Google Is The New King Of Creep

Microsoft used to be considered the king of feature creep.  Here was Microsoft Word when it was most cluttered:

I don’t use any of Microsoft’s software anymore, but from what I hear they’ve toned down the feature creep a lot in recent versions of Windows and Word.

Google has been adding so many new features to its results page, they are starting to feel like the new Microsoft.  Here’s an approximation of what Google used to look like (I couldn’t find an image of actual Google 1998 SRPs — anyone have one?)

And here is Google today:

Options on the left, ads on top and on the right, news results up top, images, and buttons to vote results up/down and annotate them.  But worst of all are the new scrolling “real time” results.  The static image I’ve embedded doesn’t do justice to how annoying this is. Random, out-of-context, and mostly asinine fragments of conversations scrolling by.  One might even consider it Google’s Clippy.

Chris Dixon is Cofounder of Hunch. He's also a personal investor in early-stage technology companies, including Skype, TrialPay, Gerson Lehrman Group, ScanScout, OMGPOP, BillShrink, Oddcast, Panjiva, Knewton, and a handful of other startups that are still in stealth mode. He is a member of Founder Collective.

clutter breeds clutter

playdom does $50M in annual revenue with 28M MAU - can zynga do $1B/year?

this implies the following metrics:
$4.17M per month in revenue
$/active MAU of $.148 cents

if you dig a little bit appdata reports playdom has 3.18M DAU

so, there $/active on a daily basis is:
$139k per day in revenue
$.04 $/active DAU

for some funny math, zynga reports 65M DAU...

if you put in 4 cents $/active, that gives them $2.6M in daily revenue, or 78M/mo or approx $949MM per year in revenue...

Russian Facebook Investor Adds Stake in Zynga

SAN FRANCISCO — The Russian firm that invested more than $200 million in Facebook this year is making another bet on the United States Internet industry.

Digital Sky Technologies, or D.S.T., an investment firm with offices in Moscow and London, is leading a group that is buying a $180 million stake in Zynga, a fast-growing San Francisco company whose online games, like FarmVille, Café World and Mafia Wars, are extremely popular on Facebook.

An unusual investment structure, by an unorthodox foreign investor, might shake up many of Silicon Valley’s traditional venture capital and private equity firms, which are losing out on another promising Internet opportunity.

The investment could also raise further questions about the pedigree of D.S.T., which lists a prominent Russian billionaire with a criminal record among its major shareholders.

As with Facebook, D.S.T. will invest directly in Zynga while also buying stock from shareholders, including the company’s employees. The move is aimed at giving employees and shareholders of the prominent start-up a way to cash out before an initial public offering.

Tiger Global, a New York hedge fund, and the venture capital firms Institutional Venture Partners and Andreessen Horowitz also invested.

Zynga had previously raised $39 million.

The companies did not disclose Zynga’s valuation as a result of the new capital, but the game company’s annual revenue has been reported to be around $250 million and growing quickly.

Two experts in Internet company finance said it would be reasonable for Zynga to command a valuation of two and a half to six times its annual revenue. That could put the value of the two-year-old Zynga at $1.5 billion; one industry insider believes the value could be as much as $3 billion.

With the investment, D.S.T. is doubling down on its billion-dollar bet on social networks and online games, which draw people who do not normally play video games into virtual simulations that they can play with friends. Players might spend only a few minutes each day in the game, and are persuaded to pay real money to buy virtual goods, like bales of hay and gasoline for their tractors in FarmVille, a game in which players run a farm.

D.S.T. began investing in 2005, mostly in Internet firms based in Russia and Eastern Europe, where, as in Asia, people have adopted social games and virtual goods marketplaces faster than in the United States.

“People did not believe that this Chinese model of micropayments and social games was real,” said Yuri Milner, D.S.T.’s chief executive. “I am pretty convinced this market will have tremendous pick-up on the Western side of the world.”

Part of D.S.T.’s appeal to start-ups is that it has shown unusual patience in waiting for a return on its investment. Traditional venture capital firms invest money from limited partners, like university endowments, which expect a return on their capital every few years. But D.S.T. operates more like a holding company and invests its own capital. It also does not require a seat on the company’s board.

D.S.T. first came to people’s attention in the United States in May, with its unusual investment in Facebook. As it did with Zynga, D.S.T. agreed to buy preferred shares at a high valuation, while also buying, at a lower valuation, the employee-owned common stock that traditional Silicon Valley investors typically shun.

In the past, company shareholders cashed out when the company was sold, either to a bigger company or to the public. Today, though, companies are increasingly figuring out how to offer shareholders liquidity much earlier by letting them sell shares when the company is still private. Though Zynga and Facebook are among the best-known examples, other venture capital firms have been making similar deals.

“I believe that many successful Internet companies just went public too early,” Mr. Milner said. “We’re almost like making them public companies for a short while.”

D.S.T.’s investment in Facebook also brought it some added scrutiny. Alisher Usmanov, a Russian industrialist billionaire who spent six years in an Uzbek jail for fraud and embezzlement in the 1980s, owns 35 percent of D.S.T. Mr. Usmanov has said he was jailed for political reasons.

Responding to questions about Mr. Usmanov and his role at D.S.T., Mr. Milner said that he and his partner owned 40 percent of the firm and made all of its management decisions.

Bing Gordon, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which previously invested in Zynga, said that Zynga’s board did the customary due diligence on D.S.T. and that he was impressed by the firm.

Mr. Milner is a “brilliant entrepreneur,” Mr. Gordon said. “He saw within Russia the importance of social media and the new social Web, and he’s got a global point of view, which is still rare even in Silicon Valley.”

For Zynga, which has 712 full- and part-time employees, the investment gives it extra capital with which to compete with newly enriched rivals.

“The opportunity every quarter is proving to be bigger than we imagined and we always thought it was prudent to keep adding to the capital of the company as we grow,” said Mark Pincus, Zynga’s founder and chief executive, who has started three other companies.

Playfish, which competes with Zynga but has a smaller user base, was recently sold to the video game giant Electronic Arts for $300 million in cash and stock, and shareholders could receive an additional $100 million if it performs well. Slide and Playdom, other Bay Area start-ups in the social games and virtual goods arena, are also well financed.

The capital infusion also indicates that Zynga survived relatively unscathed after recent criticism from bloggers. They said that Zynga and other social gaming companies were deceiving users by selling them offers from advertisers, some of which were deceptive. Zynga has since suspended all such offer advertising.

Sign in to Recommend Next Article in Technology (1 of 25) » A version of this article appeared in print on December 16, 2009, on page B1 of the New York edition.

this is getting way too frothy.

Smart meters, intended for savings, prompt revolt - CNET News

Millions of households across America are taking a first step into the world of the smart grid, as their power companies install meters that can tell them how much electricity they are using hour by hour--and sometimes, appliance by appliance. But not everyone is happy about it.

Customers in California are in open revolt, and officials in Connecticut and Texas are questioning whether the rush to install meters benefits the public.

Some consumers argue that the meters are logging far more kilowatt hours than they believe they are using. And many find it unfair that they will begin to pay immediately for the new meters through higher rates, when the promised savings could be years away.

Power companies say the meters will allow utilities to vary the price charged to their customers by the hour to correspond to what those utilities are paying for energy in the wholesale market. This can help consumers save money, they say.

They also say the meters will be crucial to remaking the electric system to handle intermittent power sources like wind turbines and solar cells while continuously meeting customers' needs.

Pacific Gas & Electric, which distributes power to Northern and Central California, has so far installed 4 million meters in households and businesses and plans to install 6 million more within the next three years. The meters cost the utility roughly $220 apiece, including installation.

Elizabeth Keogh, a retired social worker in Bakersfield, Calif., who describes herself as "a bit chintzy," has created a spreadsheet with 26 years of electric bills for her modest house. She decided that her new meter was running too fast.

Keogh reported to the utility that the meter recorded 646 kilowatt-hours in July, for which she paid $66.50; last year it was 474 kilowatt-hours, or $43.37.

At a hearing in October organized by her state senator, Keogh took out two rolls of toilet paper--one new, one half used up--and rolled them down the aisle, showing how one turned faster than the other. "Something is wrong here," she said.

Scores of electric customers with similar complaints have turned out at similar hearings. At one in Fresno, Calif., Leo Margosian, a retired investigator, testified that the new meter logged the consumption of his two-bedroom townhouse at 791 kilowatt-hours in July, up from 236 a year earlier. And he had recently insulated his attic and installed new windows, Margosian said.

At the urging of the state senator, Dean Florez, Democrat of Fresno and the chamber's majority leader, and others, the California Public Utilities Commission is moving to bring in an outside auditor to determine whether the meters count usage properly.

In response to a wave of complaints from the Bakersfield area in the Central Valley, Pacific Gas & Electric has been placing full-page advertisements in newspapers in the area promising benefits from the new meters. It says customers will save money not only by paying rates based on hourly fluctuations in the wholesale market, but also eventually by displaying real-time rates.

Smart meter
Credit: Martin LaMonica/CNET
A smart meter in action.

To reduce their bills, customers could cut back at pricey peak times and shift some activities, like running a clothes dryer or a vacuum cleaner, to off-peak periods. Utilities will then have lower costs, the argument goes, because the grid will need fewer power plants as demand levels out.

Customers will become "structural winners," said Andy Tang, senior director of the company's Smart Energy Web program.

Someday utilities hope to use the meter to control consumption by major appliances like air conditioners. But experts are still debating what technical standards the meters and appliances should use to communicate.

While the costs of installing the meters is substantial--$2.2 billion in the case of PG&E--the utility reaps some immediate benefits that eventually will be passed along to the consumer.

The most obvious one is that utilities can eliminate their meter readers, along with an expenditure of 50 cents to a dollar to read each meter every month. And with smart meters, utilities are alerted immediately if a customer's power is out.

If a utility decides to shut off a customer for nonpayment, it can do so by remote control; if the customer pays enough money to allow resumption of service, the utility can also do that from a central office without sending out a representative.

PG&E attributes the higher bills that some consumers complain about to recent rate increases and to quirks in California's pricing system. Electricity in the state is priced in so-called tiers: consumers get the first few hundred kilowatt-hours at a low rate, but the next few units of consumption are billed at a high rate. A small increase in use can therefore result in a big increase in the bill, the utility says. It adds that an unusually high number of very hot days were recorded last summer.

But people in other parts of the country are also wary of the meter switch. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut frets that consumers could be shouldering the costs of the transition long before they realized the savings.

"The major benefits come in the second and third stages," Blumenthal said, referring to instantaneous rate information, the ability to adjust use and the prospect of developing appliances that can be set to switch on or off when the meter announces that prices have reached a certain level.

So Blumenthal has helped persuade regulators in his state and Connecticut Light & Power to scale back a plan for widespread installation of smart meters, and to run a pilot program first.

In Texas, where state law encourages installation of smart meters, the public utility counsel, a consumer advocate, got the utilities to agree to pay tens of millions of dollars for public education and to subsidize the cost of an in-home display to give an instantaneous price in low-income households.

(While meters in Texas will bill customers based on time of day, the utilities do not routinely provide the indoor hardware that furnishes such information.)

Complicating the transition, the widespread introduction of smart meters comes amid a recession and a decline in electricity demand.

Two years ago, experts agree, it was cheaper to persuade 100,000 customers to each use two kilowatts less energy at any given moment than for a utility to build and run a 200-megawatt power plant.

But today, reining in energy consumption is less of a corporate priority: generating capacity is in surplus in almost all parts of the United States because the recession has shuttered so many factories. And in swaths of the eastern United States, the wholesale price difference between peak and off-peak demand is far smaller lately.

The long-term impact of the smart meters is uncertain. Some studies show that people use less electricity when they can see the numbers ticking higher on the meter.

Among residential customers who volunteered for a test program in California last summer, 70 percent saved money and 97 percent said they were satisfied with the program and wanted to stay in it, Tang of PG&E said.

Yet of about a million customers with smart meters at the time, only 24,000, or 2.4 percent, chose to take part in the test program.

Entire contents, Copyright © 2009 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

looks like some bugs still need to be ironed out...

Is Monsanto an evil company? they touch practically everything we eat because of their dominance in soy and corn seeds.

ST. LOUIS — Confidential contracts detailing Monsanto Co.'s business practices reveal how the world's biggest seed developer is squeezing competitors, controlling smaller seed companies and protecting its dominance over the multibillion-dollar market for genetically altered crops, an Associated Press investigation has found.

With Monsanto's patented genes being inserted into roughly 95 percent of all soybeans and 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S., the company also is using its wide reach to control the ability of new biotech firms to get wide distribution for their products, according to a review of several Monsanto licensing agreements and dozens of interviews with seed industry participants, agriculture and legal experts.

Declining competition in the seed business could lead to price hikes that ripple out to every family's dinner table. That's because the corn flakes you had for breakfast, soda you drank at lunch and beef stew you ate for dinner likely were produced from crops grown with Monsanto's patented genes.

Monsanto's methods are spelled out in a series of confidential commercial licensing agreements obtained by the AP. The contracts, as long as 30 pages, include basic terms for the selling of engineered crops resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, along with shorter supplementary agreements that address new Monsanto traits or other contract amendments.

The company has used the agreements to spread its technology – giving some 200 smaller companies the right to insert Monsanto's genes in their separate strains of corn and soybean plants. But, the AP found, access to Monsanto's genes comes at a cost, and with plenty of strings attached.

For example, one contract provision bans independent companies from breeding plants that contain both Monsanto's genes and the genes of any of its competitors, unless Monsanto gives prior written permission – giving Monsanto the ability to effectively lock out competitors from inserting their patented traits into the vast share of U.S. crops that already contain Monsanto's genes.

Monsanto's business strategies and licensing agreements are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and at least two state attorneys general, who are trying to determine if the practices violate U.S. antitrust laws. The practices also are at the heart of civil antitrust suits filed against Monsanto by its competitors, including a 2004 suit filed by Syngenta AG that was settled with an agreement and ongoing litigation filed this summer by DuPont in response to a Monsanto lawsuit.

The suburban St. Louis-based agricultural giant said it's done nothing wrong.

Story continues below

"We do not believe there is any merit to allegations about our licensing agreement or the terms within," said Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles. He said he couldn't comment on many specific provisions of the agreements because they are confidential and the subject of ongoing litigation.

"Our approach to licensing (with) many companies is pro-competitive and has enabled literally hundreds of seed companies, including all of our major direct competitors, to offer thousands of new seed products to farmers," he said.

The benefit of Monsanto's technology for farmers has been undeniable, but some of its major competitors and smaller seed firms claim the company is using strong-arm tactics to further its control.

"We now believe that Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics). This level of control is almost unbelievable," said Neil Harl, agricultural economist at Iowa State University who has studied the seed industry for decades. "The upshot of that is that it's tightening Monsanto's control, and makes it possible for them to increase their prices long term. And we've seen this happening the last five years, and the end is not in sight."

At issue is how much power one company can have over seeds, the foundation of the world's food supply. Without stiff competition, Monsanto could raise its seed prices at will, which in turn could raise the cost of everything from animal feed to wheat bread and cookies.

The price of seeds is already rising. Monsanto increased some corn seed prices last year by 25 percent, with an additional 7 percent hike planned for corn seeds in 2010. Monsanto brand soybean seeds climbed 28 percent last year and will be flat or up 6 percent in 2010, said company spokeswoman Kelli Powers.

Monsanto's broad use of licensing agreements has made its biotech traits among the most widely and rapidly adopted technologies in farming history. These days, when farmers buy bags of seed with obscure brand names like AgVenture or M-Pride Genetics, they are paying for Monsanto's licensed products.

One of the numerous provisions in the licensing agreements is a ban on mixing genes – or "stacking" in industry lingo – that enhance Monsanto's power.

One contract provision likely helped Monsanto buy 24 independent seed companies throughout the Farm Belt over the last few years: that corn seed agreement says that if a smaller company changes ownership, its inventory with Monsanto's traits "shall be destroyed immediately."

Another provision from contracts earlier this decade_ regarding rebates – also help explain Monsanto's rapid growth as it rolled out new products.

One contract gave an independent seed company deep discounts if the company ensured that Monsanto's products would make up 70 percent of its total corn seed inventory. In its 2004 lawsuit, Syngenta called the discounts part of Monsanto's "scorched earth campaign" to keep Syngenta's new traits out of the market.

Quarles said the discounts were used to entice seed companies to carry Monsanto products when the technology was new and farmers hadn't yet used it. Now that the products are widespread, Monsanto has discontinued the discounts, he said.

The Monsanto contracts reviewed by the AP prohibit seed companies from discussing terms, and Monsanto has the right to cancel deals and wipe out the inventory of a business if the confidentiality clauses are violated.

Thomas Terral, chief executive officer of Terral Seed in Louisiana, said he recently rejected a Monsanto contract because it put too many restrictions on his business. But Terral refused to provide the unsigned contract to AP or even discuss its contents because he was afraid Monsanto would retaliate and cancel the rest of his agreements.

"I would be so tied up in what I was able to do that basically I would have no value to anybody else," he said. "The only person I would have value to is Monsanto, and I would continue to pay them millions in fees."

Independent seed company owners could drop their contracts with Monsanto and return to selling conventional seed, but they say it could be financially ruinous. Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene has become the industry standard over the last decade, and small companies fear losing customers if they drop it. It also can take years of breeding and investment to mix Monsanto's genes into a seed company's product line, so dropping the genes can be costly.

Monsanto acknowledged that U.S. Department of Justice lawyers are seeking documents and interviewing company employees about its marketing practices. The DOJ wouldn't comment.

A spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said the office is examining possible antitrust violations. Additionally, two sources familiar with an investigation in Texas said state Attorney General Greg Abbott's office is considering the same issues. States have the authority to enforce federal antitrust law, and attorneys general are often involved in such cases.

Monsanto chairman and chief executive officer Hugh Grant told investment analysts during a conference call this fall that the price increases are justified by the productivity boost farmers get from the company's seeds. Farmers and seed company owners agree that Monsanto's technology has boosted yields and profits, saving farmers time they once spent weeding and money they once spent on pesticides.

But recent price hikes have still been tough to swallow on the farm.

"It's just like I got hit with bad weather and got a poor yield. It just means I've got less in the bottom line," said Markus Reinke, a corn and soybean farmer near Concordia, Mo. who took over his family's farm in 1965. "They can charge because they can do it, and get away with it. And us farmers just complain, and shake our heads and go along with it."

Any Justice Department case against Monsanto could break new ground in balancing a company's right to control its patented products while protecting competitors' right to free and open competition, said Kevin Arquit, former director of the Federal Trade Commission competition bureau and now a antitrust attorney with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP in New York.

"These are very interesting issues, and not just for the companies, but for the Justice Department," Arquit said. "They're in an area where there is uncertainty in the law and there are consumer welfare implications and government policy implications for whatever the result is."

Other seed companies have followed Monsanto's lead by including restrictive clauses in their licensing agreements, but their products only penetrate smaller segments of the U.S. seed market. Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene, on the other hand, is in such a wide array of crops that its licensing agreements can have a massive effect on the rules of the marketplace.

Monsanto was only a niche player in the seed business just 12 years ago. It rose to the top thanks to innovation by its scientists and aggressive use of patent law by its attorneys.

First came the science, when Monsanto in 1996 introduced the world's first commercial strain of genetically engineered soybeans. The Roundup Ready plants were resistant to the herbicide, allowing farmers to spray Roundup whenever they wanted rather than wait until the soybeans had grown enough to withstand the chemical.

The company soon released other genetically altered crops, such as corn plants that produced a natural pesticide to ward off bugs. While Monsanto had blockbuster products, it didn't yet have a big foothold in a seed industry made up of hundreds of companies that supplied farmers.

That's where the legal innovations came in, as Monsanto became among the first to widely patent its genes and gain the right to strictly control how they were used. That control let it spread its technology through licensing agreements, while shaping the marketplace around them.

Back in the 1970s, public universities developed new traits for corn and soybean seeds that made them grow hardy and resist pests. Small seed companies got the traits cheaply and could blend them to breed superior crops without restriction. But the agreements give Monsanto control over mixing multiple biotech traits into crops.

The restrictions even apply to taxpayer-funded researchers.

Roger Boerma, a research professor at the University of Georgia, is developing specialized strains of soybeans that grow well in southeastern states, but his current research is tangled up in such restrictions from Monsanto and its competitors.

"It's made one level of our life incredibly challenging and difficult," Boerma said.

The rules also can restrict research. Boerma halted research on a line of new soybean plants that contain a trait from a Monsanto competitor when he learned that the trait was ineffective unless it could be mixed with Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene.

Boerma said he hasn't considered asking Monsanto's permission to mix its traits with the competitor's trait.

"I think the co-mingling of their trait technology with another company's trait technology would likely be a serious problem for them," he said.

Quarles pointed out that Monsanto has signed agreements with several companies allowing them to stack their traits with Monsanto's. After Syngenta settled its lawsuit, for example, the companies struck a broad cross-licensing accord.

At the same time, Monsanto's patent rights give it the authority to say how independent companies use its traits, Quarles said.

"Please also keep in mind that, as the (intellectual property developer), it is our right to determine who will obtain rights to our technology and for what purpose," he said.

Monsanto's provision requiring companies to destroy seeds containing Monsanto's traits if a competitor buys them prohibited DuPont or other big firms from bidding against Monsanto when it snapped up two dozen smaller seed companies over the last five years, said David Boies, a lawyer representing DuPont who previously was a prosecutor on the federal antitrust case against Microsoft Corp.

Competitive bids from companies like DuPont could have made it far more expensive for Monsanto to bring the smaller companies into its fold. But that contract provision prevented bidding wars, according to DuPont.

"If the independent seed company is losing their license and has to destroy their seeds, they're not going to have anything, in effect, to sell," Boies said. "It requires them to destroy things – destroy things they paid for – if they go competitive. That's exactly the kind of restriction on competitive choice that the antitrust laws outlaw."

Quarles said some of the Monsanto contracts let companies sell their inventory for a period of time, rather than be required to destroy it. Seed companies also don't have to pay royalty fees on the bags of seed they destroyed.

"Simply put, it was designed to facilitate early adoption of the technology," he said.

Some independent seed company owners say they feel increasingly pinched as Monsanto cements its leadership in the industry.

"They have the capital, they have the resources, they own lots of companies, and buying more. We're small town, they're Wall Street," said Bill Cook, co-owner of M-Pride Genetics seed company in Garden City, Mo., who also declined to discuss or provide the agreements. "It's very difficult to compete in this environment against companies like Monsanto."

Is Monsanto an evil company? they are dominating (monopolizing?) the seed industry. basically, they touch practically everything we eat because of their dominance in soy and corn seeds.