Monday, December 22, 2014

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba rumored to be working on its own game console for China

Alibaba chief executive Jack Ma

Rumors say that Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is designing a high-end game console to compete with Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 in China, according to market researcher Niko Partners, which follows the Chinese game market closely.

Alibaba declined comment. Lisa Cosmas Hanson, the managing director at Niko Partners, said in an email that she heard from a credible source that Alibaba may release the machine early next year. But she has not been able to independently confirm the rumor. A spokesperson for Alibaba said it does not comment on market rumors or speculation. If true, the move could shake up the video game business in China, where consoles were banned for 15 years by the government.

We haven’t been able to verify the rumor as fact, but we think it carries enough gravity to report it. You can use your own judgment about its veracity, and we’ll keep trying to dig out the facts on it. We don’t report most rumors, but Niko Partners is a good source of information.

China lifted the ban earlier this year, and Microsoft launched the Xbox One console in September, and Sony said today it would launch the PS4 in China on Jan. 11. Alibaba is also a global company, and if it succeeds in China, who knows what it could do with a game console in the rest of the world. Two other sources, including the CEO of a Chinese game company, confirmed that they had independently heard the same rumor as Cosmas Hanson.

But launching consoles is hard work. Alibaba could quicken its path to market by using the Android operating system from Google, but it would face many rivals on that front in China. Alibaba would also have to get a lot of support from game developers and publishers. Sony plans to launch with 70 partners, and Microsoft also has support from a lot of game makers.

Cosmas Hanson said she does not believe that Alibaba will use Android or Linux and instead will go for the high-end.

“They have been talking to developers about potentially getting content, some of if domestically developed to avoid the headaches of foreign game content rules yet there are of course domestic content rules too,” Cosmas Hanson said.

Alibaba is one of the few companies that could make a credible maneuver into console games. Alibaba had a massive initial public offering this year, raising $25 billion in cash on the strength of its e-commerce business. It is one of the few tech companies that could make Microsoft and Sony look small.

The Chinese government encourages companies to make their systems in China or to tap local game makers as partners.

Alibaba has become active in the game market lately, as it has made a lot of moves to counter rival Tencent, the Chinese social giant which is the largest game company in the world. Alibaba invested in a social mobile gaming platform called KTplay, and it put $120 million into Kabam. It was also the lead investor in a big round of funding for Tango, which has mobile messaging service that is targeting game players. It also agreed to take the Ubitus cloud-gaming service into China, and it is taking Rovio’s Angry Birds: Stella into China. Most of those investments, however, are focused on mobile games or Android games for TVs.

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North Korea hacking accusations threaten to escalate cyber war between U.S. and China

A screen grab from Norse's real-time map of cyberattacks.

Chinese authorities condemned the concept of cyber attacks today but insisted there was no evidence that North Korea was behind the Sony hack.

The statement effectively dashed any hopes that the breach of Sony’s network would be an opportunity for the U.S. and China to find some common ground on an issue that had been a growing source of tension between the two countries.

“Before making any conclusions there has to be a full (accounting of) the facts and foundation,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told Reuters in an interview. “China will handle it in accordance with relevant international and Chinese laws according to the facts.”

Last week, the FBI claimed it had proof that North Korea was behind the hack. That attack exposed a huge stash of internal Sony documents and caused the studio to at least temporarily delay the release of “The Interview,” a comedy about the assassination of the North Korean leader.

Over the weekend, President Obama said the incident did not amount to an act of war, but rather was “cyber vandalism.” He also promised that the U.S. would respond “proportionally, and we will in a manner and place that we choose.”

For its part, North Korea has also denied playing any part in the attack.

The U.S. reportedly asked China for help in blocking North Korea’s ability to launch attacks. But instead of assistance, China appears to be giving its ally, North Korea, the benefit of the doubt.

It was no doubt an awkward conversation between two rivals that are engaged in near-open cyber warfare against each other. To get a visual sense of the ongoing attacks between China and the U.S., check out this mesmerizing real-time map of attacks from Norse, a U.S.-based security company.

Though the rankings shift, the U.S. and China are generally the top two in terms of attacks, and the U.S. is typically number one in terms of being the target.

U.S. corporations have complained about being under siege from China’s state-sponsored hackers for years. Earlier this year, a federal grand jury indicted five officers of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army on charges of computer hacking and spying.

Indeed, before the Sony incident, it was the prospect of cyber attacks from China that was making Hollywood nervous.

According a report last March from FireEye, a San Jose cyber security company, researchers in the company’s Mandiant Intelligence Center (part of FireEye labs) had identified at least one hack of an entertainment company that it traced to China.

“Mandiant has observed high rates of China-based cyber intrusions against industries that China’s state authorities consider strategic — and entertainment is likely no different,” the report said. “We expect China to increasingly target the film and entertainment industry.”

In part, FireEye believed China’s massive investment in its own film industry was motivating it to conduct more corporate espionage. But also, the country was seeking to keep tabs on projects that might impact its own image.

Indeed, a group that was making a documentary about Tibet had previously accused the Chinese government of attempting to disrupt the project through cyber attacks. According to an account written by the creators of “State of Control”  in the Hollywood Reporter:

“Our e-mail contact with producers in the U.S. and Europe had triggered an outbreak of computer viruses that had infected their systems and phones, deleted e-mails and crashed websites…. Upon returning to the U.S., the extent of the cyber-assault on the production began to reveal itself. Producers in Amsterdam, Los Angeles and Atlanta all had their computers and e-mails hacked. The malware in the Atlanta computer was evaluated by an IT expert who determined that it originated from an IP address in China. One producer was so startled by the attack on his computer that he backed out of the project altogether.”

Of course, China’s box office has become so critical to Hollywood, filmmakers are now using more caution when it comes to saying or doing anything critical. Most famously, the re-make of “Red Dawn” had China being the bad guy, replacing the Soviet army that invaded in the original 1980s version.

But after production, worried about possibly backlash in China, according to the Los Angeles Times, filmmakers digitally erased Chinese flags and symbols and replaced them with a country they figured was less of an economic and cultural threat: North Korea.

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Send Anywhere tackles file sharing security


This sponsored post is produced in association with appsasia.

Following the recent spate of high profile security hacks online, confidence in being able to safely share private or confidential files via computer or mobile device seems at an all-time low.

Regrettably enough, that’s not even the sole concern or frustration with file transfers today. In a recent study by the Ponemon Institute, 68% of IT professionals reported it is difficult or very difficult to share documents or files with outside business partners. Almost half believe their company lacks clear visibility of staff-use file-sharing or file sync-and-share applications and the research also showed employees are routinely violating IT policy to get things done faster, creating security risks. If paid experts are still vexed by these problems, how much worse must it be for the average user?

But South Korea-based company Estmob may have an answer. Its mobile and web application Send Anywhere offers a unique blend of features that could put file sharing worries to rest.

Send Anywhere takes file storage out of the equation, letting users send data peer-to-peer or through direct relay. By sharing resources directly without the use of an administrative system go-between, there’s nothing left stored on either a central server or remote cloud to be compromised.

No ID required: anonymity reigns 

What’s more, no personal information is collected to identify the user. No email, Facebook credentials, or even name. The service is completely anonymous, allowing transfer using a six-digit or QR code that expires after ten minutes.

“We require no logon or signup,” says Estmob CSO Suhyuk Kang. “We cannot tell who you are, what you are sending, or even the size of the file. Whatever you send is under a secure veil of darkness.”

Send Anywhere is also platform agnostic, allowing users to easily transfer across multiple devices. “We have apps for iOS, Android, Windows Phone and PC, Mac, a web browser,” Kang notes, “and are in the final stages of development for a Linux version.”

A few opt-in exceptions do exist to these rules, says Kang, to meet user’s specific needs. If you must upload a file, Send Anywhere lets you store it for up to 24 hours. Similarly, by signing up for the recently-launched ‘My Devices’ feature, you can remotely manage any registered device. “Still avoiding the cloud,” Kang adds.

Impressive success to date

The response to the application to date appears rather staggering, both in terms of assessment and scope.

“We have nearly sixteen thousand reviews on the Google Play store with a 4.43 star average,” Kang says. “[And] over 1.5 million downloads spanning more than 120 countries. We currently have over 540,000 monthly unique devices with this number increasing by 17% a month.”

The company attributes Send Anywhere’s success to user’s ability to share date safely, quickly, and anonymously – which may all stem from the fact that it was originally designed to ease its creator’s frustration.

“Yoonsik Oh, the founder and CEO,” Kang explains, “worked as a software engineer at his former company ESTsoft for twelve years, testing many devices with the software he was working on.

“Every time he tried to transfer the updated files to each device, he thought that all possible solutions were stupid and annoying, so he came up with the idea of pairing two devices in a simple way to send files directly.”

In the end, Send Anywhere may prove that not only is necessity the father of invention, but exasperation inspires ease of use.

For more information, visit Send Anywhere’s website.

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Two keys to superior code quality: Pair programming and mentoring

Yes, programming can be as cool as you saw in The Social Network

When I was first learning to code in Ruby on Rails, I spent many nights befuddled, trying to figure out how to construct proper many-to-many associations between objects, build to RESTful interfaces, and harness test-driven development.

I can still remember how it ate at me: I could theoretically easily assemble an application in a fraction of the time it would take to code it from scratch by harnessing powerful gems, but I was coming from a Java background and had grown accustomed to Java’s approach to development. The opacity of Rails’ “convention over configuration” methodology was inscrutable to me. I spent countless hours searching the web and StackOverflow for answers, and could have easily turned away from the language then and there, discouraged into defensive resentment.

Fortunately I had a great mentor, Tristan Kromer, who was able to walk me through it. Tristan is not only a skilled Rails programmer, he’s also a lean startup expert. He thinks in sharp angles, and on this particular week, he was the answer to my prayers. We sat in his office and “pair programmed” together. Within a few hours, things were making a lot more sense to me. If not for Tristan, I probably would have wasted days scrolling impatiently and swearing softly, and I never would have learned some of the best-practices he taught me.

These days, more and more companies are enforcing this kind of pair programming among their entire workforce of developers. Some of the biggest fish in our pond — such as Pivotal Labs, Thoughtworks, and Square — are assigning two developers to one keyboard at a time, and often this workforce-reduction is drastically increasing productivity.

For a field with such a reputation for solitary, antisocial tendencies, we sure are starting to rely on one another. Mentorship is important in every field, of course, but it holds particular significance in programming. After all, in what other field can a misplaced semicolon lead to hours of frustration? In what other field can hundreds of lines be condensed into a single line with proper design patterns? Copy editors might pare down a paragraph or two, but an experienced developer with proper coding principles can slash weeks or months of work — and can teach a willing apprentice to do the same.

The problem, of course, is that not everyone has access to a top-of-the-line experienced developer to help them master their craft.

At Cornell I had professors, teaching assistants, lab partners, and a small army of patient souls willing to help me through my moments of confusion. But not everyone has the privilege of a college education, and those who don’t may never get access to the kind of one-on-one tutoring that academically trained coders take for granted. For a mastery discipline like programming, that divide digs a deep learning curve between the trained and untrained, and contributes to the lack of inclusivity and diversity in our space. Without the confidence, encouragement, and knowledge that comes from tutelage from others, newcomers feel too bashful to take the plunge into our community, or are discouraged into disinterest by the ceaseless struggle to find answers on the web.

There are a number of nonprofits that are making incredible strides to address this issue, such as (helping the world learn to code), Codestarter (providing laptops to children), and CoderDojo (free programming clubs for young people). But we need more.

I believe what’s needed is a grassroots mentorship movement: for programmers worldwide to assemble and mentor one another, so that we can collectively work towards becoming master craftsmen in software development.

Right now, there is an order of magnitude between the efficiency of an average programmer and a good one. But if every developer were to take a just small amount of their time to offer their expertise to another, the quality of code would skyrocket across the field, and that field would be a far more level one. Bridging the gap can be as simple as learning from others, another pair of eyes, and the willingness to lend them to a peer in need.

Who was your biggest mentor in your field? Where do you think you would be without them? Have you ever felt inspired to pay their wisdom forward?

Ed Roman is a programmer, serial entrepreneur, and advisor. He created the world’s largest Java developer community, a game-of-the-year for iOS, a best-selling book on Java, and runs an AngelList investor syndicate. He is currently CEO of hack.hands(), an online platform for instantaneous mentoring, and organizied hack.summit(), a charity coding summit that ran December 1-4 and united some of the biggest names in coding to raise money for nonprofits and encourage mentorship in the space. His newest project, the hack.pledge(), asks programmers to pledge one hour of their time in 2015 toward mentoring or being mentored. 

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7 proven strategies for launching a marketplace


Marketplaces are notoriously one of the hardest types of businesses to start because you have to acquire two different types of users at the same time: buyers and sellers.

You need to launch with both, and you need to make sure they both scale together.

Early on, if you have many more sellers than buyers, sellers won’t see many sales, they’ll decide that your marketplace isn’t worth their time, and they’ll give up. On the flip side, if you have many more buyers than sellers, the buyers aren’t going to find products they want to buy, and they’ll all leave too.

When we were preparing to launch graphic design marketplace Creative Market, we found several strategies that were particularly helpful in making sure we built out sturdy buyer and seller sides from the get-go. Here they are:

1. Sign up buyers before launch

It’s really hard to just open the doors to a new marketplace without any pre-launch traction and expect sellers to see the kind of sales numbers and positive feedback loops that will keep them around past day 1.

So a few months before we launched the full marketplace you see today, we shipped a pre-launch teaser page to capture potential buyers:

Prelaunch teaser page

This gave us a platform to promote the marketplace and capture new potential buyers before we officially launched the site so that we’d have a built-in audience of buyers at launch.

2. Give buyers free money to spend

We didn’t just throw a “give us your email address” page out into the world, though. We offered $5 in free credits to anyone who signed up before we launched. This served two purposes for us:

  1. It gave potential buyers even more incentive to sign up, rather than us looking like Yet Another Teaser Website.
  2. It seeded the buyer side of the marketplace with $5 x total_members worth of dollars to be spent when we launched.

On the economics side, because we offered a 70 percent commission to sellers, this meant it would actually cost us only $3.50 for every $5 in free credits spent. We also made the assumption that not everyone would spend the full $5 (if any at all). And we were banking on buyers purchasing products that cost more than $5, meaning they would have to take out their credit cards to spend some real money as well.

What was most exciting about this from a marketplace dynamics perspective for us is that we’d be able to send a dedicated email blast to the entire community announcing the launch of the marketplace, with messaging like “Remember that $5 in free money we gave you? Now you can come spend it!” Who wouldn’t come take advantage of that and help us kickstart the buyer side of the marketplace?

3. Create a viral loop

Once potential buyers signed up to claim their $5 in free credits, we gave them a fun way to invite their friends to join via Twitter, Facebook, and email to earn even more free credits to spend.

creating a virtual loop

We built out a tiered system to encourage mass referrals and gave users a visual way to track how many of their friends had signed up.

  • Refer 5 friends, get $10 more.
  • Refer 20 friends, get $30 more.
  • Refer 50+ friends, get $200 more.

We actually had dozens of people refer more than 50 of their friends before we had even launched the full site.

4. Attract buyers with free products

While buyers were signing up to claim free credit and referring their friends, we built out a new page on the site called “Free Goods.”

free goods

We manually reached out to dozens of top content creators to see if they’d be interested in offering a few of their products to our audience for free for a limited time (until we launched). And in order for people to be able to download the free products, they had to first create an account on the site. So if $5 in free credit wasn’t enough to get potential buyers to join the site, surely giving away 30+ free design assets would be.

This was one of those rare things that was a win-win-win for everyone involved. It was a win for buyers because they got to download a ton of great design assets for free. It was a win for sellers because they got tons of great exposure for their work, which led to more exposure for their paid products when we launched. And it was a huge win for us, as we were able to sign up thousands of new potential customers from this one promotion alone. Can you guess which month we launched the Free Goods page based on the New User Signups graph below?

new user signups

Besides the crazy number of signups this strategy generated, this also turned out to be a great way for us to begin to establish relationships with top content creators and begin to seed the marketplace with sellers and products ahead of the launch.

5. Use one side of the marketplace to attract the other

Once we had built up tens of thousands of registered users before even launching, we were able to approach content creators and say, “We have thousands of customers that will be waiting to purchase your products on day 1. Do you want to sell with us?” This, combined with our favorable terms outlined below, was usually enough to eliminate most of the risk that comes with trying out a new marketplace platform and encourage top content creators to open up shop.

6. Create favorable terms

We spent a lot of time analyzing the space to figure out how we could stand out and attract top sellers. We weren’t the first marketplace for design assets, but we were able to really resonate with both buyers and sellers because of how we decided to do things differently than they had come to expect.

We felt strongly that it was unfair that the creators were always getting the shaft in existing marketplaces. So we created uniquely favorable terms that would attract top content creators who were already selling on other marketplaces:

  • We didn’t force sellers to sell exclusively with us. We wanted to prove we’re the best platform for them, not punish them for selling on their own sites or anywhere else. This also took the risk out of giving our marketplace a shot.
  • We gave 70% of each sale to every single seller, far more than the 50% or less that most marketplaces offer.
  • We reviewed sellers on a per-shop basis for quality control, rather than every time they added a product.
  • We let sellers set their own prices.

Most sellers don’t want to waste their time with a brand new marketplace, since it’s risky to get invested, only to have it flop. We turned this fear on its head and used our small size as an advantage to attract new sellers.

7. Target buyers and sellers through existing relationships

Part of why we were able to grow our audience so quickly, even before launching the full marketplace site, is because our founding team had already built communities in the design space for years. We were able to leverage our existing audiences at, as well as personal relationships we had established over the years at design-related blogs and publications to help spread the word about our new marketplace.

We did this very deliberately too. Our pre-launch teaser page explicitly said “from the creators of COLOURlovers” on it, because COLOURlovers was a brand and community that many people in the design space were already familiar with and used on a regular basis. So even though no one had ever heard of our new marketplace before, it built up instant credibility.

We were also able to market to the COLOURlovers community through in-site banners, ads, and direct emails, to help spread the word about our new marketplace.

And then comes launch day

As launch day approached, we had a sense of nervous excitement. Using these techniques, we had built up a member base of more than 70,000 buyers and 200 top sellers without an actual marketplace, which far surpassed our expectations pre-launch. It also meant we were potentially on the hook for $5 x 70,000 = $350,000+ in free credits that we had used to seed the buyer side of the marketplace. This was a ton of money, especially for a small startup with less than $1M in the bank, and more than we had even anticipated with our projections.

What if everyone actually spent it all? How much runway would we have left?

We hit the Send button on that email blast on launch day to announce that we were open for business and waited for the sales to roll in. And when it was all said and done, we had made a total of … $3,000 in sales in the first 24 hours, $2,100 of which were from spending free credits.

It turns out that giving away free credits was a great strategy for getting potential buyers to sign up, but they didn’t actually spend the credits right away. This was the perfect scenario for us, and validation that our pre-launch strategies had worked. We were able to acquire tens of thousands of targeted buyers, most of whom came back to spend real dollars over the coming months. Sellers saw revenue on day 1, which gave them enough of a positive feedback cycle to continue to make and upload new products to sell. And the marketplace engine was off to the races.

With this jumpstart, 23 of the last 24 months have seen significant month-over-month growth, thanks to network effects we’re able to achieve at scale with a marketplace business. And we’re now paying out more than half-a-million dollars to our sellers each month, all because we were able to build and scale both sides of the marketplace simultaneously.

Aaron Epstein is cofounder of Creative Market.

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