From the category archives:

Products

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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Free Israel logo 2The courts have ruled that the service is legal, but it still leaves a muddled taste in my mouth. I’m talking about Free.co.il, a popular Israeli auction site that works more like the Lotto than eBay.

You can’t help but be drawn in by Free.co.il’s home page which promises a Sony Playstation for NIS 99 ($26), a MacBook Air for NIS 299 ($79), and even a brand new Mazda 3 for a steal at only NIS 899 ($237). Who wouldn’t want to play with deals like these?

At first, it would be hard to distinguish Free.co.il from a traditional eBay-style auction site: you place your bids on items for sale and the highest bidder within the auction’s time frame wins. Unlike eBay, though, you have to pay for your bids. The cost of each bid varies; for the MacBook, it’s NIS 20 (about $5). It’s higher for bigger ticket items.

So, let’s say you bid 20 times to win that MacBook. You’ll pay NIS 20 x 20 or NIS 400 ($105). Then you pay the price of the unit, plus shipping of NIS 75 ($20) – written in tiny letters on a separate page you have to click to see. Your total cost: NIS 774 ($206). That’s still way less than the retail price of NIS 8,899 ($2,400) at Apple’s Tel Aviv outlet, but it’s not the NIS 299 that was initially advertised.

And what if you don’t win? Then you lose the NIS 400 entirely. That’s how Free.co.il can offer such low prices.

Still, if you place your bids right (and there is a whole section on “bidding strategies” on the site), and you’re willing to stick with it and spend hours aggressively placing last minute bets, you will win eventually (hopefully for an item you actually want). So, even if you wind up spending NIS 2,000 bidding on several items before winning one that’s valued at NIS 10,000, you’re still getting the product at an 80% discount.

There’s one other trick Free.co.il has up its digital sleeve. If two people bid the same amount, both bids are canceled. That means that the highest “unique” bid wins. You can see who’s placing what bids, their initials and even where they live, but not the amount they’re spending. So you never really know if your bid is being burned or not.

Free.co.il is entirely in Hebrew, but there’s a thriving market of overseas competitors. Is this a good business? Investors seem to think so. One of Free.co.il’s rivals, Swoopo, has raised an astonishing $14 million. Another – BigDeal – has a $4 million war chest and some Silicon Valley luminaries at the helm.

It’s certainly compelling – who wouldn’t want an iPhone at a tenth of the retail price – though I don’t think I’d have the stomach for it (I usually chicken out and click the “Buy it Now” button on eBay). And it peeves me that Free.co.il buries those hefty shipping fees in hard-to-find small print – it makes me wonder what else are they hiding.

But if you’re willing to play by the rules, and you enjoy the thrill of the game, Free.co.il could be the 21st century version of “The Price is Right.” All we need now is our own Israeli version of Bob Barker.

This article originally appeared on the Israelity blog.

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Video capabilities are a game changer

Not quite a game changer

With the much rumored and insanely anticipated Apple iSlate, due to be announced later this month, being referred to as a potential “game changer,” as momentous as the original iPod and its big cousin the iPhone, I thought I’d take a look back at a post I wrote in September in which I called the new iPod Nano a game changer itself.

At the time, I hadn’t actually gotten my hands on one. That finally happened last week. And I’m sorry to report that my prediction now seems premature.

My enthusiasm for the Nano was that it was the absolute smallest, decent quality video camcorder on the market, and it had a built in iPod to boot (or maybe it’s the other way around). It would be a boon to bloggers and media publishers of all sizes, not to mention consumers shooting silly cat tricks, I wrote.

And indeed, that potential is readily apparent. I have a client that works with communities in far flung places such as India, China and Burma. Why not arm its constituents with Nanos to document lifecycle events and send them back to us to edit and post on YouTube or Facebook.

When I finally tried out the Nano itself – at a rock concert where I needed a clip to accompany an article I was writing – the Nano neatly delivered on its promise: the device is so tiny I was able to keep it stowed safely in my shirt pocket, and it warms up fast so I was ready at the beginning of each song to grab the shots I wanted. The video quality was entirely acceptable; the audio less so.

So what’s the problem? It doesn’t have a camera; it’s just video. That might seem a bit nit picky, but the market today is all about convergence – reducing the number of devices you need to carry. The iPhone does this perfectly: it packs a phone, camera, video recorder, MP3 player and web browser all-in-one shiny black package.

But the iPhone (like most smart phones) is relatively hefty. It doesn’t fit into a pocket, it’s too bulky to wear on an armband while exercising and, frankly, it does more – and costs more – than many people need.

The Nano has the price and form factor I want, but without a camera for stills, if I want to be ready at any time and any place to shoot a photo and a video, I have to carry both my Nano and my digital camera. My cell phone doesn’t take pictures at high enough quality to make it a worthy alternative.

Why didn’t Apple include a camera in the iPod Nano? Probably to prevent cannibalization of sales of its higher end i-products (although the official rumored reason is that they couldn’t get the optics small enough to work). Perhaps the camera will be a part of the package in the future – along with a tiny wireless receiver, now wouldn’t that be cool! – but before then, the business buzz will have already moved on to the iSlate as the next game changer.

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In case you were wondering how that video I shot at the rock concert came out, here’s a short clip I took with the iPod Nano. The audio is a bit muffled, but I think that’s more due to where we were sitting (in the front row, where the instrument amps were closer) than the iPod’s functionality.

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When I spoke with Amit Elisha of OutBrain a few weeks ago, we discussed the company’s software release strategy.

OutBrain operates under what’s considered the new Gospel of product development: get a basic version out there with a minimum number of features and maybe even a few known bugs, make it free, then let your users flood you with feedback so you can iterate and build your next version better.

Continue this process until you climb out of alpha into beta and eventually to a fully functional product (which, to follow Google’s prolonged beta label example, could take many years).

Jason Cohen

Jason Cohen

An interesting article by Jason Cohen, the founder of Smart Bear Software, on the On Startups blog challenges this methodology. Releasing too early and relying on the power of the crowd, he suggests, can potentially harm your reputation and potentially kill your product.

He uses the iPod as an example. Apple designed its game changing music device far away from the public eye. If it had been part of a release-and-iterate cycle, he says, could Apple possibly have gotten away with building a battery-powered device where you can’t change the battery! Or one without an FM radio (which was already included in many early iPod competitors – it’s finally been added to the new iPod Nano years later).

“Disruptive products by definition cannot be built by consensus,” he writes. “’’Design by committee’ is a sure-fire way to get mediocre design.”

Cohen presents additional points to back up his hypothesis.

  • Startups often invoke the 80/20 rule that says you can implement just 20% of your features because that’s what 80% of your users want anyway. But Cohen says that doesn’t apply the way you think it does. The truth is that 80% of your customers use a different 20% from each other. So you need to push out more features, not less, to satisfy a larger cross-section.
  • Twitter is often trotted out as a classic example of “get it out fast,” but it’s a bad one. While the service quickly gained a large and rabid following, it has been suffering from backend scalability problems ever since. Twitter has sufficient capital and some super-smart engineers who can work around the clock to fix what ails it, but your two-person startup may not be so lucky if you release before you’re ready.
  • Customers don’t actually know what they want. “They’re much better at describing what’s difficult in their life, what frustrates them, or what takes up a lot of their time,” Cohen writes. But did anyone ever say “gee, I wish that I could send a video ringtone to my friends” (this is an idea that only a couple of smart entrepreneurs could think up).

Over the last 20 years, I’ve built or been a part of a team building a number of products. When I was working at CD-ROM developer Mindscape, I got into a huge fight with my boss over when to release a product that I had been toiling over for the better part of a year. The company had sales orders from its distributors, but I knew the product was still buggy and wasn’t ready.

Even worse, this was in the pre-Internet days; once the CD was shipped, it would take a new budget allocation to fix it, which I knew would be hard to obtain. When I was essentially given a choice – ship the product or pack your bags – I opted for prudence.

More recently, though, I fell victim to my own emotional involvement with a product that would have done better to release early and iterate. I got so caught up in getting it right, I didn’t realize that the business model was wrong, something that would have become apparent if users had a chance to kick the tires.

Two other examples from opposite poles:

1) Craigslist – if ever there was a bottom up, build it fast and they will come approach to web development, Craigslist would be the poster child. Of course, Craigslist got stuck after the first round of iteration – the site hasn’t been functionally updated for years, but it works and no one’s complaining.

2) The Apple Newton – this is not so much an example of slapped together product development, but it nevertheless demonstrates how a bad start can sink a product. The world’s first PDA came out in the early 1990s. It was a revolutionary product but “the handwriting recognition sucked and there weren’t a lot of apps,” Cohen explains. The public’s response: “it doesn’t do a lot and what it does do doesn’t work well.” By the time Apple addressed its myriad problems, it was too late.

Ultimately, there’s no clear-cut approach. I tend to lean towards the “you’ve got only one chance to make a first impression” direction but, as a number of comments on Cohen’s blog post argued, not every company is Apple.

“They have the money and market control needed to focus on building a complete product at the expense of time to market,” writes Paul May. “Few startups have this luxury.”

What do you think? Which direction is more likely to lead to success…or kill a company? I’d love to hear from you in the comments to this post.

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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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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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Harrah'sI was listening to an old episode of one of my favorite NPR shows and podcasts, Radio Lab. The topic was how we choose and it featured a fascinating and highly disturbing story that has relevance to anyone involved in the Internet today.

It turns out that in the world of gambling, the casino chain Harrah’s is the undisputed leader. The reason? All visitors must first join a “loyalty” program. Since signing up grants the gambler a nice credit of a few bucks, no one says no. Once you get your card, you have to insert it in the slot machine whenever you want to play.

What happens next is that Harrah’s tracks everything you do at the slots – how long you stay, what machines you play, how much you spend. By crunching the numbers, Harrah’s knows your specific pain threshold and at what point you’ll have lost enough to quit.

Harrah’s staff in the back room tracks everything and when the computer flags someone coming close to their limit, a member of Harrah’s floor staff approaches the soon-to-give-up gambler and intervenes, offering a free steak dinner, or another $15 credit or even tickets to a show that evening. The result: the gambler keeps gambling.

When I first heard this, I was appalled. How could a casino be so manipulative? (Well, they’re already manipulative, but this seemed over the top.) And how could gamblers be so gullible as to give the casino access to their personal behaviors.

But then I realized that what Harrah’s is doing is really no different than what’s happening online today. Advertisers using behavioral targeting are tracking your every move on the web – which sites you linger on, how long you stay in one place, what links you click on. The advertiser then knows to serve up the right ad at the right time and place.

Let’s say you just left Cars.com and are now at The New York Times. If the two companies both use the same tracking service, it’s easy for The Times to serve up an auto ad even though you’ve long since left Cars.com.

And how about mobile GPS services? We give up our privacy so that we can receive customized ads and coupons for restaurants in the vicinity of where we’re walking or driving. We see that as valuable – hey, I just got 10% off – but aren’t you being manipulated in exactly the same way as at the casino? Minority Report isn’t so far away.

I’m not saying that we should turn off our cookies – often times those ads can be valuable – and in any case, it’s largely impractical given the way the Internet operates. But we should be aware of what’s happening around us and make sure that we know when we’ve given our permission to be manipulated.

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Video capabilities are a game changer

Video capabilities are a game changer

There was lots to like in yesterday’s iPod announcements from Apple. But the most important was the addition of a camera and video functionality to the venerable iPod Nano. Apple practically invented the MP3 market and continues to dominate player sales. The iPhone changed consumer’s perceptions about what a fully-featured smart phone must include.

Now Apple is expanding its reach into video, directly taking on the popular Flip as an in-your-pocket always there live motion recording device. What’s significant is that it’s a completely new market for Apple and if the company applies its usual business savvy, it could grab significant market share.

Yes, it’s true that the iPhone already allows you to take video, but that device is much larger – too big, for me at least, to comfortably fit in a pocket. And with the required phone contract, it’s nowhere near as cheap as a Nano – $150 for an 8 GB unit that records in 640×480 quality (that’s twice the memory as the Flip, by the way).

It’s also true that nearly every cell phone sold today can take video, but if you’ve ever seen the quality of the resulting clips, you’ll be underwhelmed.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to snap some video but didn’t want to lug around my Canon camcorder, which itself was much smaller than my previous Hi8 machine. On our recent vacation, I brought the Canon but never took it out of my backpack. Not once.

The video quality of the new Nano should be about that of the original Flip and the pricing is identical. That’s not quite what I’d want – the $199 Flip HD takes much better video, and I’m sure Apple will release a Nano HD, though we may have to wait awhile. Apple has given the Nano a few special effects, but not the fancy video editing that the iPhone has.

One downside (and it’s a biggie): the Nano ONLY takes video. You can’t use it as a still camera. That means I’ll have to lug around a regular digital camera. And there’s no wireless (not that I expected that) like the iPhone where you can post those candid videos online immediately.

Why no stills? Steve Jobs told The New York Times that adding high pixel resolution including autofocus would have bulked up the device too much.

All told, if Apple executes well on this one, it could definitely be a game changer in the pocket video space, meaning even more YouTube videos of cats flushing toilets and fat kids waving light sabers. But for businesses it will also mean faster product demos, shots from conferences, interviews, home video tours (great for Realtors), and even documentation of in-house meetings.

Two other new features of note in the improved Nano:

FM radio tuner

A number of years ago, I bemoaned the fact that no iPod could pick up radio stations. When I visit a country outside of Israel, I enjoy listening to the local radio stations. It gives me a feel for a city’s vibe. But now I rarely listen to terrestrial radio, preferring Internet-only stations like Radio Paradise and WOXY.

The iPod Nano’s radio tuner has some cool features – like the ability to pause your broadcast up to 15 minutes and to see which song is playing, then click to buy it later from iTunes – but for the most part this feature seems too little too late.

Pedometer

The Nano has long been Apple’s iPod of choice for joggers like me who primarily want a small device that you can strap on your arm. So the addition of a pedometer is a welcome feature. How many kilometers is that one-hour jog? Now I’ll know without having to carry a second device.

There are other goodies in the new Nano too that bring it closer to the app-centric Touch and iPhone without sacrificing its sleek form factor. Now, what I’d really like? A tiny iPhone, the size of a Nano. No rumors yet, but knowing Apple, anything is possible.

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The battle of the e-readers is heating up. Barnes and Noble has announced it has entered into an exclusive agreement to sell the upcoming device from Plastic Logic. The unit competes directly with the Amazon Kindle DX – both are about the same size – although the Plastic Logic device is spiffier in our opinion – all touch screen, no controls at all. It weight about 13 ounces.

Both the Kindle DX and Plastic Logic devices are highly anticipated to become large size useful digital newspaper readers.

Plastic Logic also announced that AT&T will be providing the wireless backbone for its machine. The Kindle uses Sprint and provides it for free to Kindle owners. Will Plastic Logic do the same?

The AT&T deal is a bit strange since Apple’s uber-popular iPhone runs on the same network. If both get big, AT&T may have trouble keeping up.

Plastic Logic will also build WiFi into the device, another feature the Kindle doesn’t have. A third device – the Sony Reader – doesn’t have WiFi at all (although it does have a touch screen).

Plastic Logic talked up its deal with Barnes and Noble on Fox Business. Video here. The Plastic Reader device will launch in “early 2010,” the company’s VP of biz dev said on Fox Business.

Barnes and Noble, which is looking for any corner to cut these days, seems to be betting on e-books. Their newly announced e-book store has 700,000 titles (with plans to increase to a million by next year) vs. 300,000 at Amazon. Of those, however, half a million are public domain books from Google. Barnes and Noble’s titles won’t be exclusive to Plastic Logic reading – they’ll be open format and will work on the iPhone and iPod Touch a well as BlackBerrys and most laptops and desktops.

As a result, Amazon may be forced to embrace more formats (and we hope lower the ridiculously high prices on its Kindles).

One other cool thing announced during Barnes and Noble’s Monday conference call – a free iPod app that lets users snap a picture of a book (presumably in a Barnes and Noble store) and use that to get product details, editorial reviews, and customer ratings via their mobile device. Neat.

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

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