The UpStream

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.

Amazon Considering Free, Ad-Supported Video Service for Fire TV

posted Saturday Sep 1, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Amazon Considering Free, Ad-Supported Video Service for Fire TV

Amazon has had a lot of success with Prime Video, the video streaming service that comes included with an Amazon Prime subscription. They have expanded the service from licensed video to original content, including big budget content like Jack Ryan, which released this weekend. The company may be looking to expand their video offering once again with a new service.

According to a report, this new service, allegedly named Free Dive, and would be coming from Amazon's subsidiary IMDb. The service, if real, would be an ad-supported, free streaming platform specifically for Fire TVs. This approach would be similar to how Roku's homespun Roku Channel got its start: exclusive to the platform and ad-supported.

Unlike Prime Video, which thrives on its original content, Free Dive is reported to be focused mostly on licensed content. This is a smart and safe way to launch a new service of this type, as it reduces the cost and liability should the service fail. Since the service is Amazon-owned, they might be able to use the licensing they already have for Prime Video and apply those deals to Free Dive.

Ad-supported platforms have had mixed reactions over the years. Hulu originally launched as a freely available, ad-supported platform. They eventually added a monthly fee as the lineup of content expanded, leaving only the most recent content available for free. Ultimately, they removed free content, shifting the responsibility to Yahoo. Sony's Crackle has always been a freely available, ad-supported platform that, outside of The Interview in 2014, most people have never interacted with.

On the other hand, Roku's Roku Channel has been a major success for the company. In fact, it has been popular enough that it has gone from a company product exclusive to being available on the without any Roku hardware. With Roku Channel being the closest analogous offering to Free Dive, there is some hope that this new offering could be a success.

Senator Recommends FTC Look At Google's Fundamentals Again

posted Saturday Sep 1, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Senator Recommends FTC Look At Google's Fundamentals Again

Another day, another example of a government official questioning Google. The week started with President Trump making accusations that Google's search results were prioritizing certain content over others. This is an accusation that has been made many times by people all over the world. It has varied from claiming the company prioritizes its own content over more relevant results to filtering content that Google's corporate leadership disagrees with.

The important topic, however, came up on Thursday when Senator Orrin Hatch sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission encouraging them to reopen their investigation into Google's policies. Senator Hatch said in the letter,

I write to express my concern about recent reports on Google's search and digital advertising practices. In the past, Google has placed restrictions on publishers' displaying search advertisements from its competitors. Google loosened some of those restrictions when faced with antitrust complaints, and the European Commission has said it is monitoring to see if those new restrictions have anticompetitive effects. Then in May, 60 Minutes aired a segment that highlighted several allegations regarding purportedly anticompetitive conduct by the company involving its search practices.

Other reports have highlighted the fact that Google has, on occasion, decided to remove from its platforms legal businesses that the company apparently does not agree with. Moreover, in the past several months, several of my Senate colleagues wrote to Alphabet, Google's parent company, regarding its data collection by the Android mobile operating system and privacy practices for Gmail users' data, including Google's practice of giving third-party app developers access to the actual content of emails.

Needless to say, I found these reports disquieting.

All of the issues raised in the letter are issues that should be of concern to consumers. Removing companies without violation, anticompetitive advertising practices, and privacy violations are all topics of interest to the public, especially considering Google's position in the market. Bing has made big gains in search, especially since introducing Microsoft Rewards, but Google still owns the majority of the market. When the FTC last looked into these policies, which was in 2010, the reason they concluded that the policies were not an issue had to do with the idea that Apple would become a big player in mobile advertising, which it has not.

Adding to Hatch's concerns has been a collection of new information, such as Google ignoring their own settings for location privacy. When combined with a report this week detailing a frightening deal with MasterCard to allow Google to track a person's in-person purchases using the card, it is almost certainly time for the FTC to at least take a look again.

"PlayStation is the Best," Says Sony on Fortnite Account Locking

posted Saturday Sep 1, 2018 by Scott Ertz

It was only 2 months ago when it looked like Sony was changing their cross-platform strategy. President and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment America Shawn Layden said,

We're hearing it. We're looking at a lot of the possibilities. You can imagine that the circumstances around that affect a lot more than just one game. I'm confident we'll get to a solution which will be understood and accepted by our gaming community, while at the same time supporting our business.

The biggest issue in PlayStation cross-platform gaming has been with the popular Fortnite. As anyone who has ever played the game on PlayStation knows, once you've done that, you can no longer use your account on a Microsoft Xbox or Nintendo Switch, though you can still use it on PC and mobile devices. Sony has never really given a good reason, or any reason, why this is the case, but Layden's comment and discussions with Microsoft last year suggested that perhaps Sony was finally getting the message that gamers and developers were annoyed by the policy.

Unfortunately, while the US division might have a better idea of what gamers want, corporate seems to have other ideas. Sony CEO Kenichiro Yoshida reportedly said that the company does not believe in cross-platform gameplay and is not interested in pursuing it on a grand scale.

On cross-platform, our way of thinking is always that PlayStation is the best place to play. Fortnite, I believe, partnered with PlayStation 4 is the best experience for users, that's our belief.

But actually, we already opened some games as cross-platform with PC and some others, so we decide based on what is the best user experience. That is our way of thinking for cross-platform.

While it is encouraging to see that Sony is at least willing to consider cross-platform gaming on a case-by-case basis, it is not a great sign that they don't see anything wrong with preventing a player from experiencing a game on multiple platforms. If their platform truly were "the best place to play," they would not be afraid to let players see what the experience was like elsewhere without punishment. This still feels like the desperate moves of a company with a low self-image. Maybe they will grow out of this phase and join the rest of the gaming industry.

T-Mobile-Sprint Merger Receives Surprising Apathy to FCC

posted Saturday Sep 1, 2018 by Scott Ertz

T-Mobile-Sprint Merger Receives Surprising Apathy to FCC

Whenever a merger is proposed, there will always be opposition, no matter how innocuous the transaction seems. Whether it be the federal government questioning the validity of the merger, local government unhappy with the results, competitors afraid of the competition or interest groups who fear change, you can be certain that someone will object. The important question is always, how many of these oppositions will have an effect on the proposal.

For the most part, the organizations that will always object will usually be ignored. It's the modern version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, where regulators can never tell if the threat being posed is credible because the organization is always claiming false threats. In addition, organizations, like competitors, who have a vested interest in the failure of the merger, will likewise usually be ignored. Impartiality is nearly impossible when it's in your best interest to sabotage.

The most recent merger announcement of Sprint and T-Mobile, which was rumored for over a year and announced in August, was bound to draw attention. After all, the failed AT&T/T-Mobile merger was one of the most watched merger processes of the decade. Following the announcement, the FCC received over 500 filings in regards to the proposition, and the results have been surprising. As expected, the normal groups opposed it, but we know the FCC doesn't take that too seriously.

What is surprising is the lack of objections from some of the sources you would expect. Most surprisingly, consumers seem to be excited about this merger. This merger would take the #3 and #4 US wireless carriers and turn them into the #2 wireless carrier, behind Verizon. With Sprint and T-Mobile's history of creating low-priced subscriptions that consumers like, the combined company seems to excite consumers, who overwhelmingly support the merger.

In addition to consumers, competitors seem to have no vocal opposition to the merger. Verizon and AT&T, who would be displaced from their #2 position if the merger is finalized, seem to have taken no position on the merger at all. That speaks volumes, considering competitors, especially ones who will lose their market position, usually find something to object about in these cases. This merger, however, seems to have either left them speechless or with nothing to take issue about.

This is not to say there is no opposition. Dish Network filed a complaint, claiming that if the merger is approved, they will have trouble purchasing components to build their own wireless network.

While DISH plans to aggressively upgrade and expand that network to full 5G in the future, the timing of the transition will crucially depend on, among other things, scarce inputs (e.g., radios, devices and chipsets) that the merger could make scarcer still.

This complaint is unlikely to make a difference, however, as the manufacturers of those components are unlikely to let a sale get away and will simply make more of the needed components. This will not be an easy merger, but with so little opposition from outside of the government, it will be far easier than T-Mobile's last try.

If You're a Media Company, Amazon Has Its Sights on You

posted Sunday Aug 19, 2018 by Scott Ertz

If You're a Media Company, Amazon Has Its Sights on You

Amazon has a fairly large presence in the media market even if they do lag behind in all of their markets. Prime Video doesn't quite compete with Netflix or Hulu. Amazon Music doesn't quite compete with Spotify or Apple Music. Even Fire TV doesn't quite compete with Chromecast. If Amazon has their way, that might be about to change.

Amazon Music

The company has decided to put a big focus on this brand. They want to turn it from a second tier option into a direct competitor to the larger Spotify and Apple Music services. Being as the company has both a music streaming service and a smart speaker, they are hoping to encourage people to think of them as one and not, as most people think, a way to consume Spotify. They are planning TV, radio, online and billboard ads to promote the music service and its natural pairing with Alexa. In addition to offering Prime Music for free, the company will also begin a campaign offering Music Unlimited for $3.99 rather than $7.99 per month if used with an Echo speaker.

Fire TV DVR

While the company currently offers the Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Edition smart TVs, there is another market that is being skipped: live TV. To fill this need, Amazon is reportedly working on a new set-top box, dubbed Fire TV DVR (codenamed Frank). This product would compete directly with TiVo and Slingbox, giving you the ability to record live TV and stream it to a phone, computer or tablet. It would likely also offer its recording capabilities for Amazon Channels service. It will likely premiere along with a refresh of the Fire TV Stick product, bringing new features to the whole lineup.

Amazon Prime Video

One of the lesser-known, but better benefits of Amazon Prime, is Prime Video. Through the service, you can watch original content, like documentaries, movies, and series. Your ability to watch this content might be about to expand, though, as Amazon is reportedly in talks to purchase Landmark Theaters from Mark Cuban. While the deal is a bit of a longshot, such a relationship would give Amazon an easy way to show their original content in physical theaters, without the need to work on distribution licensing.

It is believed that there are 2 other companies bidding against Amazon for the company, which would give its new owners access to 27 major markets in the US. The purchase would not be out of order for Amazon, who purchased Whole Foods for $14 billion, and his toyed with physical retail stores. There is no telling if Prime subscribers will get any special treatment at the new theaters, but based on our Whole Foods experience, it's a safe bet to say yes.

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