keizer writes:

Even if a great developer manages to pass this indiscriminate hiring wall, and turns out to be a real asset, between him and the CEO there are 9001 layers of management, each of which has to earn more than the last, irrespective of their actual contribution to the company. In this sense the position of developers is much like the one of coffee bean farmers, in that a very small percentage of the money reaches the ones creating the actual product. This still wouldn’t be a problem if development was a more visible art, like sports or music. Developers would be recognized as the creative force and the discrepancy would be impossible to sell to a larger audience.

All of which is true. But in my experience it's that "love of coding" that most inspires developers. Money really inspires no one. 

VisionMobile has actually studied this, and found that most developers want the ability to express themselves through code, not mountains of money:

Recruit And Retain

All of which suggests that if you're trying to hire great technical talent, money can't be the only perk you offer. Companies like Facebook, Twitter and Netflix, for example, actively encourage their developers to contribute to open-source projects, as this satisfies both the need for community and the "fun" aspect of developer desires noted above. 

See also: Corporate Programming Languages: The New Lock-In

The other key ingredient, as former Netflix cloud chief Adrian Cockroft highlights, is cloud. Otherwise put, the more you can do to get developers in the door and then get out of their way, the better. 

Hiring managers seem to be getting the message. According to the Dice.com report, 43% of those surveyed report seeing more counteroffers from a recruit's existing employer, up from 33% just six months prior. The competition for tech talent, in short, is fierce. 

Better give developers what they want. Money is only part of it.

BlackBerry Launches The Classic, Its Best Hope Yet For Salvation

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 17:13

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BlackBerry has finally launched its new-old smartphone, the keyboard-bearing BlackBerry Classic.

The phone, which has been available on pre-order for a month, offers users a rather unique proposition these days: a physical keyboard. The company earned its stripes with devices bearing hardware QWERTY keyboards, and some might argue that BlackBerry’s business really began to slide when it ditched them to hop on the touchscreen trend. 

See also: BlackBerry Goes Back To The Future With Its "BlackBerry Classic"

The Classic offers both—a keyboard and a touch-enabled display that’s actually larger than the one featured in its last hit, the Bold 9900. Along for the ride are the familiar physical navigation keys and trackpad. Altogether, the phone should provide plenty of nostalgia for old-time BlackBerry lovers.

Whether that's enough to make it the hit the company so badly needs is another question.

The Classic Bid To Get Back In The Black

There’s no strange keyboard layout, like the weird one with three rows of keys in BlackBerry's Passport. The Classic's keys, touchscreen and shortcuts were designed to let users fly through their communications “triage,” so they can select blocks of emails or zip through texts with lightning replies, even without looking at the keys. 

Like previous BlackBerrys, those buttons have tactile contours and plenty of responsive spring when pressed, which should please touch typists. Folks who treasure the ability to manage their device with one hand should note that this phone is also much smaller than the Passport, and was designed for one-handed use—more like the old Bold 9900 from 2011. 

The Classic's other hardware specifications seem to come from that era too. The device features a dual-core Qualcomm processor, 2GB of RAM, a 1230 mAh battery and a 3.5-inch touchscreen (at 720 x 720 pixels, 294 dpi HD resolution). 

BlackBerry, perhaps trying to get in front of any criticism of its compact screen, notes that the display is still 40% bigger than that of the Bold. Jeff Gadway, head of product and brand marketing, also pointed out that "when you bring up a keyboard on an iPhone and compare it with the Classic, the [Classic's] display is within 4%." Of course, he didn't mention which of Apple's super-sized iPhone he was referring to, though it's all but certain he wasn't talking about the monstrous iPhone 6 Plus. 

As for battery life, while the capacity of that power cell doesn't look too impressive, the company made software optimizations that, it says, should keep it going for 22 hours. The smaller screen ought to help save power as well. 

While the lack of screen space and mediocre specs may disappoint mobile gamers, the internals should be perfectly adequate for the productivity-minded folks BlackBerry has aimed the Classic at. So if you just need a self-described "workhorse" to plow through messages, this device should be up to the challenge. 

A Blast That's Better Than The Past?

BlackBerry makes direct comparisons with the Bold, which had plenty of fans. Now the company can’t help but emphasize how the Classic offers similar design cues, but a greatly improved experience, with:

  • A browser that’s three times faster
  • A display with 60% more space
  • Battery life that’s 50% longer

Classic also features an 8-megapixel rear camera, a 2-megapixel selfie camera in front and the latest version of the BlackBerry OS. 

Version 10.3.1 brings with it heightened security, which should please companies, and productivity tools like the Hub, Assistant and Blend—the latter of which lets users manage their work Classics using their personal computers. 

Perhaps the most noteworthy change between the old and new BlackBerries: Android apps. The Classic offers two app stores and can run apps from the Amazon App Store as well as BlackBerry World.

This device is clearly all business, which is actually rather savvy. BlackBerry is going after smartphone users who have been largely ignored lately: hardware keyboard fans, phablet haters who still value one-handed use, and people who demand a long-lasting device. That makes for a blast from the past that could be the company’s smartest play in years. 

The BlackBerry Classic is now available worldwide for $449 (unlocked) at retail stores and online at ShopBlackBerry.com and Amazon. For more information, visit the official product page

Screenshots of BlackBerry's press conference in New York, by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite

Facebook Will Enhance Your Photos For You

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 16:16

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Facebook will auto-enhance newly uploaded photos beginning Tuesday, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine reports.

See also: Facebook Is Going To Start Tracking You Even More Closely

In the age of the smartphone, everyone carries a camera around wherever they go. That doesn’t mean we’re all professional photographers though, or that we want to be. Facebook’s new automated service will make it so users don’t have to worry about DIY filtering.

Before the change was implemented, Facebook would show you your unedited photo, give you an option to apply a one-size-fits-all enhancement, or tweak it yourself. Facebook says the automatic enhancement will be faster and more custom than the status quo.

Facebook isn’t the only social site that’s focused on making image sharing simpler. Twitter and Instagram both just rolled out new filters. In lieu of filters, Google+ offers an auto-enhance function similar to the one Facebook is implementing now. 

Photo by Cubmundo

What Your Business Can Learn From Ello

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 15:00

Categories:

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Guest author Yoav Vilner is a co-founder of Ranky.

It’s almost 2015, and it’s time everyone realized that users matter more than anything. Yes, more than the actual product and far more than the short-term revenue that app developers and social networks can earn off them.

Yet not everyone gets that. Certainly not Facebook, which—as this recent Time piece illustrates—is still busy aiming to expand across the globe. Facebook isn’t asking for money upfront but rather selling all of our personal data and spanking us with advertisements in order to earn their dough.

It's a strategy Todd Berger, co-founder of the "anti-Facebook" social network Ello, calls its "world domination approach." Ello is taking  a different path—one based on a "freemium" business plan for users that gives them basic access for free, promises not to sell their data to advertisers, and allows them to pay for additional features such as upgraded profile designs.

As Berger told BetaBeat:

“Freemium is working the world over,” Mr. Berger said, “Versus: ‘No, no, it’s free, it’s free! But we’re selling all your data to god knows who at exorbitant rates in order to create new scams for people who didn’t ask for it.'”

Ello offers more than feel-good principles, a potentially ad-free model, and a possible threat to the Facebook throne. Although the social network has taken its share of arrows for an elusive business model, a glitchy site design, and difficulty living up to the enormous wave of interest it started drawing earlier this year, it still offers a key insight for businesses of all stripes.

See also: What The Ell Is Ello? The Ad-Free Social Social Network Everyone Is Talking About

In short, today’s users may prefer to settle for less rather than be exploited and ignored. 

How Ello Is Like Occupy Wall Street

Like the Occupy movement a few years back, Ello is a case of frustrated citizens reclaiming their authority to speak up against giants. Internet users are making it clear they want autonomy: We want to feel that the Internet is ours. We get irked when news leaks of companies abusing our information or privacy because we inherently believe the Internet is a service by the people and for the people. 

No matter what area you work in, the Ello phenomenon serves as a strong reminder that users matter more than profit margin or marketing campaigns. Too often companies behave in a way that shows they seem to believe they are the ones in charge. In fact, though, your business is nothing without customers. 

Ello gained so much traction because its public launch as an ad-free social network timed perfectly with the growing concerns over user privacy and advertisements on Facebook. Online advertisements have become inevitable and inescapable, but there’s a way to advertise while still prioritizing the experience of your customers.

Putting Users First

Today, your customers are huge influencers over the course of your business. This is why we keep hearing about engagement and the importance of creating personal bonds with your online community.

It’s no wonder that successful entrepreneurs are launching new platforms designed to do just that. That would explain Eric Schmidt's investment in Commerce Sciences, which aims for new levels of website personalization and engagement, or the new venture by Soluto co-founder Ishay Green, Spot.IM, which helps websites transform their existing traffic into an on-page social community. 

Treating customers as numbers to collect data, failing to take users’ complaints seriously, and not demonstrating that you care about their needs is a surefire way to lose your customers’ faith and put your entire business at risk. 

“Companies are hunting cookies and IDs, but does that makes the customer happy?” Ivan Guzenko, VP of UK-Based SmartyAds, says. “The customer should return as the king, not as the target audience.”

Guzenko adds: 

The technology used right now to target people is working unfairly. I believe the user should actually get money for viewing ads and disclose only the information he sees right.

Why This All Matters

The Internet marketplace is a nation, and its citizens want a voice. Whether sharing user experiences about local stores online, rating a company on Yelp, or choosing where to spend money, the voices of users matter. 

Take a look at the death of the black market website Silk Road. Users didn’t simply take the FBI's raid of the hidden site as the inevitable end of the Internet black market. Instead, they sought new ways to re-create it. Much the way Ello's functionality remains a pale shadow of what Facebook offers, the bot-ridden Silk Road imitators, replacements may not be up to par with the old model.

Still, users often value authority over quality. Stay at the top of the rat race by giving users a sense of power, control, and voice. 

While Facebook is busy trying to dominate the world by selling the information of their billions of users, Ello is learning from the serious backlash of Facebook’s privacy actions. 

What This Means For Your Business

Think of your competition. Identify the leaders in your niche and figure out their weaknesses. What aren’t they giving their customers? How can you provide customers with those missing elements and possibly convert them to your product or service? How can you improve your advertising and data collecting strategies in a way that genuinely puts customer concerns first?

Because Ello picked up so much steam so fast, it faces a risk of burning out. So avoid following in Ello’s footsteps, and be sure that you can follow up on the promises you make possible clients—or risk even more wrath if your service fails to meet expectations.

Users migrate all the time, so getting them to feel your service is impossible to leave is key. What’s important to learn from Ello is the importance of retaining the customers you already have and strengthening their bond to you. Facebook’s pull is strong—right now, arguably the strongest of all social media sites—but if Facebook doesn’t begin to pay more attention to its users’ concerns, it may be standing on a rickety platform. 

Don’t find yourself in this position—prepare to weather storms with your loyal customers by your side.

Lead photo by Thomas Hawk