Archive for December, 2010
In just 22 days, Zynga’s CityVille has eclipsed FarmVille as the world’s biggest game.
Today, CityVille added an astounding 6.9 users to end the day at 61.7 million monthly active users, compared with 56.8 million for FarmVille, according to stat collector AppData. Before today, FarmVille, also made by Zynga, was the biggest social game on Facebook, and it also happened to be the biggest game on any platform in terms of the sheer volume of users.
Now the challenge will be to make money from all of those users. If Zynga hangs on to them, it stands a chance of becoming a far bigger player in social games than it already is.
When CityVille took off shortly after its launch on Dec. 2, it was clear that its growth path was going to break all records. We knew this would happen, but it’s still pretty astounding. It’s going to be a pretty Merry Christmas for Zynga. Zynga’s traffic on Facebook has now soared to 261.6 million monthly active users, which is probably near its all-time peak. In November, Zynga had around 198 million monthly active users.
Zynga actually hit its peak in the spring, about the time when Facebook cracked down on game communications that were perceived as spam-like. That meant that it was harder to make games take off in a viral way, without spending money on advertising. Zynga’s growth plummeted and it hasn’t replaced those lost users until now.
The turnaround is remarkable and shows what can happen when you have a good game. CityVille is a city simulation like SimCity, but far simpler and more social. For instance, you can open a chain of stores and operate them as franchises in your friends’ towns. Mark Skaggs, head of the team that built the game, told us in an interview that the concept was to create a game that felt like you were playing it in real time.
The game also benefits from Zynga’s usual advertising on Facebook and its ability to cross-promote the game to its other Facebook users. The questions now are, will users will stick around and will they will spend money? Zynga’s games are free-to-play, where users can play for free and spend real money on virtual goods such as tractors in FarmVille.
Founded in 2007, Zynga has become one of the largest gaming companies, with more than 1,300 employees. Legendary investor John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers said Zynga was easily the best investment that his firm has ever made. The social networking game maker is already the largest app developer on Facebook. And some recent valuations show that Zynga is actually valued above $5 billion, larger than Electronic Arts, one of the largest video game publishers in the world.
Zynga is trying to build up its user numbers by expanding to new platforms such as mobile games in Japan. It is also expanding its social games to non-Facebook web sites and translating its games into other languages. The company has been buying about a company a month to get more talented game developers. But the No. 1 thing it has to do to keep growing is commission new games like CityVille.
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Today was one of the “darkest days in recent FCC history,” he said, adding that he had received a final draft only at 11:42 pm the night before the vote. As for ISPs, “Nothing is broken in the Internet access market.”
He ended darkly by noting that the FCC’s “regulatory hubris” was a disease that could, thankfully, be cured by the courts.
His GOP colleague, Commissioner Meredith Baker, had no less than seven major objections, including one that “we have turned prioritization into a dirty word.” To Baker, charging companies like Netflix for better access to ISP customers is unabashedly pro-consumer, since it might (insert a gentle cough of skepticism here) lower consumer broadband prices. As for network management, it’s an “engineering marvel.” Baker’s statement made clear—repeatedly—that she was bewildered by any view of ISPs as huge companies that might misuse their power and control, and she rejects any attempt to limit their “innovation.”
We don’t like it, either
More surprising were the howls of dissatisfaction coming from net neutrality’s backers. Didn’t they just get what they wanted? Didn’t Obama’s campaign pledge—and Genachowski’s support for that pledge—finally come through?
“Despite promising to fulfill President Obama’s campaign promise of enacting Network Neutrality rules to protect an open Internet, the FCC has instead prioritized the profits of corporations like AT&T over those of the general public, Internet entrepreneurs, and local businesses across the country,” thundered Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation. “These failures place the Internet in peril of evolving into a system that will more and more resemble another cable network rather than an open Internet.”
Public Knowledge’s Gigi Sohn blasted rules that “fall far short of what they could have been.” Free Press called the rules “fake net neutrality,” and the group’s Craig Aaron complained that “the new rules are riddled with loopholes, evidence that the chairman sought approval from AT&T instead of listening to the millions of Americans who asked for real Net Neutrality.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that “the FCC has failed to protect free speech and Internet openness for all users,” by not applying the same rules to wireless. At the New York University School of Law, the Institute for Policy Integrity called it “a batch of tepid new rules.”
Even the Future of Music Coalition, which represents artists, lamented the fact that net neutrality “seemingly falls short of offering full protections.”
They don’t share Baker’s default view of huge ISPs, which dominate the US landscape for wireline broadband, as cuddly companies who would like nothing better than to innovate and invest. And they’re deeply disappointed that wireless companies are largely excluded from discrimination rules.
“No longer can you get to the same Internet via your mobile device as you can via your laptop,” complained Free Press.
In addition, “paid prioritization” is not banned and “will allow broadband providers to set up a toll road for the largest Internet content and application companies to pay for prioritized access to consumers on the network,” said Meinrath.
“Managed services” are still allowed over the last-mile broadband pipe, meaning that broadband operators can sell prioritized IP services of any kind. (“The new but not-yet-properly-defined ‘managed service’ exemption may amount to the first step down a slippery slope of non-neutral Internet services,” said one complainant.)
The rules are full of loopholes and uncertainty (what’s “reasonable,” for instance?). And the rules continue to use Title I authority for all this regulation, despite the fact that this was dealt a severe blow earlier this year by a DC Court; backers worry that even these limited net neutrality rules will simply be tossed by judges.
After years of effort, one might expect a few more uncorked champagne bottles from net neutrality’s backers once they had pushed for as much as they could get; today’s grudging statements of support remind us just how limited the final rules are. Indeed, even Commissioners Clyburn and Copps, Democrats who voted for the order, made clear that their own enthusiasm for the plan was modest, especially given its special treatment of wireless.
Solomonic or moronic?
This is probably not the way Genachowski saw himself passing his pivotal net neutrality provisions. A year ago, when he made his pitch for the idea, he made clear that the rules should apply to wired and wireless networks, for instance, and he no doubt imagined a positive reception from at least some side of the debate.
In the end, though, even the support he got from big net neutrality backers was so muted that the whole event felt more like a wake than a celebration. “Damning with faint praise” pretty much sums up the responses from people like Skype’s Christopher Libertelli, who said after today’s vote, “In any complicated FCC rulemaking, there are going to be trade-offs and compromises. On balance, this decision advances the goal of keeping the Internet an open and unencumbered medium for Skype users.”
Huzzah? (As the NCTA, cable’s biggest lobbying group, put it with some accurate snark, “like apparently everyone else in America, this would not be the Order we would have written…”)
But if Genachowski thought he could play off against the more extreme proponents of neutrality rules to pitch himself as a moderate compromiser who adopts “light touch,” pro-investment rules (and he thought he could), he seems to have failed. He secured no Republican votes for his compromise package, he’s facing near-certain legal challenges to the entire approach, and Congressional Republicans have been publicly threatening to overturn any FCC net neutrality rules that Genachowski dared to pass.
In a California showdown over corporate governance, the largest U.S. public pension fund is attacking Apple Inc. for the way it handles board elections.
Apple’s directors can currently hang on to their seats with a single “yes” vote in uncontested elections. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System wants Apple and other U.S. companies it invests in to adopt rules requiring directors to win a majority of the vote, saying that will make board members more accountable to shareholders.
Calpers said Apple resisted its request, so the pension fund submitted an advisory shareholder resolution to force the issue. The measure is set to come up for a vote at the iPhone maker’s annual meeting in February.
“There is systemic risk when directors are not accountable,” said Anne Simpson, Calpers’s head of corporate governance, in an interview Tuesday.
An Apple spokesman declined to comment. The company, which keeps a famously tight grip on details of coming products, has frequently been subject to criticism about its corporate governance, including operating with a small board and being parsimonious with disclosures about CEO Steve Jobs‘s health when he underwent a liver transplant.
Many governance experts and shareholder activists back majority-vote rules, because they make it easier to force out directors when shareholders decide a company’s board needs a change.
The computer giant represents the first target of a shareholder resolution in Calpers’s current push to spread the practice.
The campaign began last February, when the giant fund asked the 58 biggest companies in its U.S. portfolio to embrace a standard under which directors lacking majority support must offer to resign.
So far, 20 concerns “have agreed to do the right thing,” Ms. Simpson said. Calpers is submitting majority-vote proposals at three other companies with 2011 annual meetings later than Apple’s. They are Annaly Capital Management Inc., BB&T Corp. and VF Corp.
A VF spokeswoman said board members decided last week to recommend shareholder support for a majority-voting standard at its April annual meeting.
BB&T said only that it will consider the issue.
An Annaly spokesman declined to comment.
Calpers says it will file similar resolutions at the remaining 34 businesses as necessary. In 2010, the pension fund submitted one majority-voting measure.
More than 69% of S&P 500 companies have adopted majority-voting rules, according to Calpers. The rules typically aren’t binding, giving boards the right to ignore losing directors’ offers to resign.
But in California, where Apple is incorporated, state law forces directors to step down if they don’t win a majority of the vote at companies that require a majority.
That oddity of state law made Apple less willing to compromise, Calpers said.
In a sign of investor dissatisfaction, 95 board members at 54 companies have won fewer than 50% of votes cast during annual meetings so far in 2010, reports Institutional Shareholder Services, a proxy advisory firm. None represented companies that had majority-vote rules at the time of the election, according to the Council of Institutional Investors.
Officials at the council, which represents pension funds managing more than $3 trillion in assets, wrote the 54 companies urging that the defeated directors surrender their seats. Four did so after receiving the letter.
The California State Teachers’ Retirement System, another big public pension fund, is mounting a similar majority-vote campaign at smaller businesses for the 2011 proxy season. The fund is filing 25 resolutions, up from none for 2010, said Anne Sheehan, director of corporate governance.
The burst of shareholder activism comes as a separate effort by the Securities and Exchange Commission to make it easier to oust directors has been delayed by a legal challenge.
The SEC had intended to allow large shareholders to present competing board candidates on official company voting materials by next year’s proxy season. But in late September, two U.S. business groups sued to overturn the rule.
Currently, shareholders who want to oust board members must foot the bill for mailing separate ballots and wage a separate costly campaign to court shareholders.
Write to Joann S. Lublin at [email protected]
By Ed Burnette | December 11, 2010, 12:30pm PST
Over the next several days, Google will be updating the Android Market on devices running Android 1.6 or higher to introduce a number of changes that will affect users and developers alike. According to email sent Saturday to registered developers, the changes include:
- Reducing the purchase refund window to 15 minutes (!). Previously, users had 24-48 hours to try an application and get a refund if they didn’t like it. Some developers worried that a long refund period could lead to abuses, but users were limited to one refund per application so I don’t understand the reason for this change.
- Users will be able to filter applications by content rating. Developers must set a content rating for their apps by December 15th: Mature, Teen, Pre-Teen, or All. Applications or games without a rating will be treated as Mature.
- The details page for every app will show a 180×120 Promotional Graphic at the top, provided by the developer in the Developer Console.
- Developers can also specify more than 2 screenshots, in several different sizes (currently 320×480, 480×800, or 480×854). Presumably the number of sizes will expand as different resolutions become more common.
- Market will support filtering based on screen sizes and densities, as well as on GL texture compression formats. Filtering is based on <compatible-screens> and <uses-gl-texture> elements in an app’s manifest, instead of console settings.
- The Market is getting new “dynamic” categories that will be based on an app’s manifest. If your app includes wallpapers or widgets, Market will automatically add them to the new categories.
- The maximum size for application packages is increasing from 25MB to 50MB.
In addition to the pictures listed above, developers can also provide a 1024×500 Feature Graphic, and a 512×512 High Resolution Application Icon. When I tried to update my app’s content rating the developer’s console said the high res icon was now required, while the others are optional. I’m hoping that’s a mistake that will be fixed because for one of my apps a full color 512×512 icon would be larger than the whole app.
Of all the changes, the most welcome and overdue is the content rating. Hopefully this will put an end to the crappy soft porn apps that are currently flooding the “Just in” box. That’s assuming the makers of those apps will correctly rate their apps, and there’s no guarantee they will. Deliberately mis-labeling their apps, though, would give Google a good excuse to kick them from the market. If they’d allow users to filter by star rating that would help too, since these apps usually get bad ratings.
Filtering by screen sizes will allow developers to keep their apps from showing on devices with new screen sizes and densities until they’ve had to test them. It will also let devs release two different versions of an app if they so choose – a regular version for phones and a “HD” version for tablets – and have only one show up in the Market on any particular device.
Still missing is a way to filter apps by CPU and GPU power and type, the amount of main memory, and specific device models. Look at what happened with Angry Birds: If a developer like Rovio knows that their app doesn’t work on some models or configurations, they ought to be able to make it so people can’t download the app on those phones until they’ve had time to make it work. Of course, it would be better if every app worked on every device, but since that’s not always possible then keeping users from getting frustrated with non-working apps would be a worthy goal.
Personally, I’m opposed to shortening the refund window. Having a “try before you buy” option was a nice feature that competitors such as the iPhone App Store could not match. I think it will make users a little more wary of pressing that “Buy” button, which can’t be a good thing for either devs or users. Google should reconsider this move, perhaps compromising with a time in the middle of the two extremes.
Finally, I have to wonder why Google didn’t use this opportunity to increase the skimpy 325 character description field. They should increase this to 15K and allow simple HTML formatting like bullet points, italics, and hyperlinks. In my opinion, that would be much more useful and take less metadata space than a high res icon and promo graphics.
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Windows Phone 7 developer device
Microsoft is planning to unveil and detail a second Windows Phone 7 update in February.
The software giant has chosen the Mobile World Congress venue according to sources familiar with the plans. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is due to hold a keynote at the event and Microsoft’s press event will mark a year from when the company first unveiled Windows Phone 7 to the world. According to a source who spoke to WinRumors, Microsoft’s second update will be a significant one. The company is currently planning to unveil a first update, to introduce copy and paste functionality, in January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Microsoft recently began distributing the copy and paste update to developer devices (see video here).
Microsoft’s second update will introduce enhanced developer controls for applications. Microsoft is expected to open up several new APIs that will allow for greater multi-tasking, in-app downloads and better customization for end users. Microsoft is currently compiling beta builds of the update and has shipped some early bits to external beta testers. One tester, who did not want to be named, claimed the update will excite developers. “The update includes some great new features for developers, Windows Phone 7 apps in 2011 will certainly become more interesting.”
Microsoft is also set to unveil its plans for a Silverlight update to Windows Phone 7 at Mobile World Congress. Brian Keller, Senior Technical Evangelist for Visual Studio application lifecycle management at Microsoft hinted at Microsoft’s future Silverlight plans in a recent Channel 9 interview. When questioned over any Windows Phone 7 Silverlight news Keller replied “I think we are saving those, for say another event. If only there was a massive event in Barcelona on mobile phones and or other events in the future.”
Microsoft is also working on a major overhaul of the Windows Phone 7 browser. In a job posting, listed in November, the software maker promises a “major overhaul of standard support and new approaches to make significant advances in performance, power consumption and bandwidth utilization.” It’s possible that part of the overhaul could be seen in the point release in February but most of the significant changes will be reserved for the upcoming Windows Phone 8 update.