The UpStream

Apple's Big Day Reveals Refreshes of Existing Products and the Worst Kept Secret

posted Friday Sep 11, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Apple's Big Day Reveals Refreshes of Existing Products and the Worst Kept Secret

This week, Apple held its annual September product reveal event. In past years, the event has been primarily focused on the iPhone product line, with separate events for the iPad, and Mac, iPod and Apple TV often taking the stage at the company's World Wide Developer Conference. This year, however, Apple changed the game, bringing the iPhone, iPad and Apple TV together. It is likely that Apple did not have faith in the iPhone and iPad to hold the stage on its own, but also believed that the Apple TV announcement deserved bigger billing than WWDC.

With that said, the response to this year's presentation was mixed. The hardcore Apple fans were excited about the new additions and upgrades to the product lineup. Meanwhile, others couldn't help but notice that there was nothing particularly new onstage, simply new to the Apple ecosystem. In fact, the most tweeted about aspect of their presentation was not from them but a partner. Let's take a look at what we saw and what we didn't.

Apple Watch

The surprise participant in this year's event was the Apple Watch. While we knew that an update to the operating system was coming, having only recently launched, an update to the line was certainly not expected. Expected or not, it is exactly what we got. In addition to a new SKU in the family announced on stage, we learned that a collection of SKUs are out of stock and have been discontinued and will not be returning.

The company also showed off some of the new features of the next generation of the watchOS, along with some partners coming with the upgrade. A large focus of the presentation was around the health features of the device, including personal and professional. They also highlighted some partners, including Facebook Messenger and medical platform AirStrip.

One of the interesting aspects of the presentation was integration with GoPro. You will be able to interact with your camera remotely using an Apple Watch. While this might not seem like a particularly exciting feature to most, it was to the stock market, with GoPro's stock price rising almost $2 following the announcement.

iPad Pro

This year's worst kept secret in the tech world was the iPad Pro. We knew many specs and even the name. What we didn't know was that it was going to borrow more than the "Pro" name from Microsoft. The device would be what most would consider to be a Microsoft Surface RT competitor, in that it runs a mobile operating system instead of the full desktop experience, like the Surface Pro. The thing that sets it apart from the Surface RT is its 3rd party support.

Coming in with a 12.9" screen, an A9x processor and 4GB of RAM (announced by Adobe, not Apple), the iPad Pro is a physical hybrid of the Surface 3 and Surface Pro 3. Making it even more like a Surface is the attachable keyboard. It snaps in just like Microsoft's tablet, but without the kickstand on the back, it makes using it anywhere but on a flat surface difficult. If you thought the Surface keyboard was too small, we have news for you: the iPad Pro keyboard cover is even smaller.

Adding to the Surface-like features is the new Apple Pencil, an anti-Jobs multi-pressure stylus. Despite Steve Jobs decrying the concept of a stylus for years, following the massive failure of the Apple Newton, the company decided to include a 1st party stylus accessory in the lineup for the iPad Pro. While the company has not released pressure level values, we can assume they will be similar to the Surface Pen. The difference will be that you have to actually charge the Pencil, something that I have never had to actively do with my Surface Pen in the several years I have owned it.

To add insult to injury, after announcing a pretty direct ripoff of a Microsoft product, Apple invited Microsoft on stage to demonstrate Office 2016 on the iPad Pro. It's no surprise that Apple would need Microsoft's support in launching a new productivity-focused tablet. Office is the gold standard that basically all businesses use, and there is no way that enterprise customers would even consider spending the money on this tablet if it didn't have a well implemented Office suite available at launch.

The iPad Pro will run $799 for 32GB, $949 for 128 GB and $1079 for 128GB with Cellular connectivity. The Apple Pencil does not come with the tablet and will run $99, and the Smart Keyboard runs $169. Let's compare the Surface 3, the comparable product from Microsoft, to the iPad Pro on price. For the 128GB model, a Surface 3 will run you $777 for the Surface, Pen and Keyboard Cover, while the iPad Pro will run you $1,217 and will not run full featured applications, only iOS apps.

Apple TV

The Apple TV took the direction that all of us likely expected: featuring apps. The company has upgraded the hardware and added Siri, but not the way that one might expect or hope. You can ask her questions and even search for video content, but only in the apps that Apple has chosen to implement. There will be no real developer access to Siri, so your podcast app will not be searched when someone asks Siri for Star Wars content.

Assuring that developing for Apple products is as difficult as possible, the company has brought a 4th operating system to the lineup: tvOS. Based on iOS 9, but separate and apart, developing apps for the new Apple TV will be similar to developing for their other mobile platforms, but will not be able to be exactly the same. As Microsoft is working to provide a single, unified platform for developers in Windows 10, Apple is diverging their platform to make development harder - an interesting move. Unfortunately they are taking away some capabilities from developers as well, meaning that a number of existing Apple TV apps will not be possible on the new hardware.

The new remote control has added a screen-less touchscreen. similar to what is on the PlayStation 4 controller. Indirect touch mapping is something the tech savvy consumer will enjoy, but could potentially alienate the casual consumer, which is Apple's main consumer. They have also added motion controls, in an attempt to compete in gaming.

The new Apple TV will run $149 for 32GB and $199 for 64GB.

iPhone

As per usual, the S in the iPhone name stands for "same as last year" with very little change between annual models. There are some improvements, and one truly new feature - to the iPhone, that is. Thankfully, the company started by announcing a camera upgrade, bringing the primary camera to a 12MP iSight with 4K video support. That will bring the camera closer to inline with competitors in the Android world. They have also made the FaceTime camera a 5MP and added what they call Retina Flash, an over-engineered usage of the screen as a front-facing camera flash.

The iPhone-new feature, 3D Touch, is a return to resistive touchscreens - depending on how hard you press the screen, different things will happen. It is a resistive twist on the traditional long-press concept. For example, in the Mail app, if you long-press lightly on an email, you will get a preview of the message, whereas if you long-press hard on the message you will get the full-screen email. You can also continue to interact with the phone in the traditional way - with short presses.

The problem with the concept of 3D Touch, which was originally branded Force Touch, which sounds like something you would end up in prison for, is that there is no way to intuit its usage. All of the UI elements and implementation are hidden behind invisible controls. Will an app implement 3D Touch? If so, how? What will a light or hard long-press accomplish in said app? Unfortunately, only trial and error will reveal.

The new iPhone lineup works as expected: the iPhone 5 is discontinued, the 5s becomes free, the 6 drops $100 and the 6s takes the top-tier pricing block. The gold iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have been discontinued, and a new color, Rose Gold, has been added for the new handsets. The "Rose Gold" does not actually live up to its name, though, just being pink. The company has also implemented their own leasing program, similar to what you can expect from your carrier. The difference is that you can get an upgrade every 12 months instead of 24 with the carrier plans.

Numbers

One of the things that Steve Jobs was famous for was starting the presentation with numbers: new devices sold, new service subscriptions, etc. This was during the height of the Apple boom, which seems to be quickly coming to an end. Why else would the company have backtracked on everything that Jobs hated: big screens, styli, etc.? This year, the numbers we would have expected to hear from Jobs would be Apple Watch sales and Apple Music usage. The numbers we actually got were: none.

Not a single useful stat was revealed, indicating that the company is ashamed of its performance. That is inline with what we have heard already about those exact stats: the Apple Watch sold well its first week, but trailed off almost immediately. It also explains the quick discontinuation of several models of the Watch. A lack of Music numbers also runs inline with what we've heard. The still-free service has seen steep declines in usage, with people displeased with the overall interface and quality.

PayPal Competes with Square, Launches New Payment Platform

posted Sunday Sep 6, 2015 by Nicholas DiMeo

PayPal Competes with Square, Launches New Payment Platform

Mobile payments have become a popular thing as of late. The ability to easily send and receive money to friends and family has been in high demand and companies have stepped up to the plate to allow these things to happen. PayPal, one of the leaders in online payments, has introduced a new site, PayPal.me, in order to let its users accomplish this goal.

PayPal has had the ability to send and receive money as gifts through its website and mobile app for a while, but sometimes there are hang-ups. Some people may not have a bank account set up with PayPal or don't want to wait the five days for the money to clear, causing issues for users. The company has decided to fall in line with the likes of Square and has introduced a quick and easy way to send cash. Setting up a customized URL is all it takes now for friends to transfer money to your account. There is a fee to use the service, of course, but only for business users. The standard PayPal fee of 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction will apply for those with a business account registered. However, if you set up a personal Friends & Family account, there are no fees to use PayPal.me.

PayPal conducted a survey recently and said that over $51 billion in small person-to-person debt are owed to people in the US. PayPal's senior director of global consumer product management, Meron Colbeci, said, "About 50 percent of Americans say they have small debt from friends and family that is owed to them." PayPal.me's mission is to make sure you get your money back quicker and easier, especially if all it takes is clicking on a link and typing in an amount.

There is one caveat, though. Unlike Square's Cash.me site, PayPal.me will require both users to have a PayPal account to use the service. You can then just send money through your connected debit or credit cards on your account. Adversely, Cash.me allows debit card transactions for those without a Square account.

Amazon Prime Allows Downloading of Videos for Offline Viewing

posted Sunday Sep 6, 2015 by Nicholas DiMeo

Amazon Prime Allows Downloading of Videos for Offline Viewing

With the somewhat recent increase in price for Amazon Prime, along with the increased pressure from competing video content providers, Amazon has added more features and incentive to its Amazon Prime offering. At $99, most people are unaware that along with free 2-day shipping, they also receive unlimited video streaming from Amazon Instant Video. To gain more interest in the platform and to keep people using the service, Amazon has now added the ability to download shows and movies on Instant Video to watch offline or wherever you might not have Internet.

For now, the free add-on is available via the Amazon Video app for iOS or Android, but Amazon said it will look into PC downloading in the very near future. Amazon also said the downloading will apply to almost every show and movie available on Instant Video, including its original exclusives.

Compared to Netflix and Hulu, which only offer streaming service, this is surely a plus to those who already subscribe to Prime and use Instant Video. Amazon's VP of digital video, Michael Paull, said, "There's no doubt that the way people watch entertainment is changing-anytime, anywhere viewing is important."

When asked, Netflix said that they have no intentions to follow in the footsteps on Amazon on this one. A PR rep for the company said that as wireless Internet speeds increase and coverage improves, the need to download content will be less and less.

Coming from an individual who travels a lot and lives near a beach, I couldn't disagree more. There are several known dead spots in heavily-populated areas where streaming music or video is just not possible. And that doesn't even count the influx of steel structures that one may shop in or frequent for other reasons. The need to download content will always be a necessity until there is an always-on, fully coveraged world.

Hulu Launches Mostly Ad-Free Streaming

posted Thursday Sep 3, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Hulu Launches Mostly Ad-Free Streaming

After years of customers asking for it, and months of speculation, Hulu has finally confirmed what we have all wanted - advertising-free streaming. What was once called Hulu Plus has been renamed "Limited Commercials" and will remain unchanged at the $7.99 price point. Coming in at $4 more, "No Commercials" will mostly live up to its name for $11.99 per month. In addition, you can add Showtime content to either plan.

Mike Hopkins, Hulu CEO, said of this announcement,

At Hulu, we pride ourselves on listening to our customers and giving them the best possible experience. Many of our customers have asked us for a commercial free option, and so today we are excited to introduce just that. Providing more choice for consumers is fundamental to the Hulu experience, in addition to an array of choices in content and devices, our customers can now choose to watch with or without commercials.

Unfortunately, the name is just a little misleading, as there are 7 shows for which Hulu was unable to negotiate a completely ad-free contract. Those shows are:

  • Grey's Anatomy
  • Once Upon A Time
  • Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • Scandal
  • Grimm
  • New Girl
  • How To Get Away With Murder

This list is subject to change in the future, hopefully for the better, as Hulu attempts to get the proper licensing for these shows. Luckily, there will be no mid-roll ads - only a 15 second pre-roll ad and a 30 second post-roll ad.

In addition to commercial-free streaming, Hulu also hijacked the contract for EPIX content from Netflix, bringing their content to Hulu for several years. All of this is a definite bonus for loyal members of the streaming service, and with so many options, Hulu has finally decided to compete with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.

Are you excited about the commercial-free option on Hulu? Let us know in the comments.

New Top-Level Domains Used Exclusively for Scamming

posted Thursday Sep 3, 2015 by Scott Ertz

New Top-Level Domains Used Exclusively for Scamming

A few years ago, ICANN, the organization that oversees the overall Internet protocols, proposed a slew of new top-level domains. TLDs are the suffix at the end of a website. Most commonly you will see .com, .net, .tv, etc., but there are many others, and new ones are being added all the time.

When these new TLDs were initially proposed, there was a lot of concern that they could create places that could promote negative behavior. For example, if there are hundreds of TLDs, getting an email with a link to http://chase.zip could easily take you to a phishing site. Normally people who are observant will look to ensure the website makes sense, but many won't understand the difference between chase.com and chase.zip. Once you're on the site, a user might enter their password and have their bank account emptied fairly quickly.

As it turns out, these fears were entirely accurate. In fact, there are some TLDs that are almost entirely, if not 100%, shady. This comes to us thanks to a report by Blue Coat, a security firm that scanned known sites to determine the shadiest "neighborhoods" on the Internet. The results might be a little surprising to some, and even more importantly, some of the results don't make a lot of sense.

For example, 100% of sites that end in .zip in their database were classified as "shady." The problem with this one is that .zip is not available yet. In fact, there is only a single domain in existence in the TLD, and that is owned by Google and redirects to Google's domain registration service. Luckily, Blue Coat has an explanation for this behavior.

An unfortunate scenario is that 100% of known domains ending in .review also show up as shady. That is truly disappointing, as this TLD was one I was personally excited about - being able to distinguish review sites from traditional content. Apparently this is not to be the case, however. Also on the list, with 97% or higher shady rankings, are country, kim, cricket, science, work, party (not surprising), gq and link (also not surprising). It is important to note that gq is actually not a new TLD, but a country code for Equatorial Guinea.

Not all TLDs are bad, though. Church has a less than 1% and london only 1.85%. It's good to see that not everything is being taken advantage of, but it is disappointing to see some of the better ones being used so heavily for nonsense. The important takeaway here is that you should always inspect your FULL domain path before visiting a website, not just the core. Be vigilant whenever you are online.

Machinima Loses FTC Case Over Paid Xbox One Content

posted Thursday Sep 3, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Machinima Loses FTC Case Over Paid Xbox One Content

When a new product launches, one of the most important things to do is get good marketing to the world. While television, web and mobile ads are good, what is better is positive content. The best way to get this is from tech blogs and websites, but sometimes that is not possible. For example, when Microsoft released the Xbox One, many media outlets misunderstood the platform or wanted to see it fail and published negative content instead.

Because of this, Machinima was brought in to produce and market positive content about the Xbox One around its launch. They paid 2 YouTube personalities a total of $45,000 to produce videos, and created a program for other "influencers" to receive $1 for every 1,000 page views, maximum of $25,000. All of this is completely legal and fairly common. The problem is that this is not the whole story.

What Machinima failed to do, or possibly actively discouraged, was provide disclosure of these payments. As it turns out, since these were paid product endorsements, they fall under the purview of the FTC Act, which prohibits deceptive advertising. Because the videos contained "seemingly objective opinions," they require the video producers to disclose that they are paid advertising, just like an infomercial. Jessica Rich, FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection director said,

When people see a product touted online, they have a right to know whether they're looking at an authentic opinion or a paid marketing pitch.

In a proposed agreement, Machinima would be prohibited from running future campaigns of this nature, and would be required to clearly disclose future paid endorsements. Microsoft and ad agency Starcom MediaVest Group were both cleared for their involvement in the issue, citing corporate policies prohibiting such activity and swift action once informed of the problem. Machinima points out that these issues came about before a corporate leadership change in March 2014.

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