Weekly output: startup pitches, LG Optimus F6, Windows 8.1, OS X Mavericks

I feel like I should apologize or something for having only three stories to my name this week. I assure you that I was busier than this list would suggest–how else could I feel so tired on a Sunday?

10/25/2013: If Any Idiot Can Get Funding, How Do You Not Look Like Any Funded Idiot?, Disruptive Competition Project

After watching a few rounds of startup pitches at Tech Cocktail Celebrate in Vegas–then reflecting on all of the others I’ve seen at similar events in the Bay Area and around Washington–I felt compelled to write about what I think of some of the more common sales pitches.

10/25/2013: LG Optimus F6 (T-Mobile), PCMag

I initially gave this a three-out-five-stars rating, and one of my editors asked if I wasn’t being too generous, considering all of the flaws I’d identified with this phone. Should I have punished this model with a lower numerical assessment? You tell me.

USAT Windows 8.1 post10/27/2013: Tips on upgrading to Windows 8.1, USA Today

Devoting most of my USAT column to a Windows issue doesn’t happen that often–most of the time, I’m covering a mobile topic. But Microsoft’s release of a good update to Windows 8 that requires additional tweaking to deliver on its potential gave me an excellent reason to ignore phones and tablets for a change. And since Apple shipped an operating-system update of its own only days after Win 8.1, I could share a tip about OS X Mavericks as well.

On Sulia, I reported a successful installation of Mavericks but then had to confirm a serious problem with how its Mail app syncs Gmail accounts, shared some good answers the Celebrate judges had to a thoughtful question about mistakes, noted some quirky interactive demos (kids’ pajamas and LED lights, I kid you not) seen at that conference, and followed up on last weekend’s USAT column about a sketchy tech-support operation.

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Where’s a conference-scheduling cabal when you need one?

The tech-and-media hive mind has not been doing the best job this year of keeping its own events straight.

Overlapping eventsTake last month. I realized only after I’d booked my travel and made arrangements with multiple editors to cover CEA’s CE Week conference in New York that it shared two days with the great Computers, Freedom & Privacy event in D.C.–and just in time for the first rounds of NSA-snooping revelations to get people chattering away at the latter event. Oops.

In September, the pan-European IFA electronics trade show in Berlin barely avoids overlapping TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. I got a lot out of covering both last year, but this time I’d have to hop on a pre-dawn flight out of Dulles the day after returning from Berlin. No thanks.

(Disclosure: IFA covered much of the travel costs for me and a large group of U.S. journalists last year and plans to do the same this year. But if I had to self-finance either trip, I don’t know that my choice would differ: I’d have an easier time selling stories out of Berlin than in the Bay Area, surrounded by half the tech media in America. Plus, Disrupt isn’t the only big pitch conference that time of year.)

In October, the Demo conference in Santa Clara, Calif., runs through the first day of the Online News Association’s annual conference. And that has swapped last year’s San Francisco venue for one in Atlanta. I could take a red-eye after Demo wraps up and only miss a third and change of ONA–not counting time spent nodding off the afternoon of my arrival–but then I’d eat that much of the value of my registration fee. (Had my ONA panel proposal been accepted, I could go for free, but that’s neither here nor there.)

I realize these calendar constraints fall well within the realm of first-world problems, and that aside from grandstanding product launches, event organizers have to book times and places many months in advance. But if we can’t have an actual cabal to restore order to the conference universe, isn’t this the kind of market inefficiency that ambitious dot-coms should be itching to fix disrupt with some buzzword-compliant online mechanism?

All kidding aside, I do need to decide which places get a spot on my October schedule by July 15, when ONA’s early-bird pricing ends: Santa Clara, Atlanta or both. What would you do?

(7/13: Realized I had missed an opportunity to use the verb “disrupt” and take a swipe at those overblown product-launch events that tech companies, perhaps under the delusion that they are all Apple, have been staging increasingly often.)

Demo versus Disrupt

SANTA CLARA, CALIF.–I’ve attended TechCrunch Disrupt SF twice and DEMO Fall once, which doesn’t give me much background to judge these two pitch conferences. (The two used to happen on the same days, forcing potential attendees to pick one or the other.) Fortunately, I have no editor on this site to stop me from handing down judgments anyway.

Format: Both events take the same American-Idol-for-startups approach, in which each company gets a limited time on stage to make its pitch to the audience and a set of judges. But Demo (let’s ditch the all-caps) crams in 78 six-minute presentations by startups, while Disrupt’s Startup Battlefield only admits 30 contenders. That made for a grueling pace at Demo. But Disrupt also invites other startups to demo their products offstage–and since it’s a different lineup each day, I didn’t get to see many of them.

Another notable difference: At Disrupt, the judges quiz each startup directly, but at Demo the “sages” have their say after the presenters have left the stage. I prefer the former setup.

Selection: Disrupt seems to invite a bubblier set of startups than its older rival, put on by IDG Enterprise and the tech-news site VentureBeat. Last year’s winner at Disrupt, for instance, was an Israeli startup called Shaker that essentially provides a Facebook-confined version of Second Life–and since seems to have stalled out. Demo had less fluff but was also more boring sometimes; as a consumer-tech guy, I tuned out of most of the enterprise-IT and business-CRM presentations. (I though four interesting enough to write about in a little more detail in this Discovery News post.)

The extra wrinkle with Disrupt is the role of the CrunchFund, the investment vehicle set up by TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. Although Arrington no longer runs TechCrunch–AOL kicked him out after he said he’d go back to financing startups with CrunchFund–he still spends a lot of time onstage at Disrupt. And CrunchFund companies somehow won Disrupt’s $50,000 prize this year and last year in San Francisco.

Talks: With fewer startups competing, Disrupt had a lot more time for panels and speeches. The highlight of this year’s event was Arrington’s grilling of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg; the lowlight was his cringe-inducing interview of Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, which featured such challenging inquiries as “Are you enjoying life, other than the Fiji trips?” and “I kind of want you to buy an island, that would be kind of neat.” At Demo, we were treated to a mind-expanding talk by artificial-intelligence pioneer Ray Kurzweil; Twitter co-founder Evan Williams’s substance-starved answers to VentureBeat editor Matt Marshall’s questions were less rewarding.

Location: Disrupt takes place at the San Francisco Concourse Exhibition Center, a renovated warehouse in the South of Market neighborhood. Demo happens at the Santa Clara Hyatt Regency. So at Disrupt, all the nightlife is offsite, while at Demo I didn’t need to leave the hotel grounds until the last night’s party, half a block away at Citrix’s offices. The Hyatt’s neighborhood is far less interesting, but it is a short ride on the VTA light rail (plus a shuttle bus) from San Jose’s airport.

Internet access: The WiFi at Disrupt was horrible last year and only barely usable for much of this year’s conference (during the Zuckerberg interview, it pretty much cratered). At Demo, the WiFi worked almost all the time. But with 1,000 attendees versus Disrupt’s 4,000 or so (if I remember that correctly), there weren’t as many laptops and tablets to congest the airwaves.

Food and drink: No question, Demo wins this–we had three hot meals a day there, compared to Disrupt’s menu of pastries and yogurt for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and go-find-your-own dinner. It’s a push in terms of booze.

Soundtrack: Both conferences don’t exactly burnish their indie cred with their choice of music played between presentations, but Disrupt occupies its own level of hell by endlessly playing a set of techno songs commissioned for the event. Sadly, typing the previous sentence put those tunes in my head again.

Weekly output: iPhone 5, TechCrunch Disrupt, NFL Mobile, Gatekeeper

I’d like to have more items in this list, but travel took a big chomp out of this week. (And it’s going to do the same for next.) If you’re wondering about the absence of any CEA posts, we’re taking a break while their new communications guy Jeff Joseph gets up to speed and they decide if they want to make any changes to their online outreach.

9/12/2012: Apple’s iPhone 5: The Price of Thin, Discovery News

Confession: My first, peevish reaction when Apple didn’t invite me to its iPhone 5 event was to let somebody else write it up for Discovery–I’d have enough to cover at TechCrunch Disrupt, a couple of miles away. I’m glad I rethought that, since my post seems to be one of few to note the iPhone 5’s problematic fragmenting of the SIM card standard. (CEA readers got a preview of that argument in a post I wrote in July.)

9/14/2012: Smart Cycles, Transparent Time, Other Disruptions, Discovery News

Most of my coverage of TC Disrupt SF took the form of a prolonged stream of tweets (to readers who did not unfollow out of sheer fatigue: thanks!). Then I had to synthesize three days of watching startups pitch themselves and their products into 500 words and change. I did that by picking five of these companies–none of which won TC Disrupt’s Startup Battlefield–to note in this post. But in retrospect, I should have used a few more words to offer more details about their business models.

Also: If I haven’t written about at least one of these companies at greater length 10 months from now, can somebody call me out on the oversight?

9/16/2012: NFL Mobile app doesn’t work on new iPad, USA Today

As you can see, this piece doesn’t actually answer the reader’s question–the Verizon Wireless PR guy I’ve been e-mailing all week never provided a specific explanation. So I wound up making this post double as a critique of VzW’s failure to communicate with its users. It wraps up with a reminder about white-listing apps blocked by OS X Mountain Lion’s Gatekeeper; please use that advice wisely.

You can also read this story in USAT’s new design; what do you think of the updated look?

Questions I ask (or should ask) of startups

I spent two hours and change on Saturday taking the testimony of D.C.-area tech startups in three-minute increments. The experience–part of an all-day networking event put on by the D.C.-area tech-community site Foster.ly–was a lot more interesting than that sentence makes it sound.

(The Washington City Paper’s Lydia DePillis, another Foster.ly media attendee, wrote about eight of the more promising startups she talked to.)

Then on Tuesday, I saw another batch of local startups offer their pitches at a Northern Virginia Technology Council event. I’ve done the same thing at multiple gatherings around D.C. and in the Bay Area. As a small businessman myself, I find the whole routine getting more interesting–despite my general allergy to business-plan PowerPoints.

One customary formula for coverage of a startup starts with who invested in it and for how much. I find that boring. There’s so much money sloshing around–sometimes dumped on particular startups in absurd allocations–that I don’t think this provides enough insight on the virtues of a new tech company. Instead, here are the questions I’d rather ask:

What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? What’s the inefficiency, informational asymmetry  or overall inelegance you want to smooth out?

Most people have this answer memorized, but you have to start with it anyway. (In case anybody’s curious, the problem I’m trying to solve with my own work is the surplus of hasty tech journalism reported without benefit of historical insight or simple skepticism and then written with an excessive attention to specifications, momentum or buzz.)

Who else has that goal? Who else–in particular, which large, incumbent firms–might decide they need to join in the fun?

You have to be able to find the competitor and the possible competitor.

How do you make money?

So rude to ask, I know. Bonus points if a company has multiple revenue possibilities in mind. But if you have enough investors lined up to pave your runway a few years into the future, I will cut some slack on this. (A figure-it-out-later strategy seems to have worked fine for Instagram.)

What things beyond your control need to happen before you can make money? Who has a finger on a kill switch for your company?

If your idea depends on massive network effects, you’ve got a steep hill to ascend. I hope your business proposition also works with a small amount of customers… and that it isn’t dependent on a blessing by the App Store, Hollywood, giant telecom firms or corporate IT departments.

Then there’s the question I often forget about, even after being reminded of its importance at a SXSW panel discussion this spring:

If you go bust, what happens to your users’ data?

What questions would you ask?