in-car apps

Car and phone integration has a lot of road for improvement

Car companies made a lot of noise at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show about what they’re doing to merge internet technologies with the car. But they still haven’t delivered the apps we’re all waiting for.

Dunce cap

If SOPA passes, we’re as much to blame as Congress and Hollywood

There’s been a lot of huffing and puffing in the tech community over the past few months about SOPA, the proposed legislation that many believe would cripple the Internet and thwart innovation. People have started online petitions, written countless blog posts, started boycotts against companies that support SOPA and campaigns to change Twitter avatars. (Check out the rest of VentureBeat’s SOPA coverage here.)

Dr. Evil

Google’s new social search: How far can you trust it?

Google’s new Search plus Your World product, announced yesterday, is making a lot of waves. The new search puts content shared by your friends in the Google+ social network higher up in search results than other content —  a move that’s raised antitrust concerns.

Back to the future

Silicon Valley may be too smart for its own good

Silicon Valley’s greatest asset is the brilliant minds that roam the buildings and inhabit the coffee shops. Since moving back to Silicon Valley in June, I’ve met a lot of amazing people. On average, they are the smartest people I know. I have conversations on a regular basis that I just can’t have anywhere else. Yes, I’ve worked with smart people in other places, but the concentration here is unique.

Uber car D+

Car service Uber passes economics test, fails marketing

Users of startup car service Uber got quite a shock from the company’s demand-based pricing on New Year’s Eve. The company implemented a New Year’s surcharge that stuck San Francisco-based Uber user Dan Darcy with a $63 bill for traveling 0.73 miles. (That’s a rate of $86.30 per mile.)

Silicon Valley’s airline faces social media backlash as it switches technology

Since its launch, Virgin America has become the unofficial airline of Silicon Valley. With new airplanes, Wi-Fi on all flights, a Linux-based entertainment system, power outlets at every seat and a beautiful new terminal at its home airport of SFO, it has become the go-to airline for many in the tech community.

Investors should be even more worried about Groupon, as its share price falls

Groupon’s stock has fallen precipitously during the last three days. Today, it broke below the Chicago-based couponers IPO price of $20.00 for the first time. At a recent price of $17.41, any IPO investors who were still holding on to the stock would be down nearly 13%.

Rocky Agrawal

Rocky’s travel secrets for your holiday travel

With the start of the holiday travel season this Wednesday, planes will be fuller, patience shorter and the weather more worrisome. Traveling around the holidays can be a trying experience.I’ve spent much of my life on airplanes. I’ve flown more than a million miles and earned more than 4 million frequent flier miles. “Up in the Air” felt strangely biographical. Over the years, I’ve developed strategies for coping with the hassles of air travel. I hope you don’t need any of them on your travels, but just in case, here they are:The 36,000 foot viewIt’s not about you. Don’t take flight cancellations or being involuntarily bumped personally. No one is out to get you. Running an airline is an incredibly hard business even on a good day. Add in miserable weather and high loads and a lot of people are going to be unhappy. As much as their decisions might inconvenience you, there’s usually (though not always) logic behind the decisions. Decisions take into account numerous factors including number of passengers inconvenienced, crew availability, availability of alternate flights and aircraft positioning.Life’s not fair. The airline business is a business. It’s rarely first come, first served. If there’s a long standby list, the 100,000 mile traveler who walks up 5 minutes before they start clearing standbys will get the seat over someone who flies once a year on cheap tickets and has been waiting 2 hours. Although the rules vary by airline, priority lists typically take into account things like frequent flier status, class of service, previous inconvenience, whether you are in a connecting city and fare paid and time of check in. I’ve often watched as airlines denied boarding to people who booked their tickets months earlier and checked in well ahead of time.OK, it’s a little about you. Despite these priority rules, gate agents do have some discretion to change your priority. If you’ve got a solid reason, it can’t hurt to ask. Customers who were bumped from previous flights sometimes get this kind of treatment. I’ve also seen this done for passengers traveling to distant international destinations with infrequent service. As a no-status, poor college student on a bargain ticket, I once had a kind gate agent bump a passenger off a flight for me because my brother was in the hospital.Be nice. People want to help people who are nice to them. The fastest way to get an agent to not help you is to start making demands, threaten to sue or start swearing. I witnessed one passenger in Las Vegas call an agent a “bitch” under his breath as he walked away. She called the gate he was going to and told that agent about it.Booking your ticketsYou can increase your odds for a successful trip beginning with how you book, especially if you’re flying from, to or through places like Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver or the Northeast, which are susceptible to snowstorms.Avoid regional jets, turbo props or other commuter flights. When airports such as Chicago get slammed with bad weather, airlines will cancel smaller planes first. It makes sense — with limited landing and takeoff slots, it’s better to use them for 150 passengers than 50 passengers. If the town you want to fly to can’t be reached on a mainline jet, consider an alternative airport within driving distance.Avoid connections. It may be tempting to save $50 by flying through Chicago or Minneapolis, but each connection increases the risk of things going wrong. It also increases you odds of being stranded in a city that is neither your home nor your destination. Fly nonstop if possible. If you have to connect, try routing through a warm weather city like Atlanta, Houston or Dallas. Be careful to avoid “direct” flights, which look like nonstops but really have a connection.Avoid smaller, startup carriers. Virgin America is my favorite domestic airline, but it’s tough to recommend it for snowy destinations during the holidays. Because they have a small fleet, it’s much harder to recover when things go really wrong, and a lot of passengers are stranded. A legacy carrier like Delta or United can send a rescue plane to reposition stranded carriers — one 747 can carry more than 3 small planes worth of passengers. The majors also have better automated systems for rebooking mass cancellations. This holiday season is likely to be even tougher for Virgin America passengers because the airline recently swapped out its reservation system. (Virgin America spokeswoman Abby Lunardini says the new system will allow the airline to offer automated rebooking in the future.)Book flights for earlier in the day. Delays tend to cascade through the day. If you’re on the last flight out, you have few options.Travel technologyThe travel industry is one of the most eager adopters of technology. With the right tools, you can have a significant advantage over fellow travelers.Sign up for your airline’s text alerts. Some carriers will re-book you automatically when there are cancellations or delays and text the updated information to you.Get the right apps. My must-have travel apps are Kayak, TripIt, GateGuru and Priceline. Kayak lets you quickly search for alternate flights. TripIt keeps tabs on your itinerary. (Pro members get real-time alerts and alternative flight suggestions.) GateGuru will show you all the bars, restaurants and other amenities at the airport. (They are even categorized as inside or outside security.) Priceline can help you get a cheap room if you find yourself stuck. These apps are all available on iPhone and Android.Follow your airline on Twitter. Airlines will post systemwide updates on their Twitter feeds. Some airlines, like Virgin America, actively monitor mentions and will try to help with some concerns. (Don’t waste your SMS on United.)Put your cell phone and laptop chargers in your carry on. If you suffer long delays, there’s a good chance you’ll run out of power. You might need these tools to help book your next flight. If you find that you’re running out of power, look for a “power save” mode, which usually lets you eke out some more use by dimming the screen or throttling the processor.Put a pair of headphones in your laptop bag. With a laptop, headphones and Wifi, you can amuse yourself while you wait for your next flight. I’ve spent many delays watching Hulu. It won’t make your delay any shorter, but it will feel like it.Buy a travel power strip. Finding power in some airports can be a real challenge. And when you do find an outlet, there’s a good chance someone beat you to it. I love my Monster 3-in-1 plus USB power strip.At the airportLook at the departure boards for other flights to your destination. If your flight is canceled, look to see which gate the next flight to your destination is going out from. If it’s in the next hour, high tail it to that gate and ask the agent to get you on that flight. Again, be on your phone with reservations as you’re walking and standing in line. (A Bluetooth headset is great for this.) If your flight is a few hours away, chances are no one is working that flight yet.Call the airline when your flight is canceled. Usually the gate agent will tell you to go to the customer service desk for help. Don’t do it. At least not before you call the airline. Get on your cell phone with reservations and ask them for help. Ideally, you’ll do this while you’re walking toward customer service or standing in line. It’s a good idea to have the phone number in your speed dial so you don’t have to fumble for it. With advances in technology, a phone rep can rebook you and email a new boarding pass to you. That sure beats waiting in a 90 minute line at the airport! Phone reps generally can’t issue hotel or food vouchers. But if the cancellation or delay was because of weather, you typically wouldn’t get them anyway.Look for an empty gate with an unoccupied agent. Gate agents can help you with other flights, but won’t do it if they’re busy running their own flight. Be polite, ask respectfully and you might save yourself a long wait in line.Consider an airline club day pass. Airlines sell memberships to executive lounges. These provide an oasis from the masses. The agents seem to be among the best trained and more lenient in interpreting the rules. A day pass will cost $35-$50, but can be well worth it when the rest of the airport is a madhouse.Be flexible. If you’re traveling to an area with multiple airports within reasonable driving distance, consider taking flights there. If the change was the airline’s fault, they’ll usually pay to get you where you should’ve been. If it was weather or air-traffic control related, you’re on your own.Call your friends. If you’re stuck and have a well-traveled friend, give them a call. I have a couple of people I can call when I get stuck to look up flight availability, hotels and other alternatives. Because they’re not dealing with dozens of other people, they can look at a wider range of options. Although they can’t rebook your flight, they can give you a good picture of what your choices are. With options in hand, you become a gate agent’s friend by making their job easier.If you have a really sticky problem, try FlyerTalk. FlyerTalk is the ultimate travel resource. It’s populated by ultra-frequent travelers. Many of them know more about airline reservations and ticketing than the typical reservations agent. Do a search to see if your problem is already covered. If it isn’t, pick the appropriate forum for your airline and post your question. Be sure you provide all the pertinent information, but don’t post things like confirmation numbers.Don’t put too much stock in the flight status boards. When there is extreme weather and a lot of cancellations, the flight status boards are usually fiction. The times shown are best guesses and can change frequently. It’s important to know that they can also become earlier. I’ve seen a flight go from a scheduled 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. back to an on time departure. It actually left at 11:00 p.m., so the people who relied on the 12:30 a.m. time missed it. If you leave the gate area, use your cell phone or laptop and check on the flight every 15 minutes or so.If the entire airport is shut down for the day, leave. If you’re at your origin airport, go home. If you’re at a connecting city, get a hotel room. No good will come of waiting in the customer service lines. It will just be a maddening experience. Away from the airport, take a deep breath, relax, get some cocoa (or bourbon) and check the airline’s Web site. Many airlines will post the details of travel waivers and give you online re-booking options.Most of all, remember that it is the holidays and many people are in the same boat. Instead of whining and moping, chat up your neighbors or head to the bar. I once spent a long delay helping other passengers research alternative flight options on my laptop.Bon voyage!Rocky Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.

yelp

Yelp’s IPO filing: no tricks, but big questions linger

Yelp’s S-1 for its upcoming IPO is a breath of fresh air. After five months of studying the S-1 of daily deals site Groupon, I’m glad to see local-business-reviews site Yelp come out with a reasonably clean document.Groupon tortured many accounting rules and made up some of its own (forcing it to amend its S-1 repeatedly and delaying its IPO), but Yelp seems to be playing by the books.

Groupon is a terrible company for investors — but I’m buying shares tomorrow

If you’d told me 5 months ago that I would spend a lot of 2011 studying accounting, talking to businesses and saying bad things about a company that everyone once loved, I never would have believed you.It all started at Floyd’s Coffee in the Old Town section of Portland — which, ironically, was running the very first Google Offer. I had planned to spend the day there to understand what customers thought of Google Offers, how many people came in and how they interacted with the staff. At that point, I’d spent very little time looking at the space. That day, Groupon put out its first S-1. The company is now poised to go public tomorrow with an initial share price of $20.The first analysis I read, by a supposed expert in the local space, raved about the company. He essentially pulled all of management’s talking points and put them in the story. I knew the company was nowhere near as good as the picture he painted, but I didn’t know how bad it would turn out to be.Five months later, I’m more convinced than ever that this is a terrible company for investors, small businesses and ultimately for consumers. Unless the company substantially changes its business model, investing in Groupon will be like investing in a leaky bucket.Among the significant challenges I see:The daily deals business is past its peak. The best days for the classic Groupon are in the past. With its 3Q results, Groupon has largely proven that once it slows spending on marketing, growth stops. In its most established markets, Groupons sold are down more than 10%. In Boston, the number of merchants featured in 3Q is down a whopping 20 percent. Some look to Asia for expansion, and sure, Groupon can expand there. But the share of revenue it gets to keep in Asia is substantially lower than in the U.S. and Europe.The only area where Groupon seems to be able to innovate is accounting practices. New product lines like Groupon Getaways and Groupon Goods are retreads of long-established e-commerce categories. Groupon’s entries in these categories show zero innovation. In many cases, they are turning back the clock 10 years. In 2011, I shouldn’t have to call to make a hotel reservation.The future is all about targeting and self-serve. Smart businesses don’t want to blast a spam message to everyone in a region who might want a cheap massage. If I ran a spa, I’d want to reach people within 5 miles of my business who weren’t already customers and who regularly spend money on spa services. I want qualified customers, not those who are “once and done.” And I certainly don’t want to discount to people who would pay full price. The Groupon daily deal model doesn’t support this. Once you target to this level, the volume and revenue on each deal is too low to support a sales force. The Groupon army that some people view as a moat will turn out be an anchor.The future is mobile. People will search for, purchase and redeem offers on mobile devices. Google and Facebook have a huge advantage in mobile. They already have hundreds of millions of people using their apps. Although Groupon Now is an OK product, it has little distribution. To be a player in this space, Groupon would have to buy distribution. It will essentially have to pay to re-acquire customers. Then it has to hope that those people will change their usual behavior and go search in a separate app. Google’s launch today of its Android Offers app should terrify Groupon investors. Google could include Offers as a pre-load in Android. Or it could surface the offers into Google Maps — something that people already use.The management team seems to be incompetent. They made up new accounting metrics. They ignored quiet period rules. They used a restaurant in their roadshow as a reference, apparently without checking to see if the restaurant would say positive things. (The restaurant didn’t.) Management told employees they could sell on the day of the IPO. (They can’t.) They asked me to name confidential sources in exchange for access to the Groupon building.All of that said, I’ve put in my request with my broker for shares in the IPO because Groupon has scientifically engineered its IPO to inflate share prices. Its float is one of the tiniest in the last decade. Most likely this thing will have a nice pop tomorrow.If Groupon’s stock skyrockets tomorrow, it doesn’t mean I’ve been wrong about the company. But in the unlikely event it tanks, it’s a big sign that I’m right. (I realize that this might sound like the kind of thing that Groupon’s accountants would say, but it’s true.) We’ll need to wait at least 9 months to really know.Maybe Groupon will find a real business model in that time.I’d like to thank a few people whose help has been invaluable in all of my Groupon coverage: Jonathan Gaw, Ed Ketz, Mark Rogowsky, Brian Roemmele, Conor Sen, Semil Shah and Rick Summer. They’ve read early drafts, provided valuable insight into areas that I’m not an expert in and helped to keep me in check.On the media side, I’d like to thank Dylan Tweney, Heather Kelly and Mo Marshall at VentureBeat; Herb Greenberg and Juliet Mendez at CNBC; Emily Chang, Cory Johnson and Diane Anderson at Bloomberg West; and Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch.Rocky Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.Here’s a video of Agrawal discussing the Groupon IPO on CNBC.This story originally appeared on Agrawal’s blog.Top photo: Don DeBold/Flickr.Related articlesHow Groupon’s accounting changes hide what’s really going on at the company (venturebeat.com)Groupon’s tricky S-1 math (venturebeat.com)Who gets hurt if Groupon collapses (venturebeat.com)Weak technology weighs down Groupon’s sinking ship (venturebeat.com)Groupon will IPO in 2 weeks at an $11.4B valuation (venturebeat.com)When Groupons are bad for small businesses (venturebeat.com)

How Groupon’s accounting changes hide what’s really going on at the company

I have long criticized Groupon’s accounting practices. As someone who has watched the company closely since the it first filed the paperwork to go public (now scheduled for November 4), I have seen how it has continually adjusted its S-1, often in response to withering criticism.

Groupon’s tricky S-1 math

[Editor’s note: This story is republished with permission by Rocky Agrawal. It originally ran yesterday on his blog, reDesign.]