Apple, Altius, Hipmunk, Thrutu, Transphorm, Room 77, & More Xconomy News

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Apple, Altius, Hipmunk, Thrutu, Transphorm, Room 77, & More Xconomy News Wade Roush 3/5/11 3:36 PM
Time for the twice-monthly roundup of the major stories I've been pursuing for Xconomy San Francisco. While I was personally intrigued by the iPad 2 debut this week, there was so much other big stuff happening -- including some interesting company and product launches and funding rounds -- that I hardly had time to attend to the Apple news. Here's what was keeping me busy, in reverse chronological order:

* In my March 4 column, I shared the specs for an as-yet-unbuilt tablet application that I’d like to see someone create; it depends on cameras, so it would be perfect for the iPad 2. It’s a consumer-oriented app called “Leonardo’s Notebook” that would allow users to emulate the Renaissance master by collecting and curating multimedia materials in digital journals. If you’re a mobile developer in search of a cool project, have at it!

* Our phones have changed a lot in the last few decades, but the experience of making a call really hasn't. A new Silicon Valley startup called Thrutu introduced an app for Android phones that lets users exchange photos, maps, location data without interrupting a call and without switching apps. I'm waiting for the iPhone version of the Thrutu app, which is supposedly coming later this year; the startup is owned by UK-based wireless equipment maker Metaswitch.

* Alas, I didn't get an invitation to Apple's iPad 2 unveiling in San Francisco on March 2, but I followed the live blogs (Engadget's was the best, as usual). Afterward I went back to compare the actual specs for the iPad 2 to a list I published in January of the features I thought should be added to the device. Turns out that Apple delivered on at least a couple of them.

* I put together an in-depth analysis of Altius Education, the venture-backed, San Francisco-based company working to reinvent the community college experience through an online program called Ivy Bridge College. Founder and CEO Paul Freedman told me how the company has managed to raise graduation and transfer rates at Ivy Bridge to about 60 percent, far above the national average of 20 percent at two-year colleges.

* For a while now my default flight search choice has been Hipmunk, which has a cool interface that displays the most convenient flight options on a single page. This week the Y Combinator-based startup unveiled a hotel search service that uses some very slick map-related visualization tricks to categorize hotel options in hundreds of cities by price, quality, and proximity to the fun stuff.

* Did you know that there's a weather insurance company in San Francisco that sends checks to farmers automatically after extreme weather episodes? I didn't, but it turns out it was founded five years ago by a couple of ex-Googlers. Google Ventures, Khosla Ventures, and a syndicate of other investors announced that they had put $42 million into the company's Series B round.

* I published the second part of a two-part column called "Seven Questions That Will Decide Mobile's Future." I wrote these two columns as a kind of personal study guide for Xconomy's upcoming Mobile Madness 2011 forum in Boston on March 9, but hopefully they'll be useful to other readers as well. It's a pretty long read, so I also put together an Instapaper-friendly single-page version of the two columns together.

* I love to travel, and I also love digital mapping tools, so I was really impressed by the way new startup Room 77 uses Google Earth to give prospective hotel guests a simulated view out the window of every room in 500 hotels. The company's service is sort of like SeatGuru for hotels, allowing you to preview (but not yet reserve) specific rooms within the hotels it has indexed.

* Mark Zuckerberg isn't the only super-smart twenty-something CEO in Palo Alto. I've been following Box.net's Aaron Levie for a while now, and he gave me the inside story of Box.net's recent $48 million fundraising round, announced February 24. Unlike many other Web 2.0 startups, Box.net needs some serious capital to grow, given that it needs actual data centers to support its cloud-based system for business document sharing.

* An outrageous fraction of the electricity generated by power plants -- something like 10 percent -- is lost during AC-to-DC conversion before the power gets to our computers and other appliances. There's a company in Goleta, CA, called Transphorm that's been working for years on gallium nitride-based electronics for far more efficient power converters; the company came out of stealth mode on February 23 and announced that it had collected $20 million in a round led by Google Ventures, which gave me the occasion to write a long feature.

* There's a San Mateo, CA, startup called BookRenter that's giving Chegg a run for its money in the college textbook rental market. I wrote about the company's recent $40 million fundraising round and got a close look from CEO Mehdi Maghsoodnia at the company's computational strategy, which involves treating book rentals as if they were microloans.

* I wrote a quick update on Traackr, a Boston-born startup that helps marketers identify influential social-media users. The company is raising Series A funding from Bay Area investors and is the latest startup to join the ongoing trickle of Boston-area startups to San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

* Not new but possibly useful: I created an Instapaper-friendly single-page version of my three-part January series, "Inside Google's Age of Augmented Humanity."

Thanks for reading. I'm off to Boston for the week; I'll hit you with another update around March 19.



Wade Roush | Chief Correspondent and San Francisco Editor, Xconomy
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