Best Mobile Startups 2012

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Startups are a dime a dozen in this age of TechCrunch, so how can a company expect to stand out? Crowd-funding websites such as Kickstarter certainly help, giving both creative individuals and established entities an opportunity to sell their products, projects and concepts to the Web-savvy public. Rewards and incentives, à la Foursquare, are always compelling additions, too. And while the world has a hearty appetite for apps and Web services, startups are acknowledging the appeal of actual physical products, be it a watch that brings Android to your wrist or a computer packed into a USB stick. The more a product simplifies your life, the better case it has for ending up in your pocket (or on your mobile device).

We’ve profiled nine of the companies most likely to take the tech world by storm, thanks to their combination of innovation, practicality and ease of use. Judging by their initial success, we think you’ll want to know these names before they hit the big time—if they haven’t already.

Lytro: Re-inventing the camera

We all know how frustrating it is to take a seemingly brilliant photo, only to discover that it’s out of focus. Lucky for us amateur shutterbugs, a startup is making fuzzy photos a thing of the past. Ren Ng founded Lytro in 2006 when he was a researcher at Stanford University after he realized how difficult it was to properly focus an image with conventional cameras. The company’s Lytro camera captures all information about an image’s light field, allowing users to change what’s in focus after the fact.

The company’s first Lytro cameras became available in March. The 8GB model costs $399 and the 16GB version is $499.

Why the Competition Should Care

There’s obvious appeal to a camera that always delivers usable images. Lytro executive chairman Charles Chi told us, “We’ve created a lot of buzz around the company without paying to advertise, and I think that’s a really important indicator of how exciting this product and technology will be for consumers.”

So far Lytro’s product has received glowing reviews, partly due to the product’s novelty and partly because the camera simple does what it sets out to do. The process of refocusing an image is as simple as clicking on the spot you want to sharpen. However, Lytro’s technology means you’ll need special software if you want to manage photos on your notebook--and so far, that software is available only for Macs.

Outlook

Chi said there is plenty ahead for the company. “In the near term, it’s really about getting our first product to market, and we’ll release a number of new features over time that continue to excite the marketplace,” Chi said. When asked whether the tablets and smartphones of the future will have Lytro technology built in, Chi told us that this new area figures into Lytro’s

plans going forward. Whatever Lytro’s future may bring, the company has yet to see any serious challengers enter the market with a similar technology.

Stats

  • Founded: 2006
  • Funding: $50 million
  • Employees: 75
  • Headquarters: Mountain View, Calif., with additional resources in Hong Kong

MOGL: Eating Out--Gamified

Eatery-themed apps are hardly just for finding your next favorite restaurant à la Yelp. MOGL, a San Diego-based startup founded in 2010, combines restaurant loyalty with charitable donations. Each time a MOGL user spends $20 at a partner restaurant, the app donates a meal to a person in need via the organization Feeding in America. But it’s not all about giving; users who pay for their meals with a credit card that’s been registered at Mogl.com get 10 percent cash back each month. MOGL also rewards the top three customers every month at participating restaurants with a cash prize.

Why the Competition Should Care

Gamification, the concept of providing award-based incentives to spend money, lose weight, provide charity or any other task imaginable, has been sweeping the tech world as of late. In fact, the San Francisco startup Gamify is devoted entirely to bringing gamification to businesses and their customers.

MOGL’s most direct competitors in this area are apps such as Foursquare, which rewards users with badges and points for checking in at venues and often provides discounts and perks to the users who check in most frequently. However, MOGL adds extra appeal to the

mix by offering all users savings with its 10 percent cash-back program, plus the feel-good bonus of giving meals to those in need each time they buy a meal at a participating restaurant.

And it doesn’t hurt that using MOGL to earn rewards is dead-simple. Users simply pay with their registered credit or debit card—no digital coupons or loyalty cards required.

Outlook

Currently, MOGL’s app for Android and iPhone is fully up and running only in San Diego, but the startup is working on expanding its restaurant rewards program to New York and San Francico. Considering that the company has raised a cool $12.4 million since its launch, we expect MOGL to be around for many meals to come.

Stats
Founded: 2010
Funding: $12.4 million
Employees: 50+
Headquarters: San Diego

Cotton Candy: One Sweet Mini-Computer

A computer that fits in your pocket? Yes, and with a 1.2-GHz ARM processor to boot. Norwegian company FXI Technologies wowed techies the world over when it unveiled its tiny, 21-gram USB-powered PC in late 2011. The mini-computer is expected to hit the market in the second half of 2012 at a price less than $200. With a USB 2.0 port on one end and an HDMI jack on the other, the Cotton Candy connects to a keyboard, mouse or tablet, bringing the Android Ice Cream Sandwich and Ubuntu operating systems with it. Essentially, this device makes any peripheral--from an iPad to an HD monitor--computer complete with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and support for most audio and video formats.

[Read: FXI Cotton Candy Hands-On: USB Stick Computer Now Runs Ubuntu, Ice Cream Sandwich]

Why the Competition Should Care

FXI Technologies is one of the first startups to bring a mini-computer to market, but other bite-size solutions are ready to give the Cotton Candy a run for its money. The similarly sweetly-named Raspberry Pi is a credit-card-size computer that plugs into a TV and keyboard, and it went on sale in February 2012, starting at just $25, and sold out after only one day on the market. But the Pi holds up to just 256MB of RAM to Cotton Candy’s 1GB and offers 32GB of memory via a memory card slot compared with the Cotton Candy’s 64GB. Plus, the Pi doesn’t include Wi-Fi.

Outlook

Cotton Candy was one of the most hyped products on display at CES 2012, and FXI Technologies has already begun sending units to developers. Given its low price and novelty factor, the mini-computer will certainly attract a wave of curious techies, but it remains to be seen if the average PC user will be equally intrigued.

Stats
Founded: 2005
Funding: Undisclosed
Employees: Undisclosed
Headquarters: Trondheim, Norway

Pinterest: The Next Facebook?

It’s like a virtual bulletin board, with social networking pizazz thrown in for good measure. Pinterest.com lets users create and maintain theme-based collections of images, links and other online sources of inspiration. In essence, it’s a highly visual version of your personal wish list. From your Pinterest home page, you can like pre-existing pins (essentially links) posted by the people you follow or add pins of your own from anywhere around the Web. The startup offers an iPhone app and a mobile site in addition to the desktop version.

Since first entering beta in March 2010, Pinterest has become one of the most talked-about social networking and sharing sites. Traffic monitor Hitwise estimated that Pinterest was notching 11 million views per week by the end of 2012, and comScore reported that Pinterest is the fastest site to break the 10 million unique visitor mark. Add those hefty numbers to an elite roster of brands using the site to promote their wares (Bergdorf Goodman, HGTV and West Elm, among many others, have Pinterest boards) and some serious funding ($27 million from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz alone), and you have a social network to reckon with.

[Read: How to Use Pinterest: A Step-by-Step Guide]

Why the Competition Should Care

Pinterest combines the visual emphasis of blogging/social networking site Tumblr with the practicality of a virtual to-do list. Like StumbleUpon, Pinterest is all about discovery, but it presents users’ pins in a more aesthetically appealing interface with the added benefit of organizing all those links into useful categories. Everyday users aren’t the only ones recognizing this site’s value; Pinterest is quickly becoming a destination for brands and blogs looking to bolster their online identities.

Outlook

It’s already extremely popular, and Pinterest is poised to keep growing thanks to newfound interest in the site by business owners and high-profile brands. An iPad app is also on the way. Don’t be shocked to see Pinboard-style curated online stores in the future from major retailers.

Stats
Founded: 2008
Funding: $37.5 million
Employees: Undisclosed
Headquarters: Palo Alto, Calif.

Printechnologics: Move Over, QR Codes

QR codes have made launching websites and unlocking exclusive content easier, but needing to snap a photo with your smartphone or tablet adds a layer of complexity. A new technology from German startup Printechnologics offers a solution that anyone with a touch-screen gadget can enjoy. Touchcode is a system that uses a thin layer of capacitive material to add code capability to items such as business cards, tickets, magazine pages and product packaging. You simply hold the Touchcode-enabled item in front of your handset’s touch screen, and it will launch a brand’s Web page or other link destination of choice.

Why the Competition Should Care

Touchcode has already been successfully deployed in Europe, especially in Printechnologics’ native Germany, where the magazine Iconist has included a business card that downloads a free digital edition when touched to the screen in its iPad app. The company told us that undisclosed U.S. companies are planning to released Touchcode-enabled products as well.

Outlook

Printechnologics allows printing houses to license its Touchcode technology, and the company projects production costs to be lower than a penny per unit printed. There’s no universal Touchcode app, but users simply need to launch an app or site that’s compatible with the technology. Provided Printechnologics can summon up enough partners, the company’s prospects look bright.

Stats
Founded: 2006
Funding: Undisclosed
Employees: Undisclosed
Headquarters: Chemnitz, Germany

Socialcam Is Your One-Stop Video Hub

Videos and photos are key elements of the social networking experience, and that transcends specific sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Aiming to share your favorite moments with your friends across all sites, the company behind live video-broadcasting site Justin.tv created Socialcam. This app for Android and iPhone lets you record videos with fun filters, save them to the cloud and send them to social networks and individual contacts via email and text message. Plus, you can follow brands and celebrities to keep track of their own uploads and favorite videos.

Since launching in March 2011, Socialcam has hit the 2 million download mark and attracted several big names, including celebrity news site TMZ. Justin .tv co-founder Michael Seibel is now concentrating all his efforts on Socialcam as acting CEO.

Why the Competition Should Care

Smartphone users have traditionally been content to shoot videos on their handsets and upload them to their social networks of choice, but why upload a video several times when you can send it to several sites simultaneously? Socialcam’s value proposition is a streamlined way to show off your home director moments, and it throws in Instagram-style effects for good measure.

Outlook

While Socialcam has been tight-lipped about funding and upcoming developments, it certainly doesn’t seem fazed by the wave of similar video-sharing startups such as the recently hyped Viddy. But from our hands-on experience with the app, it’s clear that most of our social media friends are content to upload content directly to Facebook or Twitter rather than using a dedicated app. It will be up to Socialcam to convince users that it’s worth sharing with multiple services.

Stats 
Founded: 2011
Funding: Undisclosed
Employees: 25+
Headquarters: San Francisco

 

WIMM Brings Android to Your Wrist

Smartphones and tablets are no longer the only devices that give you the goodness of Android on the go. The WIMM One from Los Altos-based WIMM Labs is a watch running a customized version of Google’s OS that’s optimized for a 160 x 160-pixel screen. With a 3D carousel-style menu, the WIMM One provides access to apps such as weather, a newsreader and a calendar. The watch is Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth-capable, and while it’s decidedly too small for content input, it’s ideal for getting at-a-glance info and running third-party apps.

The WIMM One Developer Preview is currently available for $199. The startup says that more than 3,300 developers have signed up for its program to develop apps for the watch. The Micro App Store had just launched—with 25 apps as of press time.

[Read: WIMM One Watch App Store: Install Software on Your Wrist]

Why the Competition Should Care

WIMM Labs sees many applications for its wearable Android design. In addition to acting as a standalone gadget, the WIMM One can be used as a companion to Android smartphones for delivering notifications.

Outlook

Watches are hardly a necessity in this day and age, considering that smartphones with a clock, email access and thousands of apps are in our pockets at all times. The WIMM One makes connectivity as easy as a glance at your wrist, but you’re sacrificing screen size and app selection, not to mention 4G—or even 3G—speeds. The success of WIMM Labs’ developer program will be quite indicative of the watch’s chances for widespread adoption; the more compelling apps and additional features the company can add, the more likely consumers will be to wear an Android-powered timepiece.

Stats
Founded: 2009
Funding: Undisclosed
Employees: 30
Headquarters: Los Altos, Calif.

 

Feedair Makes Notifications Simpler, Better

Push notifications on your smartphone or tablet can let you know each time you receive a new email, text, Facebook message and more, but wouldn’t it be simpler if you could view all your updates in one place? San Jose-based company WOWFii Inc. demonstrated such a solution at CES 2012.

The Feedair Friend is a $50 USB-powered speech bubble-shaped piece of hardware about the size of an alarm clock. In addition to looking pretty on your desk, it displays ticker-style alerts for your latest messages, along with news updates and notifications from stores and banks, for example.

Feedair also developed a software-based version of its mobile notification service. An Android/iPhone app also manages and delivers your notifications, and it breaks them down into 20 different categories, called fidgets, such as social networking, personal interests and retail services. Users can download and configure the fidgets that are most relevant to them, which allows for a truly customized experience. Both the physical and app versions of Feedair went on sale in March.

Why the Competition Should Care

The market for smart devices that simplify users’ lives by streamlining news and notifications isn’t brand new; take products such as the Karotz rabbit from French company Violet. But while the Karotz delivers spoken-aloud RSS and social networking updates as an afterthought, the Feedair is devoted to this task. Consequently, the user experience is much more seamless.

WOWFii CEO Simon Milner told us that Feedair can provide helpful safety alerts in addition to less-urgent updates. For example, if a user leaves the house after putting food in the oven, a check-in feature on the Feedair’s cookbook fidget will provide an alert so the user gets home before dinner is burnt. Milner mentioned another possible use: Orthodox Jews, who cannot turn on electric devices during the Sabbath, can glance at the Feedair device because it was turned on ahead of time.

Outlook

Based on our hands-on time with the device and app plus the innumerable ways this service could make your life easier, we have high hopes for the Feedair. We can imagine people using multiple Feedairs throughout their home to be keyed in to important information no matter what room they’re in.

Stats
Founded: 2006
Funding: Unknown
Employees: 12Headquarters: San Jose, Calif.

 

Zaarly: Instant Job Hunting and Hiring

The next time you realize you forgot to schedule a dog sitter for your vacation, look no further than Zaarly.com for some last-minute help. This website connects you with potential hires, be it a baby sitter, personal assistant for the day or any other service you might require. Simply create an account, specify your location and the item or job you need done, decide how much you’re willing to pay, and voilà—your listing is broadcast to all Zaarly users in your area.

Why the Competition Should Care

In uncertain economic times, the mobile marketplace is becoming an increasingly viable option for both individuals looking to hire for short-term gigs and job seekers hoping to make an extra few bucks. Gigwalk, a mobile app that uses GPS to show users available jobs nearby, is a more grassroots approach to Zaarly’s MO, but gigs rarely pay more than $5 and are mostly limited to collecting information about a restaurant or store. With Zaarly, users on both ends of the hiring stick have access to more-skilled labor and higher-priced day jobs.

Outlook

The San Francisco-based Zaarly was recently named one of the “50 Most Innovative Companies” by Fast Company, and the site has received $15.1 million in funding from backers including TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. With an office in Kansas City, Mo., it’s also ready to take on areas of the country often overlooked by Bay Area startups. That sort of support should help Zaarly distinguish itself from the slew of competitors, including Coffee & Power and TaskRabbit.

Stats
Founded: 2011
Funding: $15.1 million
Employees: 5
Headquarters: San Francisco

 

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1 comment
  • Owen Says:

    This product needs to hurry up with production! I have much many plans for such an awesome device! :D