This Chinese city has special walking lanes for pedestrians who can’t put their phones down

Asia is so often the vanguard of new tech trends: how about dedicating walking lanes for people using mobile phones?

That’s what is happening in Chongqing City, where the country’s first “exclusive sidewalk for mobile phone users” has been introduced, according to the People’s Daily newspaper.

As someone who often suffers the pain of walking behind pedestrians who are glued to their smartphone, this mad-cap idea might actually be useful. But we can’t help thinking that it would just be easier if people were less attached to their phones, and put their personal safety (and that of others) ahead of their FOMA — a dedicated mobile lane wouldn’t stop someone walking off a pier, for example.

Small update: Thanks @Aulia, who reminded us that Washington DC tried a similar initiative this summer.

Putting Smartphone Zombies In Their Place [TechCrunch]

Thumbnail image via People’s Daily

Google announces its first ‘affordable’ Android One smartphones in India, priced from $105

Rakuten isn’t ruling out more billion-dollar deals to grow its US e-commerce business

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PopKey’s iOS 8 Launch Will Replace Written Language With The Expressive Art Of The GIF

We’re on the verge of a linguistic revolution, made possible by the fact that Apple has opened up its iOS operating system to allow third-party keyboards. One of the first entrants will be PopKey, a project out of the WorkshopX creative studio based in Ottawa, which has created on-demand social photo printing service CanvasPop, among others. The Betaworks-style operation’s new project came together because founder Adrian Salamunovic got in the habit of sending animated ‘reaction’ GIFs in conversations with friends, and wanted an easier way to do that then opening Safari, searching for the appropriate image, copying that, and then pasting it in Messages or Mail.

Apple’s keyboard development tools allow a significant amount of leeway, making it possible to create an embedded search widget that lets users browse and find animated GIFs for anything they hope to express. PopKey curates a growing collection of GIFs to choose from, including ones that cover every basic reaction a user could want, according to Salamunovic, and then they stamp the image with a watermark to hopefully create a viral feedback loop that draws others to the keyboard software.

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That’s a key ingredient, because despite the convenience of using the keyboard, installing it is far from easy – Apple has essentially buried the third-party keyboard options deep in Settings, meaning only users who really want them will be able to get access.

Salamunovic still thinks plenty of people will embrace PopKey, which does indeed liven up otherwise boring text conversations, as you can see from the sample screens in this post. The founder was using the software and taking screens from his end, while I responded on my own device using my stone age tools, as I don’t yet have access to the PopKey software.

PopKey is aiming to launch in time for iOS 8, which arrives on September 17, just a couple of days before the launch of the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. It’ll be a completely free app, and the revenue potential later on will come from offering special content packs and perhaps looking at co-branded opportunities, where GIFs from upcoming movies could be paid for by studios, for instance. In the short-term, it’ll be free and full-featured right away, with the aim of spreading it as far as possible, and users will even be able to upload their own GIFs to include in the collection and share around.

I’m already preparing for a time when what I need to say can’t be expressed in clumsy words alone – and PopKey has anticipated that need. All that remains to be seen is how many other forms of unique new self-expression come along with the custom keyboard craze, and how many of these stick around for the long haul.

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Venture Capital Is Prime For A Reverse Gold Rush

Considering how important proprietary deal flow has become as a tool for differentiation within venture capital, it’s surprising that more VCs aren’t shopping in the South. They simply aren’t looking at the concepts and companies coming out of Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Chattanooga, and other Southern startup hubs. At best, VCs might have a token startup on their roster from outside the Valley, mainly for bragging rights about geographic diversity and risks taken. It hardly counts as truly investing in the region, much less diversifying a portfolio.

I recently got back from Y Combinator’s summer Demo Day, where I caught up with old friends, fellow venture capitalists, PE fund managers, and those from a more traditional corp dev background. One thing they all had in common was that they are flat out ignoring Southeastern deal flow. At the same time, they all want to see a fresh idea that doesn’t feel as over-shopped as many of the deals currently cooking in Silicon Valley.

The first would resolve the second. The startup world outside Silicon Valley is still largely an untapped frontier. There’s a huge potential for a reverse gold rush if West Coast VCs would seek to mine Southeastern startups that are rapidly growing in a rich, pro business, distraction free entrepreneurial environment. A variety of industries are flocking to the South, from healthcare to tech to manufacturing, creating a variety of fresh opportunities to innovate and disrupt.

That’s not to mention how capital-efficient (aka cheap) this place is. The salaries are lower, the overhead costs less, the real estate costs less, the cost of living is less. Two million dollars invested into a startup outside the Silicon Valley echo chamber can move it well beyond a MVP and a handful of beta customers.

As we’re seeing firsthand with startups like Ambition, Bellhops and Skuid, an investment of a few million dollars in a Southeastern startup can allow a company to scale rapidly and deepen its relationship with an expanding customer base. Even better, it might pay off with an exit like QuickCue enjoyed when it was picked up by Opentable for $11.5 million in cash in 2013.  And yes, an $11.5 million exit can be a 5x return in 18 months when your entry point is appropriate.

The Southeast has a handful of its own VC firms, of course. Nashville and Atlanta each have a few good funds. Even Chattanooga, (Tennessee’s fourth largest city) has seen a number of new funds appear in the past three years, including Chattanooga Renaissance Fund, The JumpFund (a female-focused Angel fund), Spartan Ventures, Blank Slate and Lamp Post Group.

Still, there is plenty of room at the table for larger venture firms to leverage their own expertise and extract massive value from the Southeast. Especially at the rate the Southeastern economy is growing – thanks to the expansion of more traditional industries, such as healthcare and manufacturing, as well as innovative new municipal internet solutions like EPB’s fiber network in Chattanooga – for investment in the Southeast to generate outsized returns for smart investors.

The regional early stage VCs have invested in many promising young homegrown startups. Yet Silicon Valley continues to look inward rather than outward while simultaneously offering huge prizes to anyone who can offer them something they haven’t seen before. When Ambition went to Y Combinator last winter they were one of the new kids on the block. They were fresh, and it worked to their advantage when they were repeatedly included on lists of the most promising startups in the class.

There is a line of more fresh young startups right behind them, too. Every day I get new pitches in my email box and requests for meetings from eager young entrepreneurs who don’t want to go west, but want to bring their vision to life in their hometowns. None of this should come as a surprise to anyone. Southerners are rather hard headed about things and we’ve taken a liking to this startup thing.

The surprise is going to come when your junior associate sources a 40x deal from a ZIP code you didn’t know had electricity (much less the fastest Internet in the world).  Don’t be worried when that same associate ends up your boss. Twenty year olds already run the world.  Millennials are famous for the “think outside the box” mentality that has pushed startups and tech into innovative new directions. So why aren’t VCs thinking outside the box of Silicon Valley?

As much as startups and the future of the web are compared to the Wild West, few VCs are willing to join them on the new frontier– the mid-sized cities in the South, Midwest, and even back east in New York City where many startups are flocking, and thriving. Where VCs invest comes down to a lot more than just proprietary deal flow. It ultimately comes down to the ever-present question of innovation.

How far are VCs willing to go (literally) for the next big idea? And what is preventing them from going that distance? Right now it looks like the fringes of Santa Clara are their limit, though Mark Cuban’s recent comments at TechCrunch Disrupt suggest that things may be about to change. To find what they’re looking for, VCs will have to follow the advice given to so many founders in the industry: they’ll have to take a risk, push past their comfort zones, and explore the unfamiliar. If they do, the reverse goldrush could change the startup industry.

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Google announces its first ‘affordable’ Android One smartphones in India, priced from $105

Google has finally revealed more specific details of its new Android One program, an initiative announced earlier this year that aims to bring standardization and a better user experience to affordable Android smartphones.

Economic Times reports that Android One has launched with three local handset-makers as its initial partners: Micromax, Karbonn and Spice Mobile. The US company held an event in Mumbai today at which it revealed that the first devices will be priced upwards of 6,399 INR, that’s approximately $105.

While affordable, that price does make them more expensive than a range of truly budget Android phones, but it seems that Google is banking that a bevvy of features and a ‘premium’ approach will make them more desirable. That said, Google also said that other devices will launch at price points that are both above and below that initial price range.

hero family 730x449 Google announces its first affordable Android One smartphones in India, priced from $105

Google is targeting India because smartphone penetration remains low — feature phone still account for 70 percent of all shipments — while most of the one billion-plus population uses pre-pay contracts and has a modest disposable income. Unlike China, where internet access from smartphones has just overtaken that of the PC, India has vast potential for growth.

Android One isn’t an India-only initiative, however. Economic Times interviewed Google’s Sundar Pichai before today’s launch event, and the Android chief said that the program will expand to Indonesia, Philippines and other parts of South Asia before the end of this year. It is scheduled to roll out to even more markets in 2015.

So what can customers expect from these devices?

Google is imposing more rigid controls on apps and software to help improve the general experience, and prevent fragmentation which can lead to phones falling behind on updates. Android One devices will be among the first to get the new ‘L’ Android update for, for example.

From Google’s blog post:

Android One aims to help tackle these challenges. By working closely with phone and silicon chip makers to share reference designs and select components, we’re making it easier for our partners to build phones that are not just great to use, but also affordable. They have lots of processing power, so you can get information quickly. They have high-quality front- and rear-facing cameras. And for all those pictures, along with your apps and videos, Android One phones will have expandable storage. We also added features that people in India will find particularly useful, like dual SIM cards, a replaceable battery and built-in FM radio.

In India, the phones will come with support for seven languages — including English and Hindi — with multi-lingual support for many apps. The devices will also include voice-based controls, dual-SIM support, an FM radio and other “features that people in India will find particularly useful”.

Operators will bundle data services with the devices, to help consumers get online to make the most of the phones, Economic Times also reports. The first Android One devices will go on sale in India today via the country’s three top retailers: Amazon, Snapdeal and Flipkart.

Headline image via (with permission)

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Hey Microsoft, Acquiring A Hit Game Is Stupid

Buying a game company is like buying an aging baseball player. You’ll need a miracle to get another hit. And while they might have plenty of fans, they probably aren’t making a lot of new ones. Mojang hit a grand slam home run with Minecraft, but that doesn’t mean Microsoft should pay $2.5 billion for it, as it’s reportedly going to announce this week. There’s no guarantee it will produce another blockbuster; players will eventually move on from Minecraft, and I doubt anyone is going to buy a dopey Windows Phone just to play a slightly different version of the pixelated sandbox game.

Have we learned nothing from Zynga, Rovio, King and Dong?


Zynga and King IPO’d on the strength of their hits FarmVille and Candy Crush Saga. Both have sank hard since, as gamers inevitably get bored and look for new titles to play. Zynga’s share price has steadily sank to $2.92 from its $10 IPO, and King’s share price has plummeted to $13.19 from its $22.50 debut.

Rovio had the world in its pocket, or more accurately, it was in the world’s pockets, thanks to Angry Birds. But there are only so many pigeons you can chuck at pigs, and now its CEO is out after profits sank 52 percent in 2013. If someone had acquired Rovio at the height of its success, they’d be kicking themselves with steel-toed boots right now.

red_angry_bird_by_scooterek-d4hy5b4Supercell brought massively multiplayer online gaming to the masses with Clash Of Clans. But after raising a dumbfounding $272 million, it’s steadily slipped down the charts and out of the top 50 apps over the course of 2014. Clash Of Clans and Candy Crush are still at the top of the top grossing charts, but the other signs say their time there is fleeting.

And then there was Flappy Bird. If ever there was proof that the modern gaming industry is an unpredictable beast as likely to buck you off and kick you in the face as take you for a ride, it was Dong Nguyen’s creation. While other gaming companies with hundreds of employees and tens or hundreds of millions in funding desperately tried to build an addictive game, a single man with no funding from Vietnam captured the hearts and expletives of the whole world. No viral loops. No fancy graphics. No smarmy in-app purchases to squeeze money out of users. Just a game so frustrating it was fun.

Naturally, Dong Nguyen’s next game could never live up to Flappy Bird. Less than a month after launch, Swing Copters is on a rapid decline, down to No. 220 in the App Store now.

But at least Dong taught us you can’t always brute-force your way to popularity. Sure, Call Of Duty and Grand Theft Auto produce best-sellers by just throwing talent at a console franchise, but both of those started over a decade ago and are decidedly not mobile-ready.

Microsoft did score a win by acquiring Bungie in 2000, just before it released Halo. But the studio had already proven its ability to produce good games in different genres (first-person shooter Marathon, strategy game Myth). And it didn’t have to pay nearly as much because Bungie wasn’t riding high on a hit game at the time.

minecraft_toy_displayMinecraft has some characteristics that make it a slightly less risky acquisition than some hit games. It’s like a digital Lego set rather than a game with a linear narrative, so it has more opportunity for experimentation and replay value. It began as a desktop game, so it has considerably more depth built in than most mobile-first games. It’s spawned a community of creators that keep kids tuned in. And its iconic pixelated aesthetic powers a strong physical merchandise business.

It has opportunities for growth, too, especially if Mojang can morph Minecraft into more of a massively multiplayer game. A built-in Twitch-style video sharing feature could also extend its shelf life and keep players engaged longer.

But just like in Minecraft, eventually the sun sets and living things give way to zombies. Minecraft can only get so much bigger, but it could certainly implode. People will crave something new. The way no one saw Minecraft coming, we probably won’t see the game that usurps it coming, either.

The synergies for Microsoft are thin at best. The game is already on Xbox, but its cross-platform presence has elevated it to the state of cultural phenomenon. Unless Microsoft pulls it from other platforms, which seems unlikely, Minecraft will go on making money for Apple and Google through their respective app stores’ taxes. Perhaps a souped-up edition for Xbox could drive some extra sales, but that could further fracture the game’s community. There’s simply much smarter things Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella could be focusing on to get the company back on track.

[Postscript: Minecraft is definitely more than a game. It has a deeply interwoven of community of virtual architects that will help sustain it. There's the potential for it to become a more lasting platform for creativity like Legos. At Microsoft, Minecraft could be heavily tied in with Xbox, and work alongside the Project Spark video game maker. Success for the acquisition depends deeply on the sentiments Mojang co-founder Markus 'Notch' Persson and his team. Keeping them inspired and on-board will be a serious test of Nadella's management skills.]


And I’m sorry, Microsoft, but no one is going to ditch all their other apps and Androids or iPhones for a laughable Windows Phone just to play some special version of Minecraft. If you’re telling yourself that’s why the deal makes sense, your blood-Kool Aid content has surpassed legal levels. Stop drinking it. Kids don’t want Windows Phones. They’re not cool.

You know what is cool? Minecraft. You know what’s an easy way to change that? Have one of the lamest, old-man corporations buy it.

And that might be the saddest part of this deal. Compared to the crack-cocaine of Candy Crush and painkillers shaped like reality TV, Minecraft is downright intellectually stimulating. A “game” that’s evolved into a platform for creative expression could have its community snuffed out because its creator sold out for a few billion dollars. So I hope this deal doesn’t happen. Not just because it could be dumb for Microsoft, but for the sake of the children.

[Image Credit: NewToyBrands, Alexander Iaccarino, Speakyst, Scooterek]

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