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Israel

ibm-research

IBM research facility in Haifa

If your computer gets sick, would you rather give it a full system overhaul or the equivalent of a digital Advil to relieve the symptoms? Onn Shehory and his team at Israel’s IBM Haifa research facility have developed much more than a computerized analgesic. Say hello to the world’s first self-healing software.

The project – called SHADOWS for “a Self Healing Approach for Developing cOmplex softWare Systems” – was proposed by Shehory and funded by the European Union’s 6th Framework Program, a technology initiative that invests in promising international endeavors. The idea was to emulate how the human body behaves and apply it to software.

“When you develop some sort of dysfunction, the body senses this and reacts automatically,” Shehory says. “It is essentially self-monitoring.” SHADOWS does the same for computer systems. “It recognizes specific misbehaviors, classifies them into possible types of problems, and then for the serious ones, makes the appropriate adjustments,” he says. This may include inserting new lines of codes before a program runs or moving around memory resources, to prevent the most common reasons for system crashes.

In the case of memory, for example, Shehory explains that “we can manipulate the usage of memory without actually knowing where the problem is coming from. We don’t have to find the bug, just to know that something is wrong.”

That’s the same way that a pain and fever medication acts on the body. “Instead of a week of fever, you might just have a half an hour at the end of the week,” he says. “It doesn’t remove the root cause – the virus – but it will prevent the fever from coming back for a long time.

“In order to continue benefiting from the advances and innovations becoming available in the IT landscape, software developers and architects must begin to design software… to incorporate internal safeguards that can both identify and repair problems,” adds Yaron Wolfsthal, head of the Reliable Systems Technologies group at the IBM Haifa lab.

The need for self-healing software is clear: Computer systems are now ubiquitous, a part of everything from dishwashers to managing a countrywide electricity grid. The problem is that software systems are inherently buggy. Even utilizing software testing, reviews and other protective measures, “with millions of lines of code, it’s too difficult to identify all the problems in advance,” Shehory says.

Traditional approaches to fixing software have meant calling on engineers to sift through the code, locate the bug and repair it – a process that’s akin to searching for a needle in a digital haystack. And yet, “we can’t afford for systems to fail on critical missions… or even non-critical missions,” exhorts Shehory.

SHADOWS doesn’t go so far as to create self-aware artificial intelligence – no worries about a Terminator-style SkyNet attacking the planet. Nor is it specifically targeted at preventing terrorists from bringing down global networks. “It’s not about security, it’s about the robustness of the code,” Shehory explains, although he suggests that since SHADOWS can identify problems as they start to brew, it may allow programmers to jump into action if they sense a cyber-attack is imminent.

SHADOWS is sophisticated but doesn’t require any changes to existing legacy computer systems – it can sit alongside those programs monitoring their action and only start working its magic when it detects something awry. Shehory hopes, however, that programmers will speed things up by manually inserting “comments” when they write the software that can direct SHADOWS to look at, say, only 10,000 rather than a million lines of code.

The genesis of SHADOWS was a proposal IBM in Israel made to a European Union program that promotes collaboration in research and technology across Europe. Eight other partners joined IBM in the three-year, $5 million project – major universities including the University of Potsdam in Germany and the Brno University of Technology in the Czech Republic, and technology heavyweights such as Phillips Electronics of the Netherlands and the Spanish phone carrier Telefonica, which provided a case study on the use of the SHADOWS technology. The EU pays for 50 percent of the project with the IBM lab responsible for the other half.

Despite the innovation, SHADOWS is not yet ready for prime time – it’s more a general research-oriented framework than an actual, saleable product – although parts of it may be commercialized. Each partner in the project owns its own intellectual property should a marketable solution ultimately be developed.

In the meantime, Shehory is considering applying for a second stage grant to address the technology’s biggest limitation: The resistance of the people who write the computer systems that need SHADOWS to inserting machine-generated code automatically into their babies.

“The psychological effect is very strong,” Shehory admits. “If SHADOWS writes some new code, the programmer might be hesitant, thinking ‘can I trust this, will it work properly?’ “The solution may be as simple as adding a feature that “recommends” the change, allowing the engineer to decide whether or not to accept it.

Still, Shehory says, “we’re trying to find technical ways to address this difficulty without human intervention.” Software – heal thyself.

This article originally appeared on Israel21c.

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PokeTalk Woman on Phone

Do blondes have more fun on PokeTalk?

In January 2009, I wrote an article for Israel21c about PokeTalk, a then new startup offering free VoIP calls using regular phone lines. I bumped into the company’s founders Shai Genish and Boaz Bahar Wednesday night at a meeting of the TechAviv Founder’s Forum and I thought I’d share the original article with you here on the Blum Interactive Media along with some company updates.

The 2009 article was topical, coming in the midst of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead operation in Gaza. Since then, the company has expanded its offerings to include paid calls that can last longer than the free service’s maximum 10 minutes duration, along with many other cool features such as web callback and analytics.

But I also heard some disturbing news: PokeTalk has been hit by a significant amount of fraud where unscrupulous hackers have redirected calls, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in charges for PokeTalk. The situation has gotten so bad that the company is now investing in building its own security software which will also be available to other VoIP services and not just PokeTalk.

Shai and Boaz are both very sincere and enthusiastic Israel entrepreneurs who I like a lot. So, here’s the original article without changes.

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Residents of the southern part of Israel in range of missiles from Gaza can now make phone calls up to 30 minutes to their friends and relatives entirely for free, thanks to a new Israeli startup called PokeTalk. The service, which is already operational in 60 countries around the world, is good for any calls between two phone numbers in Israel’s 08 area code.

PokeTalk has been flying high since its launch three months ago. The company, founded by two 25-year-olds in Tel Aviv – Shai Genish and Boaz Bahar – has signed up 70,000 users nearly entirely on word of mouth and viral marketing alone.

The service, like fellow Israeli-founded company Jajah, uses voice-over-IP to connect regular phones, not just two computers.

As with any good idea, though, there’s a catch: calls are limited to 10 minutes. The promotion on Israel’s front lines triples that amount.

Ten minutes (or even 30) may seem like a deal breaker but, says Genish, the average call placed is only two minutes and 40 seconds. And 70 percent of calls from a mobile phone are a mere 80 seconds. “Other than for business calls, 10 minutes is usually more than enough.”

PokeTalk is essentially an automated version of the call back systems that were once popular in Israel as a way of saving money. But rather than calling a certain phone number, with PokeTalk you enter your number and the number you want to call on the PokeTalk site. A few seconds later, your phone rings. You pick up and PokeTalk places the call.

I took a test drive and the quality is quite good – certainly on a par with other voice-over-IP systems like Vonage, Gizmo5 or even Skype.

So how can PokeTalk offer even 10 minutes of talk time for free? On-site advertising. Since you’re required to initiate your call from the web, PokeTalk can show you advertisements on screen. That’s a whole lot less annoying than some other free phone systems that put 10-second audio ads before a call is connected.

After only three months in operation, PokeTalk is far from profitable – only 50 percent of calls are covered by ad revenue – but the small eight-person company has raised $1.25 million from Maayan Ventures and private investors. Genish says he hopes to be in the black by the end of 2009.

PokeTalk calls can originate from 13 countries – including Israel, the US, Canada and Germany, though notably not the UK – and can be connected to 60 nations, from Kazakhstan to New Zealand. Mobile phones are supported in nine countries.

Of PokeTalk’s 70,000 users, 40,000 are in Israel. A viral “refer a friend” program has been successful at recruiting new users too (if your friend signs up, you receive an extra 10 minutes on your next call).

On an average day, up to 7,000 users login and make close to 18,000 calls.

The company has been featured on Israel’s Channel 10 news and in The Marker and Globes business supplements. Genish estimates that a series of interviews that appeared in the “VoIP Guides” online publication led to some 10,000 new users.

The company’s current promotion in the south of Israel probably won’t generate a significant number of new customers, but it’s a noble gesture that helps local residents in tough times.

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Yaron Carni 2

Yaron Carni, lead investor

Google’s announcement last month that it was acquiring Tel Aviv-based LabPixies for a rumored $25 million caught some Israeli analysts by surprise. That’s a tidy sum for a small startup with just 12 employees that has raised less than $2 million over its four years of operation.

Yaron Carni, LabPixies’ lead investor wasn’t caught out, however. “I immediately loved the company’s products, their vitality and, of course, the team,” he said. Speaking on behalf of a handpicked group of angels including Auren Hoffman and Fabrice Grinda, Carni added “we were all deeply impressed with the character, commitment, talent and forthrightness of the founders.”

LabPixies was particularly attractive to Google due to the company’s role in developing some of the first and subsequently leading ‘gadgets’ for the iGoogle platform, Google’s alternative interactive home page. LabPixies products have garnered as many as one billion impressions a month while signing up 40 million users. One of its most popular products is ‘Flood-It,’ a game that involves dragging colored balls around the screen. “It’s very addictive,” admitted Carni.

LabPixies also builds translating programs, news and weather reports, calculators and calendars that run on other social network services including Facebook, Hi5, Yahoo and MySpace, as well as Google’s own Android mobile operating system.

However, LabPixies doesn’t make its money from the Web, but by selling mobile apps, primarily for the iPhone. Company CEO Ran Ben-Yair won’t divulge financial information, but he did tell the Israeli business journal The Marker several months back that the company has “millions of dollars in revenues.” Carni added that the company has kept costs down by staying “lean.”

Despite Google’s increasing competition with Apple in the mobile space, there’s no indication that the search engine giant will drop its support for LabPixies’ iPhone products.

Google plans to merge LabPixies into its Tel Aviv office, which according to a press release “will anchor our iGoogle efforts across Europe, the Middle East and Africa,” leveraging LabPixies’ “knowledge and expertise to help developers and improve the ecosystem overall.”

The big winners, of course, are the investors and LabPixies founders – CEO Ben-Yair, VP R&D Oded Poncz, VP business development Nir Tzemah, and creative director Udi Graff.

Investor Fabrice Grinda wrote on his blog that he was “seduced by the company. They had crazy amounts of traffic in the right countries (Western Europe and the US). Their users loved them. Moreover, their products fell squarely in a rapidly growing ecosystem: Social networks and mobile applications.”

If anything, Grinda was sorry to “sell so early. The company and team are great and the category is only becoming bigger.”

Google Israel’s managing director, Prof. Yossi Matias, is understandably bullish on high-tech in the country. “Google believes in Israeli innovation and creativity and we’ll continue to strive for collaborations with local companies and startups in the future,” hesaid .

Carni, in turn, is a big believer in Google. The deal to buy LabPixies spanned a number of months, Carni said, during which time Google was “a pleasure to work with… from the product people to the human resources professionals. They were always direct, honest and comprehensive.”

LabPixies is Google’s first acquisition in Israel. The company joins other international Internet heavyweights such as AOL, Microsoft and eBay who have invested in the local Silicon Wadi high-tech scene. Google has been active in Israel since 2005 but has never bought a company until now.

This post originally appeared on the Israel21c website.

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neatcalltNew startups have the best shot at success when they address a “pain point” – an issue that causes discomfort, annoyance or even loss of business.

Tel Aviv-based Neatcall targets just such a situation, one that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to schedule a meeting with two or more participants: Seemingly endless phone or email tag.

Neatcall’s solution is to marry mobile technology with a seemingly simple voting system. But as with any good start up, there’s a lot more under the hood.

“On average, setting up a meeting with more than two participants is a process that can take between half to a whole working day,” Neatcall CEO Dan Benger says.

We’ve all been there. A meeting initiator calls or sends out a message to the people who are required to attend. The respondents reply with their availability and the initiator then tries to find a time that works for everyone. Automated services, such as Microsoft Exchange, can speed things up, but they don’t eliminate the essential “trial and error” nature of a task that often seems to stretch on forever, especially if not all the participants are sitting at their computers at the moment the message is sent.

This is how it works: The initiator selects several free time slots from his or her calendar. A message is sent out to all attendees who then vote on which slots work best for them, in their order of preference. The Neatcall system tallies up the votes and shoots back the optimal time. If all agree, Neatcall books the meeting, sends out a confirmation notice, and follows up closer to the meeting’s actual time.

So far, the system is neat, so to speak, but not a major breakthrough. But Neatcall has another trick up its digital sleeve. It sends out its messages via multiple mobile formats – email, SMS, WAP, instant message or via the browser to a smart device like the iPhone or Palm Pre. Even on a basic phone, people can vote by simply responding to an SMS – “send S to select the first date, T for the second date” and so on.

Neatcall also offers location management so that scheduling requests are sent to attendees in the appropriate time zone. For iPhone users, there’s an app available from the Apple App Store.

It’s no surprise that Benger was the man to recognize the need for Neatcall, seeing as he previously served as VP of international marketing and business development at web and video conference call solutions company Interwise. Customers were satisfied with the quality of the conference calls, he says, but they frequently complained about how difficult it was to set up those calls. Interwise was purchased by AT&T in 2007 for $121 million.

In addition to its innovative approach to scheduling meetings, Neatcall also offers to conduct your meetings for you, with a package that comprises chat, audio and video conferencing from a single unified site.

While Neatcall’s basic innovation should help to solve an existing problem, it may be difficult for the company to make headway with the rest of its package, given that the market is already saturated with conferencing companies such as Webex and GoToMeeting which lead the space.

Benger is hoping that the fact that Neatcall’s service is entirely browser-based, unlike competing software which requires users to download an application, will make the difference.

Neatcall sells its service directly to companies – Benger says there are several deals in the pipeline but won’t reveal their names – for up to $12 per user per month, with the price depending on whether Neatcall is handling just the scheduling or total conferencing delivery. About 200 corporate users in Israel, Europe, Australia and the US have already tried the system.

With only four employees, a few contractors and an investment of $500,000 from the Netanya-based incubator Targetech and Israel’s Chief Scientist’s Office, Neatcall is small, but looking to grow.

When I set up my interview with Benger, he used Neatcall to handle the scheduling. I received confirmation and reminders via both email SMS. And that was just, well (wait for it)… really neat.

I wrote this article last year for Israel21c – here’s the link.

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Israelis love technology. They are early adapters, and relentless innovators, always looking for ways to improve their lives in every possible area.

With the country’s talent for development, it’s no surprise that some of the world’s top gadgets were designed and developed in Israel. Israel21c asked me to put together a list of the ten best. Here’s my take:

1. DiskOnKey
sandisk-cruzer-micros 2
Dov Moran, founder of Modu (see below), previously hit the big time with his company M-Systems, which developed the very first DiskOnKey (or DiskOnChip as M-Systems originally dubbed it).

The concept is simple enough: Jam up to 64 gigabytes of data onto a tiny gadget no larger than a house key. The latest versions actually look like a key and can hook onto your key chain.

DiskOnKeys were part of the “one-two sucker punch” that killed the venerable floppy disk (the other being cheap recordable CD-ROMs and later DVDs). Aside from being a reliable way to transfer data from computer to computer, disk-on-keys are now finding new life, expanding the storage space of the latest portable craze, the NetBook.

In 2005, PC World named the DiskOnKey one of the world’s top 10 gadgets in the last 50 years. In 2006, international powerhouse SanDisk purchased M-Systems for $1.6 billion.

2. Powermat
CES-Powermat3x_Netbook 2
How many power cables do you have running under your office desk for all your computers, hard drives, modems, routers, etc.? How about those kitchen appliances and their connections to the sockets? Wouldn’t it be great to get rid of the clutter?

That’s what Powermat promises to do. The Israeli company’s technology lets you embed a power grid in just about anything – from a desk to a kitchen counter. Then, with a wireless receiver hidden inside a device, there’s no need for plugs anymore. Just position the device or appliance near a power “hotspot” and away it goes.

In a demo on the company’s website, a salesperson goes so far as to pour water all over a “Powermatted” kitchen counter – with no burn-outs or electrocutions. Other demonstrations show iPods and Blackberries charging when simply placed on a table.

The company is a joint venture between Michigan-based HoMedics and Israel’s Powermat. The first products will be available in time for this winter’s shopping season.

3. Epilady

epiladys
The story of this gadget is fraught with intrigue. We’re talking about a hair removal product invented in Israel that now has copycat versions worldwide. The original Epilady “epilator” was released in 1986. It had a rotating spring that worked by catching hair and pulling it out. It isn’t pleasant but, according to women, it works.

Newer versions have more of a tweezer action. Either way, the result is not unlike a waxing treatment, except that you can do it yourself at home, for a fraction of the cost. An Epilady treatment lasts up to four weeks.

Epilady was the first but has been surpassed by international brands including Braun and Remington (Epilady sued Remington over patent infringement but lost). Still, the company has sold 28 million units over a 23-year career and now sports 13 different models from the “Traveler” to the youth-marketed “Epigirl.”

Ironically, when the first Epilady came out in Israel it was given the “American” sounding name “Nice and Easy” while the company used the “Epilady” moniker overseas.

4. Modu

modu-phone-jacketss
Modu
looks something like a cell phone and something like an MP3 player, but isn’t really like anything you’ve ever seen before. Essentially, Modu is a tiny device with cellular capabilities that can be slipped into any number of “jackets” to give it a specific functionality. One jacket transforms Modu into a full MP3 player, in another it’s a camera. The plan is to create a mini-economy around Modu accessories.

Our favorite Modu jackets: Modu Executive (looks like a Blackberry); Modu Love (a stylish cell phone with a big heart); Modu Kids (imagine a cute green Nintendo DS); Modu Boombox (a little phone with big, built-in bass-enhanced speakers); and the Modu Bicycle Mate (that snaps onto your handlebars).

The company is facing increasing competition from Apple, Nokia, Palm and others, which may be why, despite raising nearly $130 million since its launch in 2007, Modu recently laid off 80 employees. Still, the news isn’t all bad. Just a week before the layoffs Modu announced the launch of a touch screen jacket using Google’s Android mobile operating system.

5. Boxee

Boxee Interface
Boxee
isn’t exactly a gadget. It’s software that’s intended to be integrated into other companies’ gadgets as their Internet media operating system. If it were just a TV playback system, Boxee wouldn’t be so hot; after all Microsoft and Apple have similar solutions. But Boxee excels at playing all types of video, audio and even image files. YouTube, NetFlix, Flickr and Pandora are all built in. And Boxee also plays well on the Xbox.

There are also a bunch of nifty social networking features that allow you to share what you’re watching with friends or tweet in real time.

Boxee announced recently that it is coming out with its own standalone hardware – the “Boxee Box.” In the meantime, you can install it on any computer you have – absolutely free. We installed Boxee on the laptop we have connected to our television and we love it.

6. Eye-Fi

Eye-Fi
Here’s an idea that’s so obvious it’s a wonder no one else thought of it. You’re at a family event, your child says his or her first words and you have the good fortune to capture the moment with your digital camera. You want to share it with the world but to do that you’d have to get back to your house, plug the camera into your computer via a USB cord, upload it, and then post it to Facebook or your blog.

With Eye-Fi you can upload those photos wirelessly from anywhere. The company sells a standard SD card (that you need to run your camera, anyway) that has built-in WiFi connectivity. That means that anywhere there’s a hotspot (which these days is just about everywhere) you can upload your photos to one of 25 sites that you specify in advance through the Eye-Fi software.

The Eye-Fi works with all the top cameras, from Canon to Kodak. The company was founded in 2005 and two of its four founders, Yuval Koren and Ziv Gillat, are Israeli.

But we have to ask: Is there still a market for a wireless SD card? Anyone with an iPhone already has the ability to wirelessly upload pictures – and even video – immediately. The answer: Standalone cameras with higher resolution than a phone-cum-camera haven’t gone the way of the dinosaurs yet, nor is there any reason to think that they will, which means Eye-Fi has plenty of visibility ahead.

7. MobileEye

MobileEye
Speaking of visibility, another Israeli high-tech company, MobileEye, combines a tiny digital camera with sophisticated algorithms to help drivers navigate their vehicles more safely.

Consider the lane departure warning system. When a driver starts drifting out of a lane or doesn’t use the turn signals, the system rings an alert. The MobileEye application is so sophisticated that it can even sense when a driver is “about” to change lanes inadvertently.

Fused with the car’s steering system, MobileEye takes the camera that much further. Other applications include a forward collision warning, traffic sign recognition and pedestrian detection.

MobileEye has been around since 1999 and has deals with GM, BMW and Volvo, among others. The company maintains R&D in Jerusalem but is now headquartered in The Netherlands.

8. Ctera

ctera-cloudplugs
Israeli company Ctera makes a small gadget that connects to a USB hard drive, transforming it into a cloud-based offsite storage system.

It’s a two-step process. First, data is backed up from your main computer to the external drive. Next, it’s sent to servers “in the cloud.” The result is that your computer isn’t constantly sending data to the Internet and slowing down processing speed. With this gadget multiple computers can now be connected to a USB drive that used to be tethered to just a single machine.

Ctera’s “Cloud Plug” is small enough to fit in an envelope which can be mailed from an ISP (Internet Service Provider) to its customers. ISPs like the device because it gives them a way to monetize all the online backup traffic they’re losing to third party services. Ctera also sells the gadget direct to the public for $199. Given that it’s not a question of if, but when, your hard disk will die, cloud storage has a rosy future. Ctera aims to be in the thick of it.

9. Easy-2-Pick

easy2picks
Airplane travel is stressful. There are the security checks, uncomfortable seats, tasteless meals and then, of course, there’s the fact that you’re hurtling through the air at breakneck speeds in a tin box. But perhaps the worst party of all is waiting for your luggage. You never know when it’s coming up the conveyor belt. You grab a bag only to discover that it belongs to someone else. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just sit back and wait for your luggage to alert you when it’s arrives?

That’s the idea behind a simple device from Easy-2-Pick, a small Israeli company founded by two American Express travel agents. The gadget has two components. One piece attaches to the luggage, the other fits in your pocket. The range between the two pieces is only 15 meters, so the alert only sounds (it also lights up and vibrates) when your luggage is close by.

The Easy-2-Pick system was red hot when we first wrote about it last year. It seems to have floundered since then as the inventors search for distributors. Still, it’s a wonderful idea and we hope it succeeds. Imagine the same technology being applied to your keys… or your car, when you can’t remember where you parked.

10. Medical imaging via cell phone

rubinsky_smIn the Western world, we take for granted high-tech tools for physicians and hospitals such as the hand held ultrasound wand that displays the heartbeat of a fetus or detects a tumor. But how would you use that same device in a remote village in Africa where there isn’t even any electricity?

Boris Rubinsky, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has come up with a novel concept: blend the wand with a cell phone. The phone powers the medical imaging device, then transmits the resulting data to a central processing facility – perhaps even in Israel – where it’s turned into an image which can then be messaged back to the village physician’s phone

The entire process is not unlike the trend in medicine in recent years where X-rays taken in the US are sent to Israeli radiologists for review and then returned via the Internet – saving money and time (it’s daytime in Israel, while it’s still night in the US when radiologists may not be so readily available).

Rubinsky’s life saving gadget is still just in the prototype stage but it has a promising future (and Rubinsky has the patents to back it up). Next in line: Rubinsky is working on a gadget that will extract small amounts of electricity from potatoes – just enough to charge a cell phone in those same far flung third world villages.

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GinipicIt’s happened to all of us at least once or twice in our careers. We’re writing a school paper or updating a website and we need a photo or graphic image to illustrate a point.

That usually entails searching a number of different photo sharing sites such as Google Images, Flickr, TwitPic, PhotoBucket, and others. Once you’ve found the picture you want, you have to click through to see the full size image, right click to download it, then choose Import to paste it into your Word document. And that’s assuming you’ve received the copyright clearance to use it.

What if you could do all this in 2 steps? That’s the idea behind Ginipic, a small Israeli startup with a big idea. Enter a search term and the Ginipic application crawls 15 different web-based photo sharing application. The software then presents the results on a single screen.

That’s already a big improvement from Google’s image search, which only displays a maximum of 25 photos on a page, requiring users to click the “Next Page” button repeatedly.

Ginipic will even search your own computer.

Once you find the image you want, simply drag and drop it into the application you’re using – whether that’s Word, PowerPoint or an email program. The Ginipic application is designed to work “side by side” with other programs to help eliminate switching back and forth between screens.

Ginipic shows copyright details and a photo’s Creative Commons status to keep you from inadvertently infringing (a dollar sign and a large “Buy Now” button appear when an image isn’t free).

Other goodies include the ability to instantly share images on social networks, set an image as your desktop background, and save it to a built-in “lightbox” that contains only those pictures you’ve selected to view.

The service is the brainchild of three young Israeli entrepreneurs and childhood friends from Even Yehuda: Lior Weinstein, Noam Finger and Orr Sellah (who, not coincidentally, are also the only employees in the company). Ginipic has taken on no investment to date but is currently looking.

Ginipic is entirely free right now and, unlike other web services that pitch a paid premium version, the company’s business model is to cut “white label” deals that will give an existing photo sharing site Ginipic’s functionality but with the partner’s branding. Ginipic is also in talks with several advertising agencies to update their aging interfaces for image search.

CEO Weinstein told me that Ginipic is looking for deals in the $10-30,000 range rather than with big players who might pay in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. We asked him why. “We wanted to bring the product to market as fast as possible,” he said. “With a $100,000 deal, there are endless meetings. And for that price, a big company will always consider building it in-house. At $10,000, it’s not a problem.”

Weinstein said the idea for Ginipic actually came to him in a dream. “I was working on a big paper in a classical studies course” at Tel Aviv University, he said and needed pictures of ancient Greek and Roman statues.

Exhausted, he fell asleep one night and dreamed of dragging pictures directly from the photo sharing websites he visited into a Word document. Two weeks later, a mock up was done and the company was on the fast track to development.

Ginipic is not a web application but a download and it works on Windows only (bad news for all the creative types and increasing numbers of students who use Macs). Why the download? we asked Weinstein, aware that this is often a barrier to usability for many wary web denizens.

That was the only way to enable the drag and drop functionality. You can’t go direct from web to Word, nor can you search your own computer, Weinstein explained. Fortunately, the software itself is small – only 4 MB – making for a relatively painless installation.

I asked Weinstein about Ginipic’s product management process. There wasn’t much, he said. The team just jumped in and started coding. After about a month, “we did a proper product plan,” Weinstein said, with a feature roadmap and competitive analysis.

As with many self-funded startups, the “go for it” approach can be effective. Weinstein warned against “feature freeze” where you plan too much and never get the product out the door because there’s always one more feature to add.

Ginipic also used an interesting tool for soliciting customer feedback. UserVoice puts a small tab on the left side of every screen on the site. Clicking allows users to vote on which features they’d most like to see (a Mac version leads the list). The service is free for 100 votes per month. It ramps up rapidly from there to a max of $589/month for all the bells and whistles.

Weinstein said that after all the feedback was in, the team was pleased that there were no additional features they hadn’t originally thought of. UserVoice helped mainly in ranking what functionality should be rolled out first.

Ginipic is not without competitors. Meta-search services like Copernic have been around for years, and Microsoft Office’s Clip Art tool is already built into Word (“although no one uses it,” Weinstein mused). Other sites, such as CoolIris, are more about enjoying images online than searching them, Weinstein pointed out.

So far, in the 9 months since Ginipic launched, it’s signed up over 100,000 users “on $0 advertising,” Weinstein said. Approximately 25 percent of those are active users.

Among the services with which Ginipic works are DeviantArt, Flickr, Picasa, Google, Fotolia, Bing, PhotoBucket, SmugMug, Yahoo, Dreamstime and Crestock.

I use a Mac, so I personally won’t be able to give Ginipic a spin anytime soon but I’ll recommend it to my PC-using friends.

A version of this story originally appeared on Israel21c.

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Jeff Pulver

Jeff Pulver in Tel Aviv

Jeff Pulver is a galavanting kind of guy. The one time founder of voice-over-IP telephony company Vonage, Pulver has in recent years traveled the globe hosting hi-tech networking “breakfasts” that attract hundreds of attendees

On Sunday, Pulver was back in town with a combined breakfast and conference focused on “the state of now.”

Dubbed the “140 Characters Conference” (that’s the number of characters you’re allowed to type into the Twitter “What’s happening?” box), some 250 social media “characters” gathered at Tel Aviv’s Afeka College of Engineering to listen attentively to a whopping four dozen presenters who spoke either in panel discussions or alone in 10 minute increments  (a large clock counted down the minutes and, other than a few misbehavers, the time was scrupulously observed).

Among the presenters were Alon Nir, the entrepreneur behind “TweetYourPrayers” which allows petitioners to tweet notes that Nir physically places in the cracks of the Western Wall. Nir started the project as a hobby. By the summer, he had thousands of notes and had to enlist an army of volunteers (recruited via Twitter of course) to roll the print outs and cart them to Jerusalem. Find him on Twitter at @thekotel.

A highlight for Israeli music fans was the appearance on stage of rockers Yoni Bloch and Ivri Lider who talked about how they use Twitter to get closer to their fans. Bloch, a self-confessed nerd, initially found fame by posting his songs to an Israeli MySpace-clone and was flabbergasted when, several years ago – long before the advent of Twitter – he sold out a live show just by announcing it online.

Comedians Charley Warady and Benji Lovitt talked about how they use social media to try out punch lines for their jokes (“can you be funny in 140 characters?” asked one audience member).

On a more serious note, David Saranga discussed how the Israeli consulate in New York took to Twitter to counter negative reports coming out of Gaza during January’s Operation Cast Lead. He also pointed out one of the more effective campaigns to reposition Israel in the mind of the world: the 2007 infamous “Girls of the IDF” bikini photo spread in Maxim magazine.

The strangest use of Twitter discussed? Simultaneous tweeting while watching TV. While I find it hard to understand how one can actually enjoy a program while tapping away on a Blackberry or iPhone keyboard, veteran media consultant Dror Gill suggested that interactive media can actually restore some of the social cohesion that’s been lost in the modern world where families rarely sit down together to watch the contemporary equivalent of All in the Family.

Twittering away, he said, is akin to kibbutzing together in the family room…even if your fellow schmoozers are thousands of miles away.

To back up that point of global interconnectedness, host Pulver announced at the day’s conclusion that 6,464 people from around the world had tuned in to watch the conference live via the Internet and that for much of the day, this intimate little get together, tucked away in an off the beaten track corner of Tel Aviv, had been ranked in Twitter’s Top 10 “trending topics.”

See for yourself. Search for #140conf on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on the Israelity blog.

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StarsOutbrain is a company I like a lot. It has a seemingly simple product that provides some very useful functionality: content rating and recommendations for blogs.

Follow the easy installation instructions and Outbrain will allow your readers to give your latest post a 1-5 score. Then, based on Outbrain’s massive database of reader tastes and web content, the Outbrain widget that displays on your blog will point visitors to related articles that Outbrain has determined they might find interesting.

Yes, it directs visitors away from your blog, but it also has the potential to turn your site a mini-destination site. (You can see Outbrain at work on this blog – scroll to the end of any post.)

When the company raised a sizable second round of financing earlier this year, a lot of brows were furrowed: $12 million for a blog plug-in? Investors must have had a sneak preview of the company’s latest feature, launched earlier this month: an enhancement that allows publishers to pay for premium placement of their content.

The new goodie is called OutLoud and it costs $10 per URL. Featured content appears at the top of the Outbrain recommendations list and is clearly labeled. Without OutLoud, Outbrain uses its own algorithms to suggest content.

OutLoud can be used in two ways. A publisher can let Outbrain control which sponsored recommendations appear; Outbrain will then split revenue with the blog publisher.

Alternatively, a publisher can set up the OutLoud service to work as an internal referral engine: only URLs from the publisher will appear. This can be used to generate more traffic within a single property or on a network of sites owned by the same publisher.

At first glance, $10 might seem like a no brainer for a small to medium sized online publisher, but it quickly adds up. And the $10 fee per URL is only for a month. You have to pay up if you want the sponsored link to keep going.

Outbrain says that the service is aimed at a number of target clients:

  • Marketers who want to drive word-of-mouth by amplifying positive reviews about their company.
  • Individual bloggers who want to promote their most brilliant posts.
  • Public relations professionals looking for new ways to distribute releases
  • Social media gurus who can push out articles from a corporate blog to drive traffic.

With such a cool product, I wondered what product management is like at Outbrain. Amit Elisha, who directs the process, says that the days of long and involved specs with accompanying Photoshop images are long gone. “We were work on a very fast 3-4 week release cycle,” Elisha said. “We prefer UI (user interface) mock ups over technical documentation, which we keep very brief.”

Elisha’s tool of choice is Balsamiq Mockups which makes it incredibly easy to create a wireframe. I tried it out and it lives up to the hype with a truly drag and drop interface. Thanks Amit for the tip!

Elisha has been with the company since August of last year and moved from Israel, where Outbrain started, to New York for the job. I asked him my favorite question about what parts of product management could be outsourced. None, he said. Outsourced people don’t have the same stake in the company. “We hire people with a certain DNA,” he added.

For publishers looking to generate additional revenue, OutLoud certainly looks promising, although it will take some time before the service has the critical mass to add up to more than just some extra change. On the other hand, it’s free to install and Outbrain doesn’t add its own branding or links back to the Outbrain site.

Outbrain was founded by Yaron Galai and Ori Lahav. The 25-person company has headquarters in New York with R&D in Israel. The latest round was led by Carmel Ventures with previous investors Gemini, Lightspeed and GlenRock Israel filling out the round. Total raised to date: just over $18 million.

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As the 16 “social entrepreneurs” took to the stage last Thursday to present their 15-second “elevator pitch,” I was filled with anticipation. What would the next generation of hi-tech founders come up with?

Here were some of Israel’s best and brightest, hand selected by the Presentense organization which aims to arm young people who want to do good with solid business skills and knowledge.

And at first glance, the strategy has paid off handsomely. The participants in the Presentense “launch night” were confident and personable. The first ever publicly presented elevator pitches on their would-be companies – from subjects as diverse as fostering peace in the Middle East to making prayer more accessible – were polished and presentable; none would have been out of place in a corporate board room.

After the on-stage performance, each Presentense “fellow” manned a table equipped with a laptop, business cards and printed collateral material for the 500 or so guests to peruse and pocket.

As I weaved between the entrepreneurs’ pitches, I found myself enthralled by the creativity…but confused by the business models behind many of these pre-seed startups. It’s not that Presentense didn’t prepare its participants properly; it’s more the nature of social change-focused non-profits which have lofty goals but that all too often rely on philanthropy not profits.

But I’m feeling up to the challenge. So let me here present some of the projects that most stood out for me, and let’s brainstorm together on how each could, if not actually generate enough revenue to make its founders rich, at least sustain itself as a social entrepreneurial success.

CreaTV

As a media guy, I found CreaTV fascinating – a marketplace of sorts matching up amateur movie makers with professionals to develop quality products for YouTube or broadcast television. CreaTV is targeting the Israeli market initially and will reach out to students at Israel cinema schools. Founder Elad Kimelman describes himself as an “enthusiastic Zionist” who believes that Jewish-produced media can help bind together the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities.

Kimelman hopes that the company will generate projects that receive funding from Israeli production companies; CreaTV would then take a cut. That’s not a bad idea, but unless there are a lot of financed productions, it’s hard to see how the site will sustain itself in the interim. YouTube is drowning under bandwidth costs and parent Google still hasn’t figured out how to sufficiently monetize the site.

A Vimeo model, where CreaTV charges for video storage above a certain monthly file size and bandwidth limit might work (although rumors are that Vimeo is in financial trouble). CreaTV could also adopt the approach of recruitment classifieds, charging a fee when a match is made. But that seems to go against the company’s do-good goal of fostering partnerships.

MediaMidrash

MediaMidrash is another media startup that I liked a lot. Founders Russel Neiss, a librarian, and Charlie Schwartz, a rabbinic student at JTS, dream of creating a site where all of the Jewish videos in the world could be uploaded for teachers to use in school classes. Moreover, teachers could include curriculum to enhance the videos (from both the videomakers themselves and independent instructors who find the videos useful).

My first job back 20 years ago was as the at the San Francisco Bureau of Jewish Education’s media department. I was in charge of taking orders from teachers and sending out films, VHS tapes and even filmstrips (remember those?) I would have loved a computerized database like MediaMidrash.

Again the question: how will this make money? I spoke with Neiss who said it was a low cost operation and that he could run it while keeping his day job. I pointed out that, if MediaMidrash takes off, bandwidth and storage costs will quickly outstrip a volunteer job. The company’s documentation talks about offering premium services such as creating custom video and course material, staff training and websites.

In general, I think this “freemium” model – where you give away most of the content for free and upsell paid services – is the way to go. But creating new video and course content will require specialized staff – whether in-house or outsourced – and the mark-up in order to keep the company going (and pay its founders) may prove prohibitive to Jewish day schools already suffering in a post-Madoff era. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

JewTo

Jewto.com is a great name that founder Melissa Berg somehow snagged – finding a short and catchy URL like that is almost unheard of these days. Berg wants to create a mashup of Craigslist-like classifieds with a global guide to Jewish resources. Think every kosher restaurant in the world and mezuzas for sale.

Berg talked to me about hiring staff to write about all things Jewish in your city, but a more scalable model would be ape Yelp, the popular U.S. reviews and rankings site, where regular readers like you and me write the reviews of restaurants, dentists, bars, beauty salons and more. No need to pay when users contribute for the fame and glory.

Jewto can then upsell premium placement – such as your restaurant at the top of the listings (clearly marked as sponsored of course) – along with tools such as table booking, menu listings and take out. Yelp also sells display advertising – so should Jewto.

Berg should also look into partnering with fellow Israeli startup Bite 2Eat for the restaurant booking functionality as well a to look into whether Yelp or a similar site licenses its engine to third parties.

Jewto is a huge project but the business model – if done right (and it will need VC financing to pull off) – has real potential.

Peula

Did you ever receive crappy service from a store or government office? Wanted to complain but didn’t know how? Peula.com is here to help. The company is building a system to automate letter writing and to gather support from similarly minded aggrieved individuals online. Peula then sends your complaint on the right person.

Peula’s secret sauce is that when the target of your complaint responds, the reply is sent to all of the people listed on your e-complaint which means the responsible party’s response is tracked publicly.

Peula hopes this will differentiate it from its already formidable competition. In Israel, there’s atzuma.co.il, tluna.co.il, and shout.co.il. In the U.S. and U.K., companies like PlanetFeedback and HowtoComplain, and even the Better Business Bureau provide similar services – all for free.

Since the competition doesn’t charge, neither can Peula. Ads and sponsorships on the site are the company’s main business prospects. Allowing users to print letters for a fee, as founder Romi Shamai suggested to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense – users could too easily just copy and paste. There are probably additional added value tools Peula could add that I haven’t thought of yet.

The Open Siddur Project

Perhaps my favorite entrepreneur of the evening was Aharon Varady who is trying to create an online siddur (prayer book) with versions and commentaries from every source imaginable – from Rashi to Jewish Renewal plus user-contributed content. Spiritual seekers could then mix and match how they want to pray and print out their own personal siddur. “Imagine if the first siddur presented to a day school student was actually crafted by that student over the course of a year while being introduced to the liturgy in class,” Varady says.

As someone who struggles with prayer myself, I would love to have a site like Open Siddur. Varady is committed to “keeping this resource completely free.” So how to make money? Varady hopes to charge for printed copies through partnerships with print-on-demand printers.

But what would keep someone from simply generating their on their home printer? Those of us in the Internet publishing business have all learned the hard way that users won’t pay for content online. The print-on-demand model could work, but since each siddur would be customized for the individual, the volume would be low and as a result any partnership revenue from the POD guys would be similarly small.

Selling services around the siddur project – Jewish designers, calligraphers, scholars and even freelance editors – and taking a cut might be a better direction.

The Israel-Asia Center

The Israel-Asia Center seems to be the most mature project in the 2009 Presentense fellows program. The company already has a working website – a news magazine focused on “promoting partnerships between Israel, the Jewish people and Asia, with a strong focus on China.”

The management team includes an Israeli professor in China, and founder Rebecca Zeffert, a PR specialist and Chinese Studies graduate. They’re backed by a 20-member volunteer team in Israel, China, the U.S. and India. The company also has an impressive advisory board.

The Israel-Asia Center’s business model also makes sense: use the website as a platform for selling services – course syllabi on Israel-China relations, speaking engagements, briefings and exchange programs.

Given the growth of China as the world’s second largest economy and Israel’s already existing ties with the Asian giant, I give a hearty thumbs up to Zeffert and crew.

There were a bunch of other entrepreneurs at the event that I didn’t get a chance to talk with. Will they all succeed? Certainly not. Do they deserve to? Absolutely. Do I have all the answers? Not a chance. But this is just a start; some friendly advice, and I have no doubt these fledgling startups will receive plenty more.

What do you think? Which directions would you point these worthwhile endeavors. Drop me a line or leave a comment on the blog.

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Have you ever wanted to place a note in the Western Wall but couldn’t afford the ticket to Jerusalem? Now you can tweet it.

It’s traditional to place short notes in the cracks of the Western Wall stones asking for health, livelihood and other personal requests. Now, a new Israeli Web site launched two weeks allows petitioners to submit their prayers or wishes via Twitter. The notes are then printed out and regularly taken to Jerusalem’s Old City.

Twitter is ideal for such a service: the 140-character limitation forces the religiously-minded to keep their requests short. It also allows site founder, Alon Nir of Tel Aviv, to consolidate a number of messages onto a single sheet of paper.

Nir doesn’t see the project more as cultural than religious. “I thought of it after understanding Twitter’s power and wondered what I could do with it,” he said. “So I linked the Western Wall to the millions using Twitter.”

One drawback: since the service uses Twitter, the notes are all public. Didn’t we all learning that telling someone what you wish for means it won’t come true?

The site is at http://www.tweetyourprayers.info/. You can follow the service at http://twitter.com/TheKotel (Kotel is the Hebrew for Western Wall). The site already has 546 followers.

For more articles on newspapers and classified advertising, visit the industry experts: AIMGroup.com.

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