The UpStream

Webtalk is the Perfect Representation of Everything Wrong Online Today

posted Saturday Sep 22, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Webtalk is the Perfect Representation of Everything Wrong Online Today

In the software world, everyone wants to be "the next big thing." In fact, when pitching investors, it is apparently recommended that you compare yourself to another company, related or not. For example, if you are a fitness company in the gig economy space, refer to yourself as "the Uber of fitness." If you're a new social network, you're supposed to say you're "the next Facebook."

This week, "the next Facebook" got some decent press: Webtalk. In fact, my Facebook feed seems to be filled with mentions of the new site because of a feature on Good Morning Tampa Bay, the local version of Good Morning America. But, like any good fluff piece, the feature does not actually look at the details of the site and its business. Webtalk does everything that every "next Facebook" tries to do: tries to not be Facebook. It enhances privacy and puts it front and center, but unfortunately doesn't do it to the same granularity as Facebook does.

It also claims to integrate some features of LinkedIn, without seemingly offering any of the features of LinkedIn. Yes, you can group contacts as personal and business, and share posts based on those groups. However, Facebook has the ability to create custom groups and share content based on those groups, so you could create your own personal and business contact groups. It does feature a more detailed Experience capability than Facebook, but that is trivial. I created a profile just to see what was possible.

None of this really matters, though, as the business structure of Webtalk is the thing that is going to cause problems for growth. The site has leaned-in completely to the current general acceptance of multi-level marketing and pyramid schemes as a get rich quick scheme. We have all experienced it on social media: friends selling "travel experiences," cheap jewelry, and even off-brand leggings, plus the long-running annoyances of Amway, Pampered Chef, and Herbalife. All of them promise lots of money on a minimal investment. In reality, the cost is often your closest friends.

Webtalk works the same way. Like Facebook and Gmail were in the beginning, the system is private and, like Gmail, requires an invitation from an existing member to get in. In theory, this idea drives users to want access to the system and ask friends for referral codes. However, this system pays people for claimed referrals on a tree structure, giving payouts for the referrals of their referrals, going 5 layers deep. They even have a handy calculator to show how the pyramid structure works.

Pyramid schemes are clearly popular today, with everyone knowing people who have gotten involved looking for a quick buck. Normally, a failed attempt costs tons of money in licensing fees and product purchases that sit in garages and cars for ages. In this case, there isn't really a financial cost, but there is for sure the icky feeling that a normal person gets when their friend pitches a pyramid. When it comes to pyramids, privacy is almost never at the forefront.

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Does the idea of an MLM-based social network sound appealing to you, or is it something to avoid? If you want to try it out for yourself, invites are available. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Telltale Games Cancels Games, Lays Off Staff, Prepares for Closure

posted Saturday Sep 22, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Telltale Games Cancels Games, Lays Off Staff, Prepares for Closure

2018 has been a rough year for videogame studios. This year has seen studios like Wargaming Seattle and Carbine Studios close their doors. For some, like Wargaming, the operations of their games shift to sister studios. For others, like Carbine, the operations of their games will cease entirely. Most notably, that means the end of unique free-to-play MMO WildStar.

While neither of those shutdowns was a massive surprise or industry-changing, this week brought a different scenario, with the announcement of the end of Telltale Games. This studio has produced a long line of popular titles, including the immensely successful The Walking Dead episodic series, and Minecraft: Story Mode. While all of these games may have vastly different properties, they all have a distinctly Telltale style.

Whether it be the distinctive style or their reliance on other companies' properties for their games that led to the company's downfall we will likely never know. What we do know is that the company has let the majority of its staff go this week and has begun the process of dissolving the studio entirely. The company issued a statement explaining,

Today Telltale Games made the difficult decision to begin a majority studio closure following a year marked by insurmountable challenges. A majority of the company's employees were dismissed earlier this morning, with a small group of 25 employees staying on to fulfill the company's obligations to its board and partners. CEO Pete Hawley issued the following statement:

"It's been an incredibly difficult year for Telltale as we worked to set the company on a new course. Unfortunately, we ran out of time trying to get there. We released some of our best content this year and received a tremendous amount of positive feedback, but ultimately, that did not translate to sales. With a heavy heart, we watch our friends leave today to spread our brand of storytelling across the games industry."

Telltale Games has had a lot of impact on both the videogame industry, as well as on the overall gaming community. The distinctive style has produced some of the most interesting fanart and cosplays, including from one of our new correspondents, Julian. The loss of this studio will be felt industry-wide, but with the staff leaving and likely going to other studios, there is the likelihood that their legacy will live on in other games and other studios.

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.

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