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Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

Article from GigaOm.

Despite concerns that Kickstarter wonder Ouya, an Android-based TV gaming console, might not deliver, the project is hitting its deadlines with the release on Friday of 1,200 developer consoles.

Ouya announced that the development kits were being shipped to developers, who can also access the Ouya SDK (ODK) online under a free Apache license.

The release of the hardware and software should give developers time to prepare games for the platform, which is expected to be released to the public around March. That’s still the milestone that everyone will be watching but the signs look good for Ouya to make it there.

Ouya

An early look at the Ouya UI

The company has been under a lot of scrutiny since it debuted as a Kickstarter project in July. The $99 console, built off the Android platform, raised $8.6 million from more than 63,000 backers. That has raised expectations and also concerns about whether the system is for real and can deliver as promised. We chatted with CEO and founder Julie Uhrman shortly after the launch — she assured us that it wasn’t rocket science putting Ouya together and that she was confident Ouya will hit the market by this spring.

The developer console still has plenty of bugs, Ouya has warned developers, and the triggers and D-pad on the controller are not final. Developers will also get a look at an early version of the console UI.

Following a recent CNN report that most of the biggest Kickstarter projects were shipping late, it’s nice to see that Ouya is keeping to its promise. We still don’t know what the quality and experience is like and what the game library will ultimately be. And as Kickstarter has pointed out, it’s not always important that projects ship on time if the end result suffers. But this thing looks like it’s for real.

Read more here.

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Article from SFGate.

Americans have missed out on almost $200 billion of stock gains as they drained money from the market in the past four years, haunted by the financial crisis.

Assets in equity mutual, exchange-traded and closed-end funds increased about 85 percent to $5.6 trillion since the bull market began in March 2009, trailing the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index’s 94 percent advance, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and Morningstar Inc. The proportion of retirement funds in stocks fell about 0.5 percentage point, compared with an average rise of 8.2 percentage points in rallies since 1990.

The retreat shows that even the biggest gain since 1998 failed to heal investor confidence after the financial collapse that wiped out $11 trillion in U.S. equity value was followed by record price swings in equities, a market breakdown that briefly erased $862 billion in share value and the slowest recovery from a recession since World War II. Individuals are withdrawing money as political leaders struggle to avert budget cuts that threaten to throw the economy into a new slump.

“Our biggest liability in the stock market has been the total destruction to confidence,” said James Paulsen, the chief investment strategist at Minneapolis-based Wells Capital Management, which oversees about $325 billion. “There’s just so much evidence of this recovery broadening.”

Weekly gain

The S&P 500 climbed 1.2 percent to 1,430.15 last week, extending the 2012 gain to 14 percent, led by financial stocks and consumer companies. The benchmark index from American equity has risen from a low of 676.53 on March 9, 2009, though it is still 8.6 percent below its record high on Oct. 9, 2007. The gauge dropped 0.2 percent to 1,426.66 on Monday.

Now, much of the damage to investors is self-inflicted as U.S. growth improves and companies whose earnings are most tied to economic expansion reap the biggest rewards. Of the 500 companies in the benchmark index, 481 are higher now than they were in March 2009 or when they entered the gauge.

Expedia Inc., the Bellevue, Wash.-based online travel agency, rallied 577 percent, leading consumer discretionary companies to the biggest advance from 2009 through the third quarter. Capital One Financial Corp. rose 39 percent this year as the McLean, Va.-based lender posted profit that beat projections by 19 percent last quarter.

PulteGroup Inc., the largest U.S. home-builder by revenue, more than doubled this year after the Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based company had its biggest annual earnings increase in 2012 and the housing market rebounded.

Individuals are selling into the rally, cutting the proportion of assets in stocks to 72 percent from 72.5 percent in 2009, according to 401(k) and IRA mutual fund data from the Washington-based Investment Company Institute compiled by Bloomberg. The data is for all equities, bonds and hybrid funds, and excludes money markets. Investors are lowering the proportion of stocks they own in retirement funds during a bull market for the first time in 20 years.

Safer investments

The percentage of households owning stock mutual funds has also fallen, dropping every year since 2008 to 46.4 percent in 2011, the second-lowest since 1997, according to the latest ICI annual mutual fund survey.

Money has gone to the relative safety of fixed-income investments. Managers who specialize in corporate bonds and Treasuries have received nearly $1 trillion in fresh cash since March 2009, ICI data show. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke‘s zero percent interest-rate policy and the lowest inflation in almost 50 years have helped spur a 29 percent rally in debt securities since President Obama’s first term began, according to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch‘s U.S. Corporate and Government Index through the third quarter.

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Article from SFGate.

It’s suddenly a lot harder for venture capitalists and startups to raise funds, as investors fed up with low returns turn their backs on the sector.

Most industry observers agree that lots of young firms will simply not be able to raise their next round of funding, commencing a period of belt tightening, consolidation and closures. At a minimum, it seems to mark the beginning of a more level-headed investment climate in Silicon Valley, after years of insatiable lust for all things mobile and social.

But if the drop-off is too sudden and steep, this new austerity could spill over into an economy highly dependent on the tech sector. Indeed, as The Chronicle reported last week, the industry has an enormous impact, with each tech job creating 4.3 indirect jobs in the community, according to a Bay Area Council Economic Institute report.

The investors and venture capitalists I spoke to insisted that we’re not on the verge of anything like the dot-com meltdown, characterizing the shift as a minor and healthy correction, or a “rationalization.” One suggested it was little more than the usual process of separating good and bad ideas in the marketplace.

But the numbers suggest something new is afoot. In the third quarter, the amount that U.S. companies raised in venture capital dropped 32 percent from the prior year, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Venture capital funds themselves raised 17 percent fewer dollars from the second to third quarter, even as the number of funds grew, according to a joint report from Thomson Reuters and the National Venture Capital Association.

Economic uncertainty

Some partially blame the economic uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the election and the “fiscal cliff.” But the main problem seems to be that many of the “limited partners” that fund venture capital are pulling back after years of frustration.

Ever since a brief period in the late 1990s when venture capital burned bright, the industry has been delivering consistently weak returns on the whole.

In fact, despite requiring greater risks and larger capital outlays, venture capital has been underperforming the stock market over the past decade, according to a report this year by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Joe Dear, chief investment officer for CalPERS, told Reuters this summer that venture capital “has been the most disappointing asset class over the past 10 years as far as returns.” The huge pension fund for California’s public employees didn’t return repeated calls from The Chronicle.

Investment horizons have steadily spread out, from five to 10 to sometimes 15 years, as exit opportunities like acquisitions and initial public offerings fail to materialize. This has sometimes forced investors to put in more money to protect their initial funds.

‘Pretty grumpy’

“The industry definitely, for the last decade, has been a tough place to be,” said Ray Rothrock of Palo Alto venture capital firm Venrock. “We’re all pretty grumpy right now.”

Some of this is due to macroeconomic conditions outside the control of venture capitalists, notably the housing and banking crises. But at least some of it has to do with poor picks and herd mentality, funding companies with few real prospects and driving up the entry price for legitimately promising companies beyond what they could pay off.

“The market overfunded the number of companies in the system,” said Hans Swildens, founder of Industry Ventures in San Francisco. “There’s a glut.”

Even the grand promise of Web 2.0 companies that lured so much recent money hasn’t generated the hoped-for returns. The ones that managed to go public were often disappointments, including Facebook, Zynga and Groupon, in some cases leaving late-stage investors underwater on their holdings.

That was a final straw for some.

Last week, Forbes dug up figures from CB Insights that highlighted a wide and growing gap between the number of companies that raised initial funding and companies securing the follow-on investments, known as a Series A, generally necessary to keep going. This year, there have been 1,747 seed or angel rounds but only 688 Series A deals, underscoring the coming crunch.

Bad businesses

Based on as scientific a survey as the PR pitches in my inbox, there’s a tremendous number of silly, redundant and poorly executed companies out there that don’t warrant additional funding. The real problem isn’t that many of these companies won’t raise more money; it’s that they raised money in the first place.

For the venture capital industry to get back on track, it needs to embrace a renewed sense of discipline – on company picks, deal terms and total spending.

But hope springs eternal in Silicon Valley.

Rothrock stresses that the industry’s trend-line averages mask very strong results and ongoing investment at top firms, as well as growing venture capital activity among corporations like Google. Companies are just being more selective and looking beyond consumer Internet opportunities.

“We’re steady as she goes in terms of funding enterprise,” he said.

Secondary opportunity

Swildens oversees a secondary fund that buys shares from limited partners and venture firms looking to liquidate part of their holdings. He sees this period as a ripe opportunity for bold investors to get into promising companies at suddenly reasonable rates.

“Ours is one of the few firms aggressively putting money into these funds,” he said.

Mark Heesen, president of National Venture Capital Association, is similarly optimistic. He says the industry could be primed for a strong comeback in 2013, as long as the broader economy strengthens.

Above all, what the industry needs are some wins – acquisitions or initial public offerings that put investors clearly in the black and start to restore some lost confidence.

“If we see these exit markets start to generate good returns, I think you’ll see limited partners look at this asset class again,” he said.

James Temple is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: jtemple@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jtemple

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Article from GigaOm.

Chinese auto tech behemoth Wanxiang has won the bidding process in an auction to buy the assets of bankrupt battery maker A123 Systems. On Sunday the companies announced that Wanxiang plans to acquire most of the assets of A123 for $256.6 million. It’s news that could be a bit controversial, given A123 received a $132 million grant from the U.S. government, and could now be owned by a Chinese company.

The winning bid beat out Johnson Control’s bid to acquire A123′s automotive division. Johnson Controls previously had offered to buy the automotive division and two factories for $125 million.

One of the reasons Wanxiang’s offer to buy up A123 had been controversial was because A123 had some U.S. military contracts, which critics didn’t want to see in the hands of a Chinese company. But A123 decided to sell off its government business, including all its U.S. military contracts, to Illinois-based company Navitas Systems, for $2.25 million. Wanxiang acquired the rest of the assets including the grid storage business.

We’ll see if that move silences politician critics like U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). The deal still has to be approved by the bankruptcy court as well as the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States (CIFIUS).

If approved, the future of A123 System’s lithium ion battery tech will fittingly be owned by a Chinese auto giant, as China is increasingly becoming one of the most important markets for electric vehicles. Money from Chinese investors, conglomerates, cities and the government, continues to drive a significant amount of the future of next-generation electric car technology.

The deal also provides a future for A123′s technology, which had a promising beginning, but had suffered a series of setbacks in 2012. Venture-backed A123 held the largest IPO in 2009, raising some $371 million, and was trading at over $20 per share when it started trading. A123 also raised more than $350 million from private investors when it was still a startup.

Yet in recent months, it suffered from manufacturing problems, and also had only a handful of customers for its premium batteries. The company had been losing boat loads of money for years.

The Wanxiang deal still won’t make back enough to cover its debts. A123 says:

Because the total purchase price for A123’s assets would be less than the total amount owed to creditors, the Company does not anticipate any recoveries for its current shareholders and believes its stock to have no value.

Now that the A123 bankruptcy is moving forward, it will be interesting to see what Fisker Automotive, one of A123′s prime customers, will do. Fisker had told the media that it is waiting for the results of the A123 auction before it starts back up assembling its Karma cars.

This isn’t Wanxiang’s first cleantech and clean energy acquisition — it’s actually its fifth in 2012, says the company in a release. Wanxiang has been aggressively acquiring under valued American cleantech and clean energy companies.

Read more here.

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Article from Techcrunch.

Cisco has announced it plans to acquire Cloupia for $125 million. The software company helps customers automate their data centers.

Cisco sees Cloupia’s infrastructure management software enhancing its Unified Computing System (UCS) and Nexus switching portfolio. Cisco expects Cloupia will help better manage the automation of compute, network and storage as well as virtual machine and operating system resources.

Cisco UCS is a converged infrastructure play. Cisco has made a big bet on providing converged infrastructures that consolidates compute, storage and networking into one box. IT wants to decrease its data center dependency. Vendors like Cisco, EMC and IBM see converged infrastructures as a way to sell their hardware into the enterprise.

Investing in these systems has its costs for IT. The systems are pricey and create a lock-in with one vendor.

Cisco wrote a blog post about the acquisition today. Here’s a snippet:

Cisco’s acquisition of Cloupia benefits Cisco’s Data Center strategy by providing single “pane-of-glass” management across Cisco and partner solutions including FlexPod, VSPEX, and Vblock. Cloupia’s products will integrate into the Cisco data center portfolio through UCS Manager, UCS Central, and Nexus 1000V, strengthening Cisco’s overall ecosystem strategy by providing open APIs for integration with a broad community of developers and partners.

The post is a window into Cisco’s data center strategy. Like other big enterprise software companies, Cisco partners with companies such as NetApp and VMware to sell its solutions through its extensive sales channels.

Read more here.

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Article from GigaOm.

Sandy isn’t just wreaking havoc for utilities and conventional power plant companies on the east coast. The hurricane is also delaying some solar power plant project work for First Solar, which on Thursday reduced its 2012 sales forecast and also boosted its earnings projection.

The Arizona-based company said the hurricane is also disrupting the supply of components for its solar products, which include panels and trackers that prop up the panels and tilt them to follow the sun’s movement throughout the day. For 2012, First Solar now expects to generate $3.5 billion to $3.8 billion in sales — previously it was looking at $3.6 billion to $3.9 billion. Non-GAAP earnings should hit $4.40 to $4.70 per share, however, instead of $4.20 to $4.70.

The company issued the forecast along with its third-quarter financial results, which saw its sales decline year-over-year sales to $839.1 million from $957.3 million. First Solar posted a net income of $1 per share for the third quarter, down from $2.25 per share in the same period a year ago, thanks to charges related to its restructuring efforts to reduce costs. But still, a profit in a difficult year.

“The solar market remains challenging, but we are continuing to gain traction in the new sustainable markets we’re targeting and expanding our global presence,” said Jim Hughes, First Solar’s CEO, during a conference call with analysts.

First Solar executives highlighted the progress they have made in opening up new markets. The company has vowed to build its business in places with minimal government subsidies, which so far have been responsible for the rise of the global solar market. Europe has been the largest market, but the pace of its growth will likely slow over time as governments gradually reduce their incentives.

During the third quarter, the company announced it was chosen to build a 13 MW power plant for the Dubai Electricity & Water Authority. First Solar inked deals to sell its cadmium-telluride solar panels for a 25 MW project in the state of Rajasthan in India and for two other projects totaling 50 MW in the same state. The company also signed a memorandum of understanding with a power plant operation and maintenance company in Indonesia to work on 100 MW of projects.

First Solar also hired Bruce Yung as its China manager during the third quarter. The company tried to crack the Chinese market before but hasn’t seen much success. Although China presents lots of opportunities, its government also is keen on boosting the domestic market for Chinese solar manufacturers.

In recent years, First Solar has been building its power plant development expertise and amassed an impressive pipeline of projects under development. That business is more lucrative – the company can make money from developing, building and operating solar power plants (for owners it sells the power plants to) that use its own solar panels. The company is building the largest solar power plant project in the U.S. – the 550MW Topaz Solar Farms in central California. The vast majority of the 3 GW of projects under development that it’s inked power sales agreement contracts for are in North America.  Now the company’s hope is to develop solar power plants in other parts of the world.

First Solar has no intention of conquering the rooftop segment – its panels are less expensive but also less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity as other major brands. That means an array with First Solar’s panels will take up more space than the one with more efficient solar panels. Hughes also told analysts that the rooftop market has less brand loyalty and cares less about how well the solar panels will perform over decades.

Photos of Topaz Solar Farms by Ucilia Wang.
Read more here.

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Article from NYTimes.

Apple fired the executives in charge of the company’s mobile software efforts and retail stores, in a management shake-up aimed at making the company’s divisions work more harmoniously together.

The biggest of the changes involved the departure of Scott Forstall, an Apple veteran who for several years ran software development for Apple’s iPad and iPhone products. Mr. Forstall was an important executive at the company and the one who, in many respects, seemed to most closely embody the technology vision of Steven P. Jobs, the former chief executive of Apple who died a year ago.

But Mr. Forstall was also known as ambitious and divisive, qualities that generated more friction within Apple after the death of Mr. Jobs, who had kept the dueling egos of his senior executives largely in check. Mr. Forstall’s responsibilities will be divided among a few other Apple executives.

While tensions between Mr. Forstall and other executives had been mounting for some time, a recent incident appeared to play a major role in his dismissal. After an outcry among iPhone customers about bugs in the company’s new mobile maps service, Mr. Forstall refused to sign a public apology over the matter, dismissing the problems as exaggerated, according to people with knowledge of the situation who declined to be named discussing confidential matters.

Instead, Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, in September signed the apology letter to Apple customers over maps.

Apple said in a news release on Monday that the management changes would “encourage even more collaboration” at the company. But people briefed on Apple’s moves, who declined to be identified talking about confidential decisions at the company, said Mr. Forstall and John Browett were fired.

Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman, said neither executive was available for an interview. Mr. Forstall did not respond to interview requests over e-mail and Facebook.

Mr. Browett, who took over as head of the company’s retail operations in April, will also leave the company after a number of missteps. Apple said that a search for a new head of retail was under way and that the retail team would report directly to Mr. Cook in the meantime.

Mr. Forstall will leave Apple next year and serve as an adviser to Mr. Cook until then.

Eddy Cue, who oversees Apple’s Internet services, will take over development of Apple maps and Siri, the voice-activated virtual assistant in the iPhone. Both technologies have been widely criticized by some who say they fall short of the usual polish of Apple products.

Jonathan Ive, the influential head of industrial design at Apple, will take on more software responsibilities at the company by providing more “leadership and direction for Human Interface,” Apple said. Craig Federighi, who was previously in charge of Apple’s Mac software development, will also lead development of iOS, the software for iPads and iPhones.

Apple said Bob Mansfield, an executive who previously ran hardware engineering and was planning to retire from Apple, will lead a new group, Technologies. That group will combine Apple’s wireless and semiconductor teams. Apple in a statement said the semiconductor teams had “ambitious plans for the future.”

Recently, Mr. Mansfield had been working on his own projects at the company, operating without anyone reporting to him directly. One of the areas of interest Mr. Mansfield had been exploring is health-related accessories and applications for Apple’s mobile products, said an Apple partner who declined to be named discussing unannounced products.

Mr. Forstall was a staunch believer in a type of user interface, skeuomorphic design, which tries to imitate artifacts and textures in real life. Most of Apple’s built-in applications for iOS use skeuomorphic design, including imitating thread of a leather binder in the Game Center application and a wooden bookshelf feel in the newsstand application.

Mr. Jobs was also a proponent of skeuomorphic design; he had a leather texture added to apps that mimicked the seats on his private jet. Yet most other executives, specifically Mr. Ive, have always believed that these artifacts looked outdated and that user interface design on the computer had reached a point where skeuomorph was no longer necessary.

Mr. Forstall, who trained as an actor at a young age, also shared with Mr. Jobs a commanding stage presence at events introducing Apple products, often delivering his speeches with a pensive style that echoed that of Mr. Jobs.

According to two people who have worked with Apple to develop new third-party products for the iPhone, the relationship between Mr. Forstall and Mr. Ive had soured to a point that the two executives would not sit in the same meeting room together.

A senior Apple employee who asked not to be named said Mr. Forstall had also incurred the ire of other executives after inserting himself into product development that went beyond his role at the company. One person in touch with Apple executives said the mood of people at the company was largely positive about Mr. Forstall’s departure.

“This was better than the Giants winning the World Series,” he said. “People are really excited.”

The departure of Mr. Browett was less surprising to outsiders. In August, the company took the unusual step of publicly apologizing for a plan by Mr. Browett to cut back on staffing at its stores. Charlie Wolf, an analyst at Needham & Company, said he was never convinced that Mr. Browett was a good choice to join Apple because he had previously run Dixons, a British retailer that is viewed as being more downmarket than Apple’s retail operations.

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