The UpStream

A Television-Style Experience for Streaming Content

posted Saturday Jul 11, 2015 by Scott Ertz

A Television-Style Experience for Streaming Content

We have discussed many times that appointment television is likely coming to an end. With services like Netflix and Hulu, the idea of waiting for a specific time to watch a television show or movie is becoming more and more ridiculous to many. If you're like me, though, there is a problem with streaming services: it takes way too long to get going. Once you launch the website or application it seems like quite a chore to find content you're interested in.

That has certainly been one of the benefits of traditional television for as long as it has existed. As soon as you turn it on, there is content going, whether it is something you want to watch or not. At least it comes back to where you left it, meaning it is likely there is something interesting to watch. Why can't streaming media be more like traditional television in that way?

The creators of a new streaming service, Pluto TV, seem to have the same problem as I have, as their service is designed to solve exactly this problem. Like a cable box, when you launch the app or website, content from your last channel begins playing immediately. Below the content is a channel listing, whose interface is based on one of the best cable box experiences ever. You can scroll through channels with timed listings for programming.

The content is broken into categories such as sports, entertainment, comedy, kids, news, tech, etc. Currently all of the content comes from publicly available streams like Funny or Die, FailArmy, Bloomberg, TBS and more. The service is currently free and ad-supported, though ads are infrequent at best. In the time I have spent watching content on the site, the only ads I really encountered were for the platform itself. Some content, however, does have traditional provider ads.

For example, the Seinfeld channel, which appears to be TBS-powered, runs ads for TBS itself. Personally I am a big fan of standup comedy, so I have been watching the standup channel, and have seen almost no advertisements. It is certainly an interesting platform with a lot of potential. I would like to see them partner with someone like Hulu or NBC and offer their content in a different, more curated scenario.

After a Week of Protests, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao Steps Down

posted Saturday Jul 11, 2015 by Scott Ertz

After a Week of Protests, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao Steps Down

Last week, Reddit fired a popular employee Victoria Taylor. Taylor was responsible for the ultra popular Ask Me Anything section of the site and, as a result, the AMA subreddit was made private until the dust settled and the company figured out what to do next. The problem was, the decision was not handled well, and the team scrambled. The Reddit community, for better or worse, is an interesting one, and in solidarity with their former colleague privatized many other subreddits.

As a result, a battle began between the moderators and the staff of the company. That battle was over their treatment and the tools provided to do their job. The community expectedly sided with the moderators, and an online petition was born. The main thrust of the complaint was for the interim CEO, Ellen Pao, to step down. While the petition had been around for a while, it gained major momentum with this firing.

After several public apologies from Pao and hundreds of thousands of signatures on the petition, the company and Pao have decided that she should step down. To replace her, founder and original CEO Steve Huffman will return to the position and work alongside Alexis Ohanian, who will assume the new title "cofounder." Huffman is assuming the CEO position on a permanent basis, as opposed to Pao who was filling the spot while the board searched for a permanent replacement.

In addition to the announcement, the company also showed its dismay over the way Ellen Pao was treated over the past week or so. In grand Reddit tradition, a rational conversation degraded into racial slurs and death threats.

As a closing note, it was sickening to see some of the things redditors wrote about Ellen. (1) The reduction in compassion that happens when we're all behind computer screens is not good for the world. People are still people even if there is Internet between you.

If the reddit community cannot learn to balance authenticity and compassion, it may be a great website but it will never be a truly great community. Steve's great challenge as CEO (2) will be continuing the work Ellen started to drive this forward.

(1) Disagreements are fine. Death threats are not, are not covered under free speech, and will continue to get offending users banned.

Ellen asked me to point out that the sweeping majority of redditors didn't do this, and many were incredibly supportive. Although the incredible power of the Internet is the amplification of voices, unfortunately sometimes those voices are hateful.

It would certainly be nice if we lived in a world where a simple statement of disappointment could change actions, but unfortunately that is not how the Internet works. As stated, behind a monitor, many people become bullies. It will be nice for Pao, however, to not have to deal with this type of treatment anymore.

It Turns Out Vaporware Console Infinium Phantom May Have Existed at Some Point

posted Saturday Jul 11, 2015 by Scott Ertz

In the early 2000s, there was the promise of a new console called the Infinium Phantom. The company promised PC performance in the living room, a concept revived recently by Valve. The console was designed to stream games over the web, another concept that has been revived in recent years. Unfortunately, streaming games has not worked well in today's infrastructure, so there was little chance it would have worked a decade ago.

The company showed off demos for several years at tradeshows, and made huge promises that seemed impossible to fulfill. As time passed, I began researching the company and found that its address was only about an hour from me. Needless to say, a friend and I took a trip to see the office, only to find out it was a storefront in a shopping center with only a desk and a phone - not even a chair.

At that point, it was clear that the company was not going to be successful, despite having over $73 million to have spent on nothing. A keyboard & mouse lapboard was produced, but never sold because it was a disaster. Shortly after my little trip, the company collapsed and faced SEC charges for stock fraud. What seemingly never happened, however, was the development of an actual console.

After last week's revelation of an original Nintendo/Sony Play Station prototype still existing, a Florida resident recalled his encounter a few years ago with a Phantom prototype. Someone brought the prototype into a local computer shop and the technician took photos after getting the device "working." The prototype was reportedly a disaster - missing components and using an adjusted motherboard.

The photos were submitted to Ars Technica by the user, but Ars has not been able to confirm any of the information. The images do, however, match the aesthetics of the actual demo devices, and the prototype showing up in Florida does match with the last known whereabouts of the company. The idea that one of these prototypes was liberated from the collapsing company and making its way into the hands of a collector is a realistic possibility. Either way, it is interesting to think that there was a time when the company actually planned to release a product.

Despite Reports, Microsoft is Not Shedding Departments

posted Friday Jul 10, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Despite Reports, Microsoft is Not Shedding Departments

Following an email from CEO Satya Nadella stating that hard choices would need to be made, Microsoft has made a lot of announcements about changes to the structure of the company. Unfortunately, the details of those changes seem to have been misunderstood by many in the press. In some cases, the people writing about the topic seem to have not actually read the press releases from the company at all. Because of this, I feel it is important to set the record straight, so let's get started.

Advertising Business

It has been reported by many institutions that Microsoft has sold its online display ad business to AOL. Unfortunately, except for the names of the companies and departments, nothing else is accurate. In fact, Microsoft has expanded its online display ad business by entering into a 10 year sales and search partnership with the content creator. Microsoft will provide AOL with search for their platforms, powered by Bing, while AOL will serve as the sales force for Microsoft's advertising service.

This partnership provides AOL with a fully customized advertising platform for their sites, like Huffington Post and Engadget. It also provides AOL with recurring revenue from sales of advertising services to other sites, all without having to build or maintain the technology. What Microsoft gets is a dedicated sales force for its advertising business, a guaranteed revenue stream from AOL's own advertising needs, and a new outlet to build the reputation of its Bing search capabilities.

At a time when Bing is quickly gaining ground on Google, partnerships like this are essential. Apple uses Bing as its search provider within iOS and OS X, and even powers Siri with Microsoft's data. Adding AOL, another major content producer and recent addition to the Verizon family, will help them edge ever closer to Google in search popularity.

Phone Business

Nadella was openly against the purchase of Nokia right from the beginning. He famously spoke out against it even as he was being considered to replace Ballmer as CEO of the company. As soon as he was given the job, he publicly changed his tune, though it was no secret that he still personally thought that producing phones was outside of Microsoft's core competency. Because of that, early into his tenure, the Lumia team was cut by a lot.

This week, it was announced that a $7.6 billion write-off was being filed as a result of the Nokia purchase. In addition, 7,800 employees would be cut form the company, mostly coming from the Lumia team. Many tech sites have reported that this signals the end of Windows-powered phones, which is obviously laughable. Microsoft is betting big on the One Microsoft philosophy, which includes Windows devices of all sizes, including smartphones.

What this does indicate is that the Lumia team was far too big for the plans that Nadella has. It is likely that, like the successful Surface line, Microsoft's new intent is to produce a small number of flagship Windows-powered Lumia devices whose intent is to push other manufacturers to try big things in the market. Before the Surface line, the idea of a convertible was insane, while today nearly every manufacturer of computers offers one. It is unlikely that this push would have happened if it weren't for the Surface.

With the idea of producing only flagship devices, the design and implementation teams do not need to be large; certainly not large enough to produce all of the phones that Nokia was making. With that type of shift comes layoffs, which is what was announced this week.

The shift from flooding the market with lots of Lumia phones to producing only industry spec flagships would put Microsoft into an interesting middle ground between Apple and Google's philosophies. On the one extreme, Apple gives its customers absolutely no choices and controls every aspect of the ecosystem: a philosophy that once nearly collapsed their company and today leaves them in 2nd or 3rd place, depending on the country. Google, on the other hand, controls absolutely no aspect of the ecosystem, except for the platform name. Devices can be of any size, shape or quality, can look or function in any variety of ways, and have a huge discrepancy in user experiences. This model has put Google in 1st place worldwide, but it also opens users up to any number of issues.

Microsoft has positioned themselves in the middle for the tablet space and are likely aligning their Lumia business with this move. Microsoft would control the ecosystem and offer a set of devices that set a standard, while licensing their platform for other manufacturers to expand the ecosystem. It is an interesting gamble, but one that could pay off huge if successful.

The Problems With YouTube's Copyright Policies: Nonsense Claims

posted Sunday Jul 5, 2015 by Scott Ertz

The Problems With YouTube's Copyright Policies: Nonsense Claims

Anyone who has ever interacted with YouTube knows about copyright notices. Whether you are a content producer who has had a video muted because there was music playing in a room during an interview with a company that sells speakers, a musician whose music is being used without permission or a user who has encountered ads for music in the video, you likely have some experience.

What most people don't know is that there are companies who represent audio copyright holders on YouTube. These companies scour YouTube looking for audio that infringes copyrights held by their clients. This is great for artists of any size, from local indie to international superstars. It is no wonder a number of these companies have emerged to help artists monetize their music on YouTube.

From time to time, however, these companies can get a little over-anxious. For example, this week, a company called Adafruit that produces Arduino-based products posted a simple video. It was basically an Arduino spinning to the song "America the Beautiful." YouTube copyright protector Rumblefish took issue with the music used and filed a copyright notice against Adafruit. YouTube contacted them to inform them that they could not monetize the video and Rumblefish could run their own ads on the video.

The problem? Rumblefish has no rights to the music. As it turns out, the song "America the Beautiful" is no longer protected by copyright. It was recorded at another time when copyright laws had fast expirations, and it has expired. Of course, just because a song has lapsed doesn't mean a particular recording can't be protected. Unfortunately for Rumblefish, the recording used here was by the US Navy Band. Since the Navy is a government organization, their recordings are all public domain.

Clearly Adafruit has disputed the claim. They chose the song and recording specifically because it was entirely in the public domain, so this is quite a shock. It is not, however, the first time Rumblefish has made a ridiculous claim. In 2012, a video of a guy walking in a park and eating leaves had a takedown notice because Rumblefish claimed to own the birds chirping in the park.

Perhaps YouTube should have a better process for verifying claims before taking down videos or issuing copyright notices.

Reddit on Verge of Staff vs. Community Battle

posted Sunday Jul 5, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Reddit on Verge of Staff vs. Community Battle

Reddit is an incredibly popular community on the Internet, referring to themselves as "The front page of the Internet." I have personally never understood the appeal of the site, but I have understood that it is a place where people can go and have frank, open discussions about topics of the day. The topics tend to be based on opinions that are not based in reality, but people are welcome to talk about whatever they like.

The community is falling apart, however, because of the decisions of interim CEO Ellen Pao. For those who follow the tech industry, that should be a familiar name, as she is the woman who lost the gender discrimination case against venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers. The same attitude that led to the tenuous case also led to some decisions inside the company that is pushing the community away.

The turning point was the way the company handled firing Victoria Taylor, a popular admin on the site. In solidarity with Taylor, many boards closed to the public, making Reddit a very quiet place to be. As criticism mounted against the company and Pao in particular, she made a public statement, saying,

The bigger problem is that we haven't helped our moderators with better support after many years of promising to do so. We do value moderators; they allow reddit to function and they allow each subreddit to be unique and to appeal to different communities. This year, we have started building better tools for moderators and for admins to help keep subreddits and reddit awesome, but our infrastructure is monolithic, and it is going to take some time.

We hired someone to product manage it, and we moved an engineer to help work on it. We hired 5 more people for our community team in total to work with both the community and moderators. We are also making changes to reddit.com, adding new features like better search and building mobile web, but our testing plan needs improvement. As a result, we are breaking some of the ways moderators moderate. We are going to figure this out and fix it.

While an interesting statement, it does not address the issue at hand at all. The community, in particular the moderators, have issues with how the firing went down, not about how hard it is to moderate. In addition to the privatizing of boards, a petition is also circulating asking for Pao to step down as interim CEO. Based on her poor handling of her own life, followed by her handling of the company, in addition to the public backlash received, that might just be the best idea right now.

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