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While we often think of small nimble startups as the true innovators in technology, that hasn’t necessarily been the case in network infrastructure for the last few years. A study of venture capital funding from Ovum shows that while overall tech investment has recovered since the dark days of the recession, the vast majority of that spending went to services and applications startups like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Spotify.

Meanwhile, the startup companies that make the gear over which those services traverse have seen investment fall from $796 million in 2009 annually to just $270 million in the 12 months ending in June, Ovum found. According to Ovum principal analyst Matt Walker:

“A funding disconnect has thereby emerged between network builders and network users. Lots of innovation and venture capital is targeting the network users, such as mobile apps and OTT platforms. However, little of it is directly helping the network builders. With a weak start-up pipeline, the industry relies more on incumbent vendors to generate new ideas and products. Their budgets are bigger, but VCs are often better at funding ‘game changing’ ideas ignored by established vendors.”

Admittedly, investing in the next big social network or an app that could generate millions of downloads is a lot sexier than, say, envelope tracking technology or cell site radio frequency filters. But those infrastructure innovations are just as important. The capabilities of many apps and services have already far exceeded the ability of our mobile networks to deliver those apps and services at a reasonable cost (think Netflix on 4G tablet). If we let network innovation slip, we could wind up with a bunch of very powerful services that have nowhere to go.

As Walker points out, the onus for innovation thus falls on the big established telecom vendors, and it’s quite the burden. Ovum estimates that with the falloff in startup investment, big network infrastructure makers’ R&D budgets are now 90 times larger than the investment going into networking startups –- that’s up from 30X two years ago.

Don’t get me wrong — the Ciscos, Ericssons and Huaweis of the world are responsible for some amazing science and innovation. And today they’re building the small cell and heterogeneous networks of the future. But there are limits to what the big vendors can accomplish. The R&D budgets of the big industrial labs have shrunk immensely in the last two decades, and there’s only so much talent and so many resources those vendors can devote to innovation.  The biggest issue, though, is that the big equipment makers innovate in much different ways than small startups.

Big vendors have big ingrained investments

Look around. A lot of the wired and wireline networks we use on a daily basis have been with us for a while. The first 2G networks in the US went up in the late 1990s and they’re largely still in use. A good part of the big vendors’ businesses is maintaining, upgrading and iterating on the networks they’ve already built.

That doesn’t mean the big vendors are merely redesigning the same old equipment, but they’re definitely looking for continuity with their older networks. Alcatel-Lucent’s lightRadio and Nokia Siemens’ Liquid Radio architectures, for instance, are truly mind-blowing approaches to the new heterogeneous network, but they’re still fundamentally the cellular technologies that have been these vendors’ bread and butter since the birth of wireless.

When Wi-Fi came along as a mobile data alternative to cellular, these vendors were resistant if not outright hostile. It took two startups, BelAir Networks and Ruckus Wireless to make the business case to carriers for large-scale outdoor Wi-Fi networks to supplement 3G and 4G networks.

 

The lightRadio Cube, Alcatel-Lucent’s vision for the small cell.

The big vendors are working largely within global standards frameworks. That’s by no means a bad thing. It’s why an iPhone can communicate with a Nokia-built base station, and a Cisco router can be plugged into an Ericsson core network. But standards work is painfully slow. A lot of the innovation work in networking technology works goes on outside of the standards bodies, and if that work proves successful it wind up shaping the standards themselves.

There’s probably no better example in wireless than CDMA. Qualcomm’s upstart cellular interface was initially adopted by a single US carrier, AirTouch, but it eventually became the basis for all global 3G networks.

Innovating between the lines

While the big vendors have focused on the overarching evolution of networks it’s up to infrastructure core technology startups to fill in technology gaps. Companies like NSN and Ericsson will most certainly handle the large-scale rollout of small cells and hetnets in the future, just like Apple and Samsung will be designing our future 4G smartphones and connected tablets.

But it will be startups like Seattle’s still under-the-radar PivotBeam that are developing the critical software defined antennas that will link these millions of small cells back to the network core. And it will be small engineering companies like Nujira and Quantance supplying the power envelope tracking technology giving those 4G phones a tolerable battery life.

I’m not saying all of these specific companies are all going to be the next Qualcomm, and that you should go invest in them. But they’re part of a critical network infrastructure startup scene, and that scene appears to be shrinking. We’re already starting to see the consequences. The industry has started delivering speed in the form of LTE but it has so far failed to deliver us the cheap capacity critical to moving the mobile industry forward. If the investors keep neglecting network startups, that problem is only going to get worse.

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Article from GigaOm.

Spotify's Daniel Ek And Martin Lorentzon

Spotify more than doubled its revenue through 2011/12 after expanding to new countries like the U.S.. But the cost of doing so ballooned by the same proportion. The company spent 97 percent of the the €187.8 million it earned. So annual loss widened to €45.4 million.

In its 2011/12 Luxembourg filing, the company acknowledges: “In a low-margin business dependent on rapid growth to cover fixed costs, it is crucial that the group continues to penetrate existing and new markets as quickly as possible…”

With economics like this, global scale may be the only thing that can make Spotify truly sing. But, with Asia and Latin America build-out next on the horizon, it could be at least another year before roll-out costs ebb to the point where profitability is remotely in sight.

If Spotify is not yet a successful business, it is nevertheless a strategically significant one for others in the music industry. It has become the number-two income source for some labels in some countries. More interesting, however, is its direct relationship with labels, the four majors of which are believed to own 18 percent of the firm.

Through that relationship and through Spotify’s underlying API and third-party apps initiatives, it could yet become the industry’s de facto streaming platform – a fabric used by a thousand other services; part-operated by the labels themselves. As one friend described it to me: “A social not-for-profit for the good of the music industry, a rights clearing house.”

Herein may lay a dilemma…

As Spotify continues laying the costly groundwork for global dominance of subscription streaming, it needs more funding to make up for what is, so far, its unsustainability.

“To cover losses during the expansion phase, the group has been financed by existing and new equity owners,” Spotify’s Luxembourg filing says. “We cannot exclude the need or desire to raise more funds in the future.”

The problem is, if Spotify takes a fifth investment round to go on globalising, as has been rumoured, that could dilute the equity of its most vital partners – the labels.

To the labels, their stake is likely of more strategic than financial value – as already stated, they are helping create a digital streaming API that could bear great fruit. So they may want to hang on to the influence that they currently have.

If a new investment in Spotify diluted the labels, they may start charging Spotify more standard royalty rates, rather than the favourable rates it is believed it has been granted until now. That could mean Spotify’s costs escalate still further.

Spotify could dodge this problem by attracting investors only to spin-off regional subsidiaries in its next two target markets – Asia and Latin America – thereby ringfencing its core from dilution.

Four years after its foundation, trailblazing Spotify is the music business’ greatest chance at meaningful new revenue in a digital generation. But it remains to be seen exactly to whom it will provide the most value.

The well-run company is investing heavily in what could become a very valuable global business. But, until its international expansion is completed, we will be hard-pressed to ascertain its true value.

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Article from PandoDaily.

China Internet giant Tencent has just released version 4.0 of Weixin, a social instant messaging app for mobile that now counts 100 million users. In true China cut-and-paste fashion, the new release combines elements of Instagram, Path, Google+, GroupMe, Bump, HeyTell, and Facebook in one powerful offering that the blog TechRice suggests could one day overtake Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like microblogging platform that claims 300 million users. It also offers an English-language version called WeChat.

Weixin, which is essentially the mobile version of the massively popular QQ instant messenger, presents a fascinating study in China’s Internet economics. For a start, it was built by Tencent, much like Q Pai, the Instagram-like photo app we mentioned the other day. The in-house approach accords with Tencent’s general strategy to build its own products and leverage its 700 million-strong QQ user-base. Alongside Weixin, Instagram’s 40 million user count seems trivial.

Weixin also offers a prime example of how Chinese Internet companies are not only willing to “borrow” ideas from their American counterparts, but also tweak them to provide a better (or, at the very least, different) consumer experience. For many Chinese users, though, there is no question: This thing is big.

Among the new features that some think will make 2012 the Year of Weixin are Instagram-like photo-editing effects (why not?), Path-style photo albums that auto-upload to user timelines, and controlled social sharing features that closely resemble Google+ Circles. Tencent has also opened up the Weixin API to allow third parties to feed their content into the platform. One of the coolest uses of this comes from the integration of QQ Music, which lets users stream songs from within their timelines. Why doesn’t this feature exist in US-made social mobile apps? (Okay, maybe Facebook has that for Spotify, but I haven’t seen it on my mobile app.)

There are a bunch of other intriguing Weixin features. One of them is the ability to shake your phone to find new friends. You’ll then be automatically connected with people within a 1km radius (that’s .062 mile), who happen to be shaking their phones at the same time. The chances of a serendipitous connection are not as slight as you might think: The service records 100 million shakes a day.

There’s also a cute “message in a bottle” game, in which users can “throw” a message out to sea in the hope that some random stranger will pick it up and reply. I gave this a whirl and had an interesting conversation with a 22-year-old finance graduate student at Nanjing University. During the course of the chat, I discovered that I could exchange voice messages with this person – just like HeyTell, but with a ChatRoulette twist. Our conversation went like this (edited for sense and brevity):

Original message from Chinese stranger: Nothing to say

Me: Agreed. Where are you?

Chinese stranger: China. And u?

Me: USA. Do you like this app?

CS: Just so so. But it’s popular among young people.

Me: How old are you?

CS: I’m 22.

Me: Ok cool. Do you think it will be bigger than Sina Weibo one day?

CS: … they are different.

Me: I’m a reporter and I’m writing about this app. That’s why I’m asking all these questions.

CS: 😦 Commercial spy

Weixin doesn’t offer quite the slickly designed experience that Path or Instagram does so well, but US-based startups could learn something from Tencent’s multilateral thinking here. While there is value in the likes of Path, Instagram, and Pair in focusing tightly on niches, Weixin also demonstrates that a catch-all, centralized experience also has its appeal. And the app, by the way, is totally cross-platform, available on Android, iPhone, Windows Phone, and Symbian handsets.

Industry watchers say that China lags behind the US in mobile development by one to two years. That might be true for now, but as smartphone market growth accelerates in China and savvy players like Tencent make aggressive moves in mobile, that gap will inevitably close. Apps like Weixin represent the beginning of that process.

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Article from NYTimes.

“With a huge initial public offering on the runway, Facebook has shown that it pays to have friends. New investors will now have to decide what they are willing to pay to be friends.

The giant social network said in a filing on Wednesday that it was seeking to raise up to $5 billion through its I.P.O. Many close to the company say that Facebook is aiming for a debut that would value it between $75 billion and $100 billion.

At the top end of the range, Facebook would be far bigger than many established American companies, including Amazon, Caterpillar, Kraft Foods, Goldman Sachs and Ford Motor. Only 26 companies in the Standard & Poor’s index of 500 stocks have a market value north of $100 billion.

Already, Facebook is a formidable moneymaker. The company, which mainly sells advertising and virtual goods, recorded revenue of $3.71 billion in 2011, an 88 percent increase from the previous year. According to its filing, Facebook posted a profit of $1 billion last year.

“Facebook will have more traffic than anyone else, and they’ll have more data than anyone else,” said Kevin Landis, the portfolio manager of Firsthand Technology Value Fund, which owns shares in the privately held company. “So, unless they are impervious to learning how to monetize that data, they should be the most valuable property on the Internet, eventually.”

A lofty valuation for Facebook would evoke the grandiose ambitions of the previous Internet boom in the late 1990s. Back then, dozens of unproven companies went public at sky-high valuations but later imploded.

Investors are eyeing the current generation of Internet companies with a healthy dose of skepticism. Zynga, the online gaming company, and Groupon, the daily deals site, have both struggled to stay above their I.P.O. prices since going public late last year.

“We’ve seen thousands of investors get burned before,” said Andrew Stoltmann, a securities lawyer in Chicago. “It’s a high risk game.”

The potential payoff is also huge.

Consider Google. After its first day of trading in 2004, the search engine giant had at a market value of $27.6 billion. Since then, the stock has jumped by about 580 percent, making Google worth nearly $190 billion today.

Facebook is still a small fraction of the size of rival Google. But many analysts believe Facebook’s fortunes will rapidly multiply as advertisers direct increasingly more capital to the Web’s social hive.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg, a founder of Facebook and its chief executive, even sounded like his Google counterparts in the beginning. In the filing, Mr. Zuckerberg trumpeted the company’s mission to “give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future” — not unlike Google’s plan: “don’t be evil.”

Investors are often willing to pay up for faster growth. At a market value of $100 billion, Facebook would trade at 100 times last year’s earnings. That would make the stock significantly more expensive than Google, which is currently selling at 19.6 times profits.

Newly public companies with strong growth prospects often garner high multiples. At the end of 2004, the year of its I.P.O., Google was trading at 132 times its earnings.

But investors have less expensive options for fast-growing technology companies. Apple made nearly $1 billion a week in its latest quarter, roughly the same amount Facebook earned in all of 2011. At a recent price of $456, Apple is trading for roughly 16.5 times last year’s profits.

Investors now have to try to ignore the I.P.O. hype and soberly sift through the first batch of Facebook’s financial statements to gauge the company’s potential.

Online advertising is a prime indicator. At Facebook, display ads and the like accounted for $3.15 billion of revenue in 2011, roughly 85 percent of the total. With 845 million monthly active users, advertisers now feel that Facebook has to be part of any campaign they do.

“When you have an audience that large, it’s hard not to make a lot of money from it,” said Andrew Frank, an analyst at Gartner, an industry research firm.

For all the promise of Facebook, the company is still trying to figure out how to properly extract and leverage data, while keeping its system intact and not interfering with users’ experiences. On a per-user basis, Facebook makes a small sum, roughly $1 in profit.

The relationship with Zynga will be especially important. The online game company represented 12 percent of Facebook revenue last year, according to the filing. However, estimated daily active users of Zynga games on Facebook fell in the fourth quarter, from the third quarter, the brokerage firm Sterne Agee said in a recent research note — a trend that could weigh on the social networking company.

Facebook also faces intense competition for advertising dollars, something it acknowledges in the “risk factors” section of its I.P.O. filing. While advertisers will likely choose to be on both Facebook and Google, they will inevitably compare results they get from both. Some analysts think Google may have the edge in such a competition.

Google users tend to be looking for something specific. This makes it easier for advertisers to direct their ads at potential customers, analysts say. “Visually, Facebook ads are eye-catching, but in terms of accuracy of targeting, they are not even close to Google’s ads,” said Nate Elliott, an analyst at Forrester Research. “A lot of the companies we talk to are finding it very hard to succeed on Facebook.”

However, the high level of interaction on Facebook could prove valuable to advertisers. “At Facebook, you are looking at people’s interests, and what they are sharing,” said Gerry Graf, chief creative officer at Barton F. Graf 9000, an advertising agency in New York that has used Facebook for clients. If Facebook becomes a place where people recommend, share and buy a large share of their music and movies, such a business could generate large amounts of advertising revenue, as well as any user fees.

“Facebook has become the biggest distribution platform on the Web,” said Daniel Ek, the founder of Spotify, a service that accepts only Facebook users.”

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Article from SFGate.

“Facebook members have listened to more than 1.5 billion songs in the six weeks since the social network rolled out its latest Open Graph applications platform.

And the online music services that have hitched their wagon to Facebook are flourishing, according to stats posted on the company’s developers blog.

“As a result, some of our biggest music developers have more than doubled their active users, while earlier-stage startups and services starting with a smaller base have seen anywhere between a 2-10x increase in active users,” Facebook’s Casey Maloney Rosales Muller wrote. “It’s still early, but these results show that the Open Graph can be a powerful discovery mechanism for users and drive significant growth for developers.”

One big winner so far is Spotify, the online music service that just expanded to the United States in the summer. Since announcing it was plugging into the beta Open Graph protocol at the F8 developers’ conference Sept. 22, Spotify has gained more than 4 million new users.

And Earbits, the company that also powers SFGate Radio, has recorded a 1,350 percent increase in the number of users who become fans of bands they’re hearing, he said.

Meanwhile, MOG has grown 246 percent, Rdio has seen a 30-fold increase, Slacker reports an 11-fold increase and Deezer has added 10,000 users.

Ticketing sites Eventbrite, Ticketmaster and Ticketfly have also reported $2 to $6 in direct ticket sales for each link shared within Facebook.

And all this has happened before Facebook has had a chance to roll out Open Graph and new Timeline user profiles to a wider portion of its audience of 800 million users. The Palo Alto company says those rollouts are coming soon.”

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Article from SFGate.

“RootMusic, a San Francisco startup that helps artists such as Rihanna, Katy Perry and Arcade Fire connect with their Facebook fans, received additional venture funding Wednesday amid reports that the social-networking giant is close to offering its own music service.

RootMusic, which says it has about 32 million monthly active users for its BandPage platform on Facebook, announced a $16 million round of financing led by GCV Capital.

The platform adds a page for fans to hear and share songs, watch video and view concert dates. The company was started in March 2010, but already more than 250,000 bands around the world use BandPage, and usage has increased tenfold since January, said RootMusic CEO J Sider.

There have been various reports that Facebook is ready to release its own music service. On Tuesday, CNBC, Mashable and other outlets reported that Facebook plans to announce a music platform at its f8 developer conference in San Francisco on Sept. 22, with Spotify, MOG and Rdio as partners.

Facebook spokesman Larry Yu would not comment directly on those reports or what’s coming for f8, but said in a statement that “many of the most popular music services around the world are integrated with Facebook and we’re constantly talking to our partners about ways to improve these integrations.”

Sider said he views a potential Facebook music platform as complementary to BandPage.

“If something like this would happen, it would raise awareness that as a fan, (Facebook’s) where I should go first to find information.”

The Facebook music drumbeat might prove to be sour notes for former social-networking rival Myspace, which has been trying to reposition itself as a destination for music. Indeed, RootMusic’s slogan entices musicians to “Make the Move to BandPage on Facebook.”

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Here is some inside news from Digital Media Wire in regards to Spotify.

Palo Alto, Calif. – Spotify, the European ad-supported streaming music service preparing for a U.S. launch, has sold a 17.3% stake in the company for about $12.4 million to the four major record labels and independent label aggregator Merlin, TechCrunch reported.

The report cites an “unverified capitalization table” obtained from a filing in Luxembourg, where Spotify is based.

The obtained document shows that Sony BMG owns 5.8% of Spotify, compared with 4.8% for Universal Music; 3.8% for Warner Music; 1.9% for EMI; and 1% for Merlin.”

Read the full article  here.

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