The UpStream

Amazon Announced a Line of Useful and Bizarre New Products

posted Saturday Sep 22, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Amazon Announced a Line of Useful and Bizarre New Products

Any time Amazon holds a device announcement event, there is no telling what they might show off. This week, the company held a semi-surprise reveal and it did not disappoint in the surprise category. We were aware that there was a DVR coming and there were rumors of a microwave, but other than that, there was no preparing for the event, and that is exactly what Amazon was going for.

In this Alexa-themed event, Amazon showed off some of what we have come to expect: a new Echo Dot, a new Echo Plus, and a new Echo Show. These were existing products in the Amazon catalog that simply got an annual refresh. They also added some products to the lineup that were pretty standard, such as the Echo Input, which is simply an input for an existing speaker system, with a price point of $35. They also showed the Echo Auto, following the lead of some of their hardware partners, bringing Alexa to the car.

Then there were the less-than-expected products. For example, we had heard rumors of an AmazonBasics microwave earlier in the week, but what the product turned out to be was way stranger than we could have expected. The microwave is Alexa-controllable but does not have Alexa built-in. Instead, the microwave takes commands from Alexa devices, such as the Input, Dot or Show, and acts on them. During the presentation, the microwave cooked some potatoes through Alexa input. While Alexa might not be built-in, Dash is, meaning that you can easily replenish your waning popcorn reserves easily.

In addition to the microwave was arguably the strangest of all of the new products: the Echo Wall Clock. This is a fairly standard analog clock which, unlike other Echo-branded products, does not have Alexa built-in. So, what makes this clock special and, more importantly, bizarre? The ring of 60 LEDs around the outside of the clock face. When you set a timer through Alexa, on a different device, the rings will light up and help you count down the timer in 60-second ticks. For example, if you're in the kitchen and ask Alexa to remind you in 20 minutes to check the chicken, 20 of the 60 LEDs will light up and count you down. It's an interesting solution to a problem that I'm not sure exists. At least the clock is self-setting, auto-adjusting for Daylight Savings Time, and only runs $30.

In addition to Echo devices, Amazon also showed off the Fire TV Recast: the DVR product we heard details about last month. This $230 device allows you to connect an antenna wherever you get the best reception and watch the content itself, both live and recorded, somewhere more convenient. It certainly makes the configuration of an antenna-based entertainment system far more effective. Essentially, you can stream the content from the Borg Cube-looking device to just about any Fire TV or Tablet device, Echo show, iOS or Android device.

This product lineup feels a lot like the same Amazon that launched the Fire Phone: a company throwing a bunch of crazy ideas at the wall and hoping something sticks. The products that have the biggest potential to fail this time around, however, took a lot less research and development investment than the Fire Phone did. That means that, even if these products fail miserably, the loss to Amazon is lessened.

Which of Amazon's new products are you most excited for (if any)? Let us know in the comments.

Netflix Looks to Improve Media Quality, Begins Certification Program

posted Saturday Sep 15, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Netflix Looks to Improve Media Quality, Begins Certification Program

There is no denying that Netflix is a top content producer. Between shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schimdt and Stranger Things, they have established themselves as an absolute powerhouse. As they expand their catalog of Netflix exclusive content, they are looking for ways to ensure that all of the content that is created for the services maintains that high level of quality. One of the ways they hope to accomplish this is by certifying production equipment for quality.

The new program, titled Netflix Post Technology Alliance, is designed to help content creators find equipment that Netflix recommends for their production. The company will work with manufacturers to provide this certification officially so that manufacturers can include the certification logo on their packaging, websites, and manuals. Current partners include big names like Adobe, Blackmagic Design, Canon and Red, with more partners to come. They also hope to expand the program into audio production, dubbing and more.

Equipment choice is a very personal one for producers, and Netflix wants those producers to understand that this new program is not an attempt to tell producers what equipment to use. Instead, it is simply a guide to what equipment Netflix has had good luck from their own experience. According to the company's announcement,

Finally, this is not a prescription for which products to use. As an artist, you should use the tools that make sense for your production, are best suited to your workflows, and serve your creative interests. With that in mind, this logo is an identifier to quickly tell you a product has been vetted for delivery to Netflix, and that the company who makes the product is committed to ongoing support and innovation.

This is a good note, as most producers would not take kindly to being told what equipment they can and cannot use. For many of us, we have a very specific workflow and would not want to switch equipment on the requirement of a distributor. If you edit with Premiere, like I do, for example, being forced to use Vegas would be a deal breaker. It will be exciting to see how the company expands this program in the future, as it can be useful to producers outside of Netflix as well, determining which equipment produces provably great results.

Google Dragonfly to Collect Phone Numbers, Unhappy Employees Resign

posted Saturday Sep 15, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Google Dragonfly to Collect Phone Numbers, Unhappy Employees Resign

Last month it was revealed that, after several years of absence from the Chinese market, Google had begun developing a censored search product for the country. This was after leaving the country in 2010 because they refused to continue censoring search for the government. Since then, however, the founders of the company have returned and their views on censorship are different than the team who ran it in their absence. There's been no hesitation to censor content on YouTube and there are accusations of censoring search results.

This week, some new information was revealed about the prototype of for the censored search product, codenamed Dragonfly. Namely, the search product and therefore search terms and results would be tied to the user's phone number. While that doesn't sound like much of a problem to those of us in the West, in China it is a big deal. It is against the law to even perform a search for certain terms, including human rights and democracy, and by tying your search terms to your phone number, the government can identify and imprison those who are interested in those topics, all with Google's help.

This is not the first time that Google has agreed to give search information to the Chinese government in order to help imprison citizens for searching for these types of topics, but it all came to a close under new management. Cynthia Wong from Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept,

This is very problematic from a privacy point of view, because it would allow far more detailed tracking and profiling of people's behavior. Linking searches to a phone number would make it much harder for people to avoid the kind of overreaching government surveillance that is pervasive in China.

Human Rights Watch is not the only one taking exception to the idea of Google making this kind of correlation easy for the Chinese government. They are also up against their own employees. Over 1000 Google employees have begun a protest over the topic, and after learning about this new detail of Dragonfly, some employees have begun leaving the company. Google doesn't seem to be concerned about it just yet, releasing a statement saying,

We've been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from developing Android, through mobile apps such as Google Translate and Files Go, and our developer tools. But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.

It's possible, based on this statement, that Google could change their policies or cancel the project entirely. Unfortunately, it is unlikely based on the recent track record of the company.

European Parliament Votes to Isolate Europe Online

posted Saturday Sep 15, 2018 by Scott Ertz

European Parliament Votes to Isolate Europe Online

Since the European Parliament began working on one of many conflicting regulations for online behavior, there has been nothing but negative comments. This particular package is designed to change the way copyrights are enforced in the EU, but the idea is poorly considered and creates an environment that makes doing business online within the European Union difficult for some and impossible for most. With all of the negative response to the regulations, it seemed nearly impossible that it would actually pass the European Parliament.

Never underestimate the confidence the European Parliament has in ignoring the will of the people, however, as this week they passed the package, starting the process of changing copyright enforcement within the EU. In the US, we have a policy called the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), which protects online services from legal action because of content that users upload to their platform. For example, if a user uploads an episode of a television show to YouTube, YouTube is not legally responsible for an act they were not involved with, so long as they respond to a copyright claim from the owners within a reasonable timeframe. The new regulations in the EU go the other way, seemingly removing the responsibility from the user who uploaded the content and moving it to YouTube, who did nothing.

Online content sharing service providers perform an act of communication to the public and therefore are responsible for their content and should therefore conclude fair and appropriate licensing agreements with rightholders.

In addition, this package implements the much talked about link tax, a required licensing fee for services that provide links to news content. We all know that Google, Facebook, Twitter, and MSN are all common ways for people to find news because they provide links to external news sources, some curated and some user-generated. Under the new rules, those sites would be required to pay the news sites that they are bringing users to in order to do so. Spain and Germany tried this previously, and Google responded by pulling Google News entirely from those countries. If the EU's goal is to limit the amount of information available to people, they're headed in the right direction.

These new regulations will guarantee that new companies will not be able to exist within the EU, limiting the innovation within the EU. People with good ideas are going to have to block their products within the region, hurting the people of the EU as well.

This fight is not over, though. The EU's legal process is convoluted at best. Now that the Parliament has approved the package it goes to a committee including the Parliament, the Council of the Europe Union and the European Commission. If it makes it through all of that, it still has to be approved by the 28 member countries of the EU before it goes into effect. Hopefully, the voices of the people, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other organizations will be heard in this process in the next few months.

Nintendo Reveals More Info About Switch Cloud Saves and More

posted Friday Sep 14, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Nintendo Reveals More Info About Switch Cloud Saves and More

Last week, Nintendo scheduled their latest Nintendo Direct presentation. Unfortunately, there was an earthquake in Japan, delaying the event, and it was rescheduled for this week. During the presentation, little to no new information was presented about the imminent Nintendo Switch Online service, instead detailing the information we already know about the $20 per year subscription service. Following the presentation, however, Nintendo published some new information to their website, giving us a better look at some of the rules and regulations surrounding the service.

Cloud Saves

Just like the Xbox and PlayStation, Nintendo's Switch Online will allow you to store game saves in their online services. This gives players the ability to play across devices while maintaining their game data. For Switch Online, simply sign in to another Switch and easily access your existing game data. Nintendo did find a way to separate their cloud save feature from the other platforms, and it's not making a lot of gamers happy.

Microsoft's cloud save feature is free to use, with or without a paid Xbox Live subscription. Xbox simply requires a Microsoft account, which is offered for free, and a OneDrive account, which is free with the Microsoft account. PlayStation requires you to have a paid PlayStation Plus account to use cloud saves. If a user stops paying for their PlayStation Plus account, Sony will keep their cloud saves for 6 months, allowing you to restore their account without losing data. Nintendo, like Sony, requires a paid Switch Online subscription but gives absolutely no leniency or gap time if you stop paying for the service. If you stop paying for the service, the company says they are "unable to guarantee that cloud save data will be retained after an extended period of time from when your membership is ended."

Classic NES Games

One feature that comes with the Switch Online service that helps entice gamers is online-capable classic NES games. This is similar in nature to the free games that Xbox Live, PlayStation Plus and Twitch Prime offer to their subscribers. For the entirety of your Switch Online subscription, you will get access to these games. To be able to continue using these games, gamers will be required to connect their Switch consoles to the internet at least once per week.

If this requirement sounds familiar, it is because Microsoft originally planned to have the same requirement for Xbox One owners, as announced at their final E3 presentation before launching the console. Gamers revolted and threatened to boycott the console entirely, causing Microsoft to abandon their plans. While gamers seem unhappy about this requirement, there has been nowhere near the same reaction to the same requirement from Nintendo, making it hard to believe that Microsoft actually had anything to worry about a few years ago.

As for the requirement, it is perfectly reasonable to ensure a valid license for the games. There is the possibility that the console has been reported stolen, and you don't want someone to have an extra reason to want to steal the device. The attached account may also have been terminated for a variety of reasons, including cancelation of service and a ban for cheating.

Apple Event: Misinformation, Misconceptions and Missing Products

posted Friday Sep 14, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Apple Event: Misinformation, Misconceptions and Missing Products

This week was Apple's annual iPhone announcement event and the company did what it does best - talk about their products like there's never been anything like them in the history of man. Of course, everyone knows that it's simply hyperbole because almost all phones on the market are exactly like it - often times better than it. While hyperbole involves a small level of misinformation, or at the very least a rewriting of the scale of information, Apple took it to a new level this year.

Misinformation

If you watched the announcement livestream, you noticed there were a couple of points where Apple announced seemingly improbable features and accomplishments. The first and most misleading of these announcements involved the FDA and Apple Watch. With the words that Apple Watch's ECG technology had been cleared by the FDA, the room went nuts. It certainly sounds like an exciting step for a company who doesn't make medical products. However, that is exactly what they said - the FDA does not consider it to be a medical quality product. In fact, "cleared" means almost nothing when it comes to the FDA. According to Apple, they have actually received "a De Novo classification by the FDA" which means that the FDA simply considers the device to be of low risk in its existence, not that it has any medical use or that its data is accurate. The ECG app on the Apple Watch does not do any analysis, it simply allows you to give data to a medical professional, which is why the FDA says that the device is unlikely to cause harm. There are scenarios, however, where it can.

Another statement that was made that sounded like it meant something different from what it meant involved the screen on the iPhone. A casual mention of the iPhone screen's 120Hz refresh rate suggested that the phone's screen had a 120Hz refresh rate. That would have put the device on par with the Razer Phone and would have been a feature welcomed by photographers, videographers, editors and gamers alike. This would have set the iPhone apart from its competition and would have been an actual game changer for Apple. Unfortunately, the refresh rate on the iPhone screen is 60Hz and, instead, the touch sensor's refresh rate is 120Hz. This is not only not a game changer, it is not a change from last year's iPhone X.

Missing Features

It is official - Apple is 100% done with the headphone jack. No iPhone currently available from the company features the last standard connector that Apple included on its mobile devices. iPhone users are now stuck with using a Lightning to headphone adaptor, using headphones with a DAC built-in (like the Monster Elements) or going full Bluetooth. DAC-enabled headphones are few and far between and are not inexpensive. Bluetooth headphones have their problems - the biggest being the requirement to charge. If your battery dies so does the music.

Adapters are not great because they easily get lost or damaged, but at least Apple includes the adapter in the box. Or, should I say they used to. Starting now, no more adapters included with iPhones. If you want to continue using your favorite headphones with your new iPhone, you had better already have the adapter or shell out another $9. Definitely a disappointment.

Missing Product

Last year, along with the iPhone 8 and iPhone X, Apple announced that they had officially accepted the industry standard of wireless charging - Qi. Both of these devices support charging via Qi, marking the final major manufacturer to get on board with this feature. Like many handset manufacturers, in addition to a device that charges using Qi, they also showed off a Qi charger: AirPower. Like many other Qi chargers on the market, AirPower had multiple charging coils and was designed to charge an iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods.

Despite the fact that there was literally nothing special about the product, it was mysteriously delayed. Time. And. Again. In fact, it has still not been released. Even more importantly, it was not mentioned at this year's event at all. Being delayed for over a year now, and with absolutely no mention of the product at their event this year, we can assume that Apple has given up on AirPower. Maybe thye saw what everyone else saw - there was nothing special about the product and therefore had no way to upcharge for it. All we know is that it is nowhere to be seen.

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