Monthly Archives: October 2010

Hipmunk takes the pain out of finding and booking flights

This is republished from Building43, where Rackspace finds world-changing startups and shares those with you.

There’s no shortage of web sites where you can book travel, from Priceline to Kayak to airlines’ own sites. But that doesn’t mean that their standard user interfaces work very well. I sat down with Steve Huffman, co-founder of Hipmunk, to learn about his company’s vision for taking the sting out of booking flights. You can see that full interview here, as we visit their headquarters.

“There are dozens of ways of buying tickets online, all of which, in our opinion, are equally bad and painful,” says Huffman. His friend and co-founder Adam Goldstein suggested they create a travel search startup. “It was no-brainer: having been in a bicoastal relationship for the last four or five years, I know how painful it is to buy tickets,” says Huffman. “It can take hours. And by the time you’re done buying the ticket, you wonder why you’re traveling in the first place.”

What makes Hipmunk different than other booking sites? “We try to present the results in a useful way,” explains Huffman. “So instead of a wall of text that might span 35 pages, we have one simple clean interface where you can see the flights. You can see how they compare to one another and how long the flights are. But we also remove a lot of listings from the results–usually around 70 percent right off the bat.” Hipmunk smartly removes obviously undesirable flights, and you can also plug in your preferred airline so it will always appear in your results.

Huffman knows a thing or two about startups: five years ago, he co-founded Reddit, which was then acquired by Condé Nast. He recommends the startup experience to anyone who really wants to do it: “There is nothing to lose, except time. Especially if you’re a college kid. You spent the last four years living in poverty, what’s another couple going to cost? Worst-case scenario, you effectively give yourself an MBA while you’re learning how to start a company. And you’ll probably make a ton of friends along the way and learn a lot about yourself. Best-case scenario is you do all of that, and get really rich.”

More info:
Hipmunk web site: http://www.hipmunk.com/
Hipmunk blog: http://blog.hipmunk.com/
Hipmunk profile on CrunchBase: http://www.crunchbase.com/company/hipmunk

Animoto makes your photos and videos into magic

This is republished from Building43, where Rackspace looks for world-changing startups:

Many of us take a lot of photos—either with smartphones or dedicated cameras. But how do you tie those photos together into a multimedia experience that you’ll really want to share? Animoto is answering that question.

Animoto creates high-quality videos out of your own photos, video, and music. “You upload your photos, or retrieve them from another site, or push from another site—SmugMug is one example. Then you pick a song, or upload your own song, and that’s it,” says Brad Jefferson, CEO and co-founder of Animoto. “A few minutes later, you get a custom-rendered video. The feeling that we’re trying to produce is that you hand in your SD card or your iPhone photo album to a real Hollywood editor, director, and producer. What would they do to create a narrative arc and maximize the emotion from the footage that you’ve taken?” Watch the Building43 video here to see how it works.

Business is good at Animoto (they became profitable in late 2008), and today they announce new partnerships with users of Photoshop.com and Lightroom. “What we’re trying to solve for is just getting Animoto closer to where the photos already are, so that people don’t have to think about going to our site and then re-uploading,” says Jefferson.

Jefferson says there are possibilities for Animoto on every screen, from a Facebook window to your living room TV. “We think this is how video content needs to be consumed, in a style like Animoto, that really pulls from Hollywood production aesthetics. There’s tons of distribution for that, or products it can be associated with,” he says. “Animoto becomes the movie trailer for your experience.”

More info:
Animoto web site: http://animoto.com/
Animoto blog: http://animoto.com/blog/
Animoto profile on CrunchBase: http://www.crunchbase.com/company/animoto

Chevy Volt’s chief engineer says “this ain’t no hybrid”

This morning I talked with Andrew Farah, chief engineer for the Chevy Volt, and we talked a lot about the reporting in the press that the Chevy Volt is actually some kind of hybrid car. Turns out it could be seen as some kind of “super hybrid” because the gas engine does kick in at some points and can have its energy transmitted to the road. In practice, though, it doesn’t do that in a way that any hybrid owner would recognize (I own a 2010 Toyota Prius, which is a hybrid car. That car uses the gas engine almost constantly to drive the wheels. You can hear and feel the gas engine kick in on almost all accelerations. On the Volt, when I drove it back at the SXSW conference, the gas engine never kicked in.

Anyway, we cover a few of the interesting points of the drivetrain and battery technology that’s underneath this interesting car.

Why do I care?

Because I think, as an American, that one of the most important issues of our time is to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. To do that we need all sorts of innovations to reduce our use of gasoline. Plus, I’m now seeking out conversations every day about world-changing technology and this definitely applies (if you have a world-changing technology you’d like to talk with me about, send me email at scobleizer@gmail.com or give me a call, like Andrew did, at +1-425-205-1921. Using CinchCast on my iPhone I can record our phone call and put it up within minutes for everyone to listen to.

Will the Chevy Volt win in the marketplace? I don’t know.

Is it fun to drive? Absolutely. It accelerates faster than my Prius does.

Does it use less gas? Absolutely. For the first 40 miles you don’t use much gas at all. Since most of the time that’s more than the miles I drive every day that would be perfect for me (you plug it in at night to charge it up).

Anyway, Americans love their cars and I love talking car tech with smart people who build these things. Hope you enjoy and hope you consider one of these new electric (or super hybrids) ones for your next car purchase. Here you can watch my test drive of the Chevy Volt (I will try to do another test drive of the final car soon):

The cattle (or lack thereof) in Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 strategy

Yesterday I wrote that Microsoft had an “all hat, no cattle” mobile phone strategy with Windows Phone 7.

Today I noticed that, while its herd was thin, Microsoft did indeed show up with some cattle.

What were they?

Office. Office. Sharepoint. Office. Office.

OK, like I said, the devices look great and the OS looks better. This is going to be a fun OS to test out and review. Far more fun than, say, getting the latest Nokia phone or Blackberry. Shows that Microsoft’s “get a new hat” strategy is the only way to go if you want to get back in the game. And Microsoft is back in the game, albeit they will get cleaned off the field the way the Phillies cleaned off whoever they were playing last week.

Like I predicted last night there was very little talk about apps this morning at the launch event. If you compare Microsoft’s phones on just apps and functionality they will come up WAY short. Which is why Techcrunch/CrunchGear is saying that Windows Phone 7 has no future. I don’t believe that. It’s just that they have almost no cattle. Will they be able to get some cattle, and hence, a future? Yeah, I think so. I bet a year from now Microsoft will have succeeded in convincing enough developers to write for the phone to make a competent app store.

The problem is, what will Apple do in that time? Remember Siri? Apple bought them. What if Siri got hooked up to all apps?

In the meantime, Microsoft should celebrate the good press it’s getting overall. I’ve curated the best tweets and press into a bundle (I love Curated.by, by the way, neat way to let me put bundles of Tweets together).

So, now that you’ve seen Microsoft’s strategy, will you buy in? Me? I’m not switching from my iPhone or Android phones, but I will buy one to try it out. That’s my job, to keep up on latest stuff. But would I recommend you do that? Not until they get more cattle. Office ain’t enough. Not anymore.

On eve of Windows Phone 7 launch: all hat and no cattle?

I’ve played with Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7. I’ve read all the reviews. I’ve talked with Microsoft’s head of PR. Starting tomorrow morning you will hear more about this new OS and OEM’d product line like nothing since Xbox.

I’m just worried it’s all hat and no cattle.

First, the “hat.”

This OS is beautiful. Unlike Nokia or RIM, Microsoft threw out the old OS and started from scratch. For the first time in a while they didn’t just copy Apple, either. They did a whole new UI from scratch. It uses tiles instead of the little icons on my iPhone. It has a very nice contact manager. It shows you all sorts of information from services and your social network up front.

Buyers who see it in stores will be very impressed and we haven’t really seen the final hardware yet (although tonight on Techmeme some of those details are leaking out as well).

Microsoft has also, according to developers I’ve talked with, spread money out to get the hottest applications ported to Windows Phone 7. I’m sure you’ll see nice Twitter and Facebook apps, along with a good selection of the other kinds of apps that have gotten popular on iPhone and on Android.

Tomorrow we’ll watch to see just what kinds of apps will be released to match those that I love on iPhone. I’m sure that a high percentage are available out the door, and ones that aren’t, like Angry Birds seems not to be, will face a lot of pressure from Microsoft’s money to get on board.

So, what’s the “no cattle?”

1. It doesn’t look like it’ll be available on Verizon. Sorry, but T-Mobile is worse than AT&T (T-Mobile doesn’t even work in my house, while AT&T does). Most of the people who are anti iPhone are that way because of AT&T, not because the OS doesn’t have cool tiles or their Facebook news feed isn’t displayed on the home screen.
2. I would be surprised if there are close to 30,000 apps available to start. Compare to Android, with more than 100,000, and iPhone, with 270,000. In fact, I’ll be amazed if they ship more than 3,000 apps to start. More on why this matters in a second.
3. There will be bugs. One thing I learned while working at Microsoft is that it ships software with bugs. Duh. But so does Apple. The thing is Apple has had several years now to “harden” its OS. Plus, every app developer has shipped many bug fixes. So the whole ecosystem over on Apple is much stronger and less buggy. In just the past week more than 30 of my 356 apps on my iPhone 4 have updated. Most of my favorite apps like Twitter, Facebook (which still sucks on iPhone), Foursquare, etc have had more than five iterative releases.

So, why do apps matter so much?

Because when customers go into their favorite cell phone stores they will be comparing phones to ones their friends have. They do not want to look stupid with their friends. Imagine on Thanksgiving dinner the conversation happens like this:

“Hey, I just got one of those new Windows Phone 7 devices, wanna check it out, I bet it kicks your iPhone’s butt.”

“Sure, but does it have the ‘Bump’ app?”

“Whoa, what’s that?”

“It lets me bump my contact info to you. In fact, another app, the PayPal one, lets me bump you some money. Do you have that? I’ll bump you five bucks.”

“Um, not sure.”

“How about the Twitter app, does your support lists and search? Can you, like Seesmic lets you, post to Google Buzz, Ping.fm, Facebook, and multiple Twitter accounts from one app?”

“Not sure.”

“Do you have the CNN news app that lets you watch live TV? I watched the San Bruno fire live on it. How about SkyGrid? NYTimes? NPR? BBC?”

“Not sure.”

“Can you use RunKeeper or Cyclemeter while you jog or ride your bike?”

“Not sure.”

“Can you check in on Foursquare, Gowalla, Whrrl, Loopt, DeHood, MyTown, Brightkite, to get deals and tell your friends where you are?”

“Not sure, but why would you do that?”

“Can you use Trapster to see where the cops on the freeway are? How about Waze to see driving conditions from other people? Goby to find hiking trails and parks near you?”

“Not sure those are on Windows Phone 7 yet.”

“Can you use TripIt or WorldMate to see flight info? TripAdvisor to find vacation spots? GateGuru to find out what gate your flight home is at? FlightTrack to track your nephew’s flight? Layar to see augmented reality info of that city you’ll visit next? Is Kayak or Hipmunk available to help you find the cheapest and best flights?”

“Not sure.”

“Is Pandora, Shazam, NPR Music, Boxee, Sonos, Last.fm, available on your phone yet?”

“Not sure.”

“Can you play all that music you bought on iTunes?”

“Not sure.”

“Can you use PogoPlug to get access to files on your home computers the way I can?”

“Not sure.”

“Do you have all these photo apps? (Points to an iPhone group with SmugShot, Animoto, Hipstamatic, Instagr.am, Pixelpipe, Flickr, PS Express, Best Camera app, and many more)

“Nope.”

“Do you have all these popular games?” (Points to a group with Doodle Jump, Tap Tap Revolution, Angry Birds and more).

“No, but I have some cool games here.”

“Do you have Hulu Plus, Fandango, Netflix, Clicker, and other apps to help you enjoy TV more?”

“Not sure.”

“Do you have UberCab?”

“What’s that?”

“Well, I guess I’m gonna order the cab for you tonight.”

“Do you have Google Voice? How about this cool Star Walk app that shows you the stars.”

“Well, the World Wide Telescope is on my phone.”

“Oh, cool, win one for you, except I’ve had that for a year.”

“Should we just keep going down the list of apps on Chomp that are popular and see if you can find the same ones on Windows Mobile Phone 7?”

“Nah, I already get the point that my phone isn’t as good as yours is.”

You get the point. The long tail of apps DOES matter. It matters for the same reason why Microsoft wasn’t able to remove features from Excel. Each app has hundreds of thousands of users. I met one developer last week in San Antonio, who built FastMall, shows you how to navigate shopping malls. They just released an update few weeks ago. They already have 250,000 users on iPhone. They said they won’t port to Windows Phone 7 until Microsoft proves that their phone can sell lots of units and that users on its platform are willing to download apps. That’s something I’m hearing from around the third-party developer world.

This is why on Fox last week I said that Microsoft is in a deep hole and we need at least six months to know whether they have a chance at digging out of the hole. In the meantime, damn that UI sure is pretty! It’s all hat and possibly no cattle time.

Of course, that’s a whole lot better than the situation Nokia and RIM find themselves in. At least when developers want to build apps for Microsoft’s OS they’ll find very nice developer tools and lots of help (Channel9 will have lots of info tomorrow, and Microsoft is holding a PDC later in October that will be live streamed on the Internet). The few developers who are building apps for Windows Phone 7 are praising the tools as easier to use than Android, or especially Nokia or RIM’s tools.

So, while tomorrow might be a little light on apps Microsoft does hold hope that it’ll have enough cattle in its farm. We’ll see. The event starts at 6:30 a.m. Pacific Time and I’ll be retweeting the best info.

Why do technology research? Is Google’s car going to lead anywhere?

By now you know Google is doing research into making cars drive by themselves. This continues research done earlier at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and other places. If you really want to see innovation, watch the interview I did back in 2007 with Mike Montemerlo. He was the artificial intelligence guy behind Stanford’s DARPA challenge team (they won that contest back in 2005 and have been competitive ever since).

I remember thinking that Mike was doing the coolest stuff and that of all the geeks I met he had the greatest chance of really changing how the world works. After all, most of us spend hours per week in our cars, especially in California where public transportation options suck (I could take a bus to San Francisco, for instance, but I’d have to switch routes half a dozen times and it would take three hours, instead of the 45 minutes it takes driving.

So, why is Google doing this research?

Why is IBM, a few miles away, doing research into atomic structures?

Why is Microsoft doing research into “any surface” computing that they call LightSpace?

A few weeks ago I was in Andy Wilson’s lab, talking with him about LightSpace. He asked me not to film, but you can see the video of his lab here. Who is Andy? Well, he was the researcher that came up with the ideas that turned into Microsoft Surface. He is doing some of the coolest research into futuristic computing technologies that I’ve seen anywhere. You really need to see Andy’s video (sorry, you’ll need Microsoft’s Silverlight loaded to view this video):

At IBM they let me move a single Iron atom across a piece of copper. And, at Stanford they are doing all sorts of research, including into weird flying robots that can be used for a bunch of different things (heck, one attacked me).

So, what are these folks telling me they do pure research for?

1. To figure out what’s needed from infrastructure in the future.
2. To discover how humans will use technology and how the technology will need to adapt to the humans.
3. To figure out how to affordably build futuristic tech.
4. To help researchers connect with each other and push the state of the art further.
5. To write up patents that will be the economic engines of their sponsoring companies.
6. To claim ground as “world leader” in a certain tech.
7. To build an ecosystem that turns into an industry (look at Boeing’s 787, for instance, and how its parts come from companies all over the world).

So, in that light, lets look at Google’s new self-driving car. Will it lead anywhere?

Here’s some things that research could lead to:

1. Better turn-by-turn directions for cars.
2. Better real-time mapping information. My Toyota already tells me whether there’s gas stations, hotels, or fast food at the next freeway exit. I imagine Google’s cars can tell you a lot more than that.
3. Better road design. Always look for unintended consequences of tech research. Remember, the Web came out of CERN who was smashing atoms. Google’s cameras can pick up confusing road design and map it for crews to fix, leading to safer roads for us all. My Toyota has trouble discerning old paint, for instance. Will these technologies be able to tell road managers when it’s time to repaint lanes?
4. New kinds of traffic controls. Listen to Mike and he’ll tell you the algorithms he had to write to get robotic cars safely through intersections. Will this new car research inform us as to the kinds of traffic controls (signs, lights, etc) that we’ll need in the future? Will it help us build new light timing systems to help traffic move smoothly?
5. New kinds of 3D control surfaces. These cars are building detailed 3D maps of the space that they travel through. Will those new surfaces need new controls? Of course! Second Life isn’t good enough for the data these cars are collecting.
6. New kinds of infrastructure. Each time these cars drive they gather gigabytes and, potentially, terabytes, of information. Now, imagine millions of cars that all could report home about what they were seeing on the road. That will require building new datacenters, new ways of filtering that information, and new database technology that can handle huge amounts of real-time info.
7. New kinds of human/computer interactions. If your car is going to drive itself, at least some of the time, you’ll need new kinds of input methods (voice? Touch? Gestures?) and they will need to be tested out on a lot more than 140,000 miles that these Google cars have driven so far.

Anyway, there’s lots to learn. I’m glad that the tech industry is taking on research in these, and other, areas. Even ones where people might say “that’s lame.” I remember when my friends told me Twitter is lame, but now it’s very important way to get the news.

Or, as Techcrunch’s Mike Arrington says, why do it? Because they can!

If you are doing world-changing technology research I would love to come and visit you. Send me email at scobleizer@gmail.com or call me at +1-425-205-1921

Why else do research? Comment here and let me know if you are doing technology research and why you’re doing it.