The UpStream

Microsoft Releases Private Beta of Cortana for iOS

posted Sunday Nov 29, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Microsoft Releases Private Beta of Cortana for iOS

When Windows Phone 8.1 was first released, the most anticipated new feature was Cortana, Master Chief's personal assistant. Microsoft went all-out on the implementation of Cortana for Windows Phone, going so far as to bring the voice actor Jen Taylor to voice the predictable parts of the character. As time went on and Microsoft added new features, such as jokes and impressions, Jen continued to voice those answers.

As for usability features, Microsoft had some really great concepts included into Cortana, such as known addresses and natural language processing, making access to these features more natural. Saying "Hey, Cortana. Get me to work." could easily open your primary navigation system with the address for your office pre-entered. Cortana was able to determine those known addresses on her own by seeing where you go often and offering to name them for you. Those features later came to the other platforms care of their own assistants.

In Windows 10, Microsoft has really increased the amount of information that Cortana keeps in her notebook. With events and meetings to packages and flight information, Cortana is getting to the point where she can keep track of just about everything for you. That's great when you're at home or on your tablet, or if you are already running Windows 10 on your phone, but what if you have Android or iOS?

A beta version of Cortana for Android was released several months ago, obviously with some features missing. Google's operating system is not as developer-centric as Microsoft's (they have been building developer tools for over 3 decades), so Cortana does not have access to data contracts like she does on Windows, meaning she can't gather quite the same information to help as she normally can, but she does provide a lot of help for Android users anyway.

This week, Microsoft has launched its private beta of Cortana for iOS. Like with Android, Cortana is not full-featured because of Apple's massive lack of developer capabilities. On Android, in some circumstances, Cortana can be set as the primary assistant, but on iOS, Siri will always be the not-quite-sassy queen. But, if you launch Cortana, she can still make your life a lot easier.

The only issue right now is that the way Apple distributes private software is through a platform they purchased called TestFlight. TestFlight has a limit of 2000 devices that can be published to, meaning that, for the time being, only 2000 users are getting access to this software. Hopefully this particular test will be successful and quick, giving access to the rest of Apple users in the near term.

Digital Holiday Sales Come to the Windows Store

posted Sunday Nov 22, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Digital Holiday Sales Come to the Windows Store

This time of year has long been known for physical sales in retail and online. Black Friday, as it is commonly known, is the day in which retailers try to enter the black, or profitability, for the quarter after a lull in pre-holiday sales. In recent years, digital creators have taken to running their own promotions, looking to get in on the pre-holiday sales as well. For example, Xbox, Origin and Steam are known for their game sales.

This year, Microsoft has expanded their sales from Xbox console games into the Windows Store. With this expansion, they have gone from just offering Xbox console games to offering games, music, video and apps for as low as $0.10. In fact, there are over 1000 items available, with content ranging from E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial, which premiered decades ago, to Jurassic World, which is brand new.

The important thing to know about this sale is that the content is rotating, so if you look today, you might not see the same content you saw yesterday. It is worth checking out for anyone with any tastes, and keep checking back to see what new content has been added. You might be pleasantly surprised to see what is available.

Share with us your best deals in the comments!

Yahoo Takes Steps to Limit Mail Access for Ad Blockers

posted Sunday Nov 22, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Yahoo Takes Steps to Limit Mail Access for Ad Blockers

The battle in favor of The Free Web has been heating up in recent weeks, sparked by Apple's new allowance of ad-blockers into iOS's native browser. While proponents of the software claim it makes their browsing better, faster, stronger, opponents claim that it is theft from the sites and apps that rely on the income from advertising to fund their businesses.

One company that provides a lot of expensive services for free, with advertising support, is Yahoo. Finally taking a side in the debate, Yahoo began testing a concept of blocking users of ad-blockers from using their Mail client. Some people who were affected were upset, while others simply whitelisted Yahoo Mail and moved on with their day. The latter is, of course, what Yahoo is hoping will be the norm.

This isn't the first time someone has gone to the trouble to block ad-blockers from their platforms, and it will be far from the last. Why this is important right now, though, is because Yahoo is potentially the largest to take the stand. What they have done is also unique - they have prevented people from using not a transient application, like Yahoo News where someone could just switch to MSN News, but instead a sovereign app: one that people live within and would be difficult or impossible to switch away from.

The process of transferring from @yahoo.com to @outlook.com, for example, would not be a simple process. You have services that email you, people all over that have your address that you might not be able to get to update. No matter how hard you try, in switching email providers, you are guaranteed to lose people, and therefore content. This is likely why Yahoo's tests are running within Mail.

It is also unlikely that Yahoo will back down from this test, at least not in the long-term. The company runs their own ad network, which is directly affected by the growing number of blocking customers, and they run free services, which are ad supported, which will also be directly affected. This could be the beginning of a trend back in favor of The Free Web, instead of the recent fight against it.

PlayStation Time Travels with PS2 Emulator

posted Sunday Nov 22, 2015 by Scott Ertz

PlayStation Time Travels with PS2 Emulator

Vowing not to be outdone by Microsoft's backwards-compatibility for Xbox 360 games, Sony soft-launched its own backwards compatibility on the PlayStation 4 recently. Eurogamer discovered the feature when they received their review copy of a new Star Wars bundle, which included 3 PS2 games. When the games were launched, the PS2 logo appeared on the screen, just as if you had booted the console, except upscaled to 1080p.

The games, which were 3D titles, looked better than they ever had on their intended platform. That is because in-game rendering can be enhanced by using the newer processing technologies of the PS4. This is a big deal, because it does not require the developers to remaster the game, simply release it for the emulator on the console. What it does mean, though, is that 2D titles will not look better on the platform, and could potentially look worse, as the sprites were sized to fit on the disc and designed for a much smaller resolution.

An interesting addition to the games is trophies, a feature added to the PlayStation Network long after these games premiered. It is likely that the emulator, knowing about the individual games, is capable of polling the game save file to determine progress in the game, awarding trophies for reaching milestones. However they are doing it, the idea is a novel one, and one that is appreciated by gamers.

Since the creation of Xbox Live Achievements, the idea of public awards for performing certainly tasks or for accomplishing certain feats, has become not only the norm for gamers, but a draw into the games. Little is known about how Sony will implement this feature for the public. They could imitate either Microsoft or Nintendo, or find some alternative. Microsoft allows you to use your already owned titles, or purchase new, for emulation. Nintendo resells old titles on its emulation platform. Sony could go either way, or surprise all of us.

Hopefully they will go with Microsoft's approach, as I and many others have tons of PS2 games and would love to retire the older hardware without having to repurchase those games.

Sailfish Expertly Demonstrates the Problems with Operating Systems

posted Sunday Nov 22, 2015 by Scott Ertz

For many years there have been 3 players in the smartphone and tablet space: Android, iOS and Windows. But before this Big 3 there was another: BlackBerry, Palm and Windows. Technically none of those operating systems exist anymore, with BlackBerry producing Android phones now, Palm being used on televisions and Windows Phone completely reconsidering the way Windows works on a phone. But how did that happen?

Apple was either inspired by or frightened of a relatively unknown platform being developed by a company co-founded by a Danger co-founder, who was responsible for the Sidekick. The company wanted to change the way mobile phones worked, and boy did they. That company was called Android, Inc., and the platform they were developing would go on to force everyone in the industry to adapt or escape. It even inspired Apple into the mobile space, creating a race for dominance in this newly expanding market.

These companies have not lived in a vacuum, though. Nokia had Symbian, Palm launched webOS, BlackBerry launched their QNX-powered BlackBerry 10. Today, all of those platforms that were created as a response are gone, with BB10 being the last to go only recently. From their ashes rose a slue of operating systems that were inspired by, but not forced by, Android and iOS. Unfortunately, these companies have had issues gaining any marketshare, not because the platforms are inherently bad, but because consumers aren't compelled to jump onboard.

One of those platforms is Sailfish, produced by Jolla. In its time "on market," the platform has only been installed on a single device, which has never really sold. Because of this, the company has laid off most of their staff, essentially mothballing the product indefinitely. While this is not good for the company, it does highlight the ups and downs of secondary mobile platforms.

It is unlikely that, in the near term, a platform from outside of the Big 3 will catch on in the mainstream. Sailfish, Firefox OS, Tizen, etc., don't have the clout or marketing to be able to attract the things that are required to succeed. On the other hand, their ideas do help push the Big 3 into action. For example, if it hadn't been for the relatedly unknown Android, Microsoft might never have created the UI basics of the Zune and Zune HD, which ultimately lead to the Windows 10 platform which is predicted to be the largest installation-base of any Windows version in history.

Zynga Sees Consecutive Quarterly Success, Prepares for the Future

posted Sunday Nov 8, 2015 by Nicholas DiMeo

Zynga Sees Consecutive Quarterly Success, Prepares for the Future

While all the talk is about Activision's purchase of King for almost $6 billion, there are some other movers and shakers in the mobile game space right now. Most notably is Zynga, who recently lost its top spot to King and has had its founder, Mark Pincus, return as CEO after a revival plan. In the past three quarters, Zynga has beaten its estimates each and every time, with two of them being under the guidance of Pincus.

Zynga is able to attest its recent success to still-popular titles like Words With Friends, while games like Wizard of Oz Slots and Empires & Allies are showing high-level growth. The news of another consecutive quarter's estimated being topped caused Zynga's stock to rise 4 percent, bringing it to $2.55 per share. This values Zynga at $2.3 billion, just 17 percent of its high-mark five years ago. The company is not without its troubles, though. Daily users are down 21 percent from last year, to just 19 million players.

Even with the roller coaster of a story, Pincus says that nothing will deter the future success of the company. In an interview, he gives credit to FarmVille 2 web for doing so well, and says that Zynga's Poker game will drive growth next year.

We've been seeing, for the last three quarters, a good strength in our live franchises, especially on FarmVille 2 web and Words with Friends mobile, as well as slots games on mobile like our new Wizard of Oz slots. We've seen a decent contribution from our new game Empires and Allies. But all three quarters, the live game team performance has exceeded our expectations. The level of advertiser demand and interest in our Words with Friends audience and other mobile audiences has continued to be a pleasant surprise for us.

When asked about the King acquisition, Pincus said that he believes companies need to acquire, but also need to aim to capture a large audience and hold them over time through a diverse selection of games. The CEO said that Zynga has been doing this all along, and will continue to do so.

We (Zynga) have been investing in those (areas) across social casino, across casual with Words with Friends, and best expressed in action strategy with the launch of Empires and Allies and the acquisition of NaturalMotion. When you look at the Activision-King deal, I think it makes a lot of sense for all those reasons. Bobby Kotick is adding key pieces of the puzzle. In one fell swoop he gets mobile, casual, Asia, and women players. He's positioning his company well.

With the success of Zynga riding high right now, it is reasonable for Pincus to rest his laurels on those accomplishments. However Zynga now lacks the blank check that King just picked up by moving over to Activision. The next year will certainly be an interesting one for both companies, and it will be intriguing to see who is at the top by the end of 2016. There's a battle that is about to go down, and when the dust settles, I believe only one company will truly stand above the rest. It seems to be a war between passion and money, and sometimes that can be a lop-sided fight.

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