The UpStream

Google's Lofty and Unlikely Project Ara has Been Canceled

posted Sunday Sep 4, 2016 by Scott Ertz

Google's Lofty and Unlikely Project Ara has Been Canceled

When Google began work on Project Ara in 2013, the idea seemed like the kind that people would get excited about for a while, but would never make it to market, at least not in the form Google promised. The idea was that Ara would be an entirely customizable phone. You'd be able to replace any independent component, from the camera and screen to the RAM and processor. The purpose, of course, would be to allow for incredibly niche-style phones without the need to manufacture a small number, making the devices less expensive.

Unfortunately, Google has never been able to deliver on any of their promises with Ara. A prototype of the platform, "Spiral 2," was shown off in January of last year, with planned market testing in Puerto Rico later in the year. That market test never materialized, because it turned out that the device was a lot harder to build than they expected. Between issues with component communication and, more importantly, issues keeping the components magnetically connected, the release was delayed, with no new date.

At Google I/O 2016, the company showed off another prototype, dubbed "Developer Edition." This version was not quite the same, with the screen, processor, memory and more built-in to the base plate and no longer replaceable. It was promised that, later in the year, the prototype would be released to developers to begin the process of building modules for the platform, as well as building software specifically for Ara devices and modules. Unfortunately, this promise will go the same way as the last - never coming to pass.

Google has shelved Project Ara, effective immediately. The Developer Edition will not be released, and the consumer market will not see a version in 2017. The concept, however, lives on. In part, the concept still exists in the Moto Z family, the LG G5 and the HP Elite x3. All 3 of these devices offer a proprietary extensibility system, which allows additional components to be added - but only one at a time. For example, the consumer-focused Moto Z offers a Hasselblad camera, and the HP Elite x3 offers a dedicated barcode reader.

While it is a shame that the Ara project never came to fruition, there is some good news. Google is open to the idea of another company picking up the torch and licensing the Ara technology for a future release. Phone manufacturer Yezz had an existing relationship with the project, and is known for dabbling in untested technologies, which could lead to them releasing a phone in this category eventually, but that is pure speculation. For the time being, though, we will have to settle for one component at a time.

Spotify Might be Punishing Competitor Exclusives, Company Denies Accusation

posted Sunday Aug 28, 2016 by Scott Ertz

Spotify Might be Punishing Competitor Exclusives, Company Denies Accusation

Spotify has been one of the largest and longest players in the streaming music service. They brought the idea of controlled streaming to the United States market, inspiring brands like Groove Music and Beats Music. While Spotify may not be the most successful of the brands, it is certainly one of the louder ones. Representatives have said multiple times that album exclusives are bad for everyone, but mostly for consumers. Being a fan of an artist should not be punished for not subscribing to a particular service.

On the other hand, Apple has a very different take on the concept. Apple Music, formerly Beats Music, has begun the process of creating exclusive contracts with artists and labels for new music. These exclusives are good for Apple Music customers, but being as Apple Music is not the market leader, it is not good for most users.

According to a report by Bloomberg, Spotify might be advocating for customers in a way that is unusual: by punishing artists. According to unnamed sources, Spotify has been decreasing the search rank of artists who have signed exclusives with other services. What this means for users is that, when searching on Spotify, less relevant search results could appear before results for artists like Drake. In addition to search, the report also accuses Spotify of preventing previously exclusive tracks from being features in playlists once their music is available on Spotify.

Spotify has been clear and direct in their response to these accusations. A representative for the company said the accusations are "unequivocally false." That is a far cry from the usual response of "we don't comment on the inner workings of the company" that most representatives give when an accusation comes close to the truth, or is not worth dignifying with an answer.

Google Fiber Launches a New City, Scales Back Deployment

posted Sunday Aug 28, 2016 by Scott Ertz

Google Fiber Launches a New City, Scales Back Deployment

What a difference a year makes. This time last year, Google Fiber announced expansion into 3 new cities. Here we are a year later, and Alphabet CEO Larry Page has reportedly begun to scale back the size of Google Fiber, cutting half of its employees. This would leave the division at only about 500 employees, down from around 1,000 today.

This decision comes just as Google Fiber rolls out its gigabit service in Salt Lake City and Atlanta. Even with the new cities, the service is far behind its goal, as far as number of consumers is concerned. At initial launch 5 years ago, Google wanted to have 1 million subscribers today. In reality, however, the service only has around 200,000, which is far below the number expected.

Obviously, missing estimates by this much makes the service a financial disaster. Costs to roll out the service in new cities at the rate they have would have been based on the expected revenue generated by 1 million paid subscribers. Estimates would have put revenue at $840 million for 2016, while the actual revenue will be closer to $168 million. There is little chance that this revenue has paid for this year's rollout costs, let alone previous cities.

Part of this downscale could also be related to their recent acquisition of Webpass, a company that provides the same services without the need to install a fiber network in a city. While this could decrease the cost of implementation, it won't fix the existing bleeding.

Does this cut indicate that Google's idea that gigabit is something consumers want is incorrect, or are people just more weary of Google than the company expected? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

PlayStation Now on PC, Could Cross-Play be Next?

posted Sunday Aug 28, 2016 by Scott Ertz

PlayStation Now on PC, Could Cross-Play be Next?

When Microsoft and Sony announced their modern consoles, we knew this new generation would bring enhanced gameplay. What we didn't expect was that it would also bring a decrease in reliance on consoles. Over the past few years, PC gaming has increased dramatically, fueled by services like Steam and EA Origin, as well as Xbox arriving on PC through Windows 10.

The newest addition to the Windows gaming lineup is - PlayStation 3. That's right, Sony is bringing the entire catalog of PlayStation 3 games to Windows PCs, to live along side Xbox Play Anywhere titles and existing PC games. The new capability is being brought to you thanks to PlayStation Now - the multiplatform gaming system from Sony.

There are a few limitations to being able to play. First, while you can use a DualShock 3 controller on other platforms, you will need a DualShock 4 controller to play on PC. The good news about these controllers is that you can plug them in using a micro USB cable, so no new hardware is required. If you would like to use the controller wirelessly, Sony has made a USB dongle available for purchase.

The other limitation is the price. Unlike a service like Origin Access, whose price is only $4.99 per month, PlayStation Now will cost its users $20 per month after the 7-day trial. What you will get for the higher price is over 400 games available at launch, with the potential of new titles to be added over time.

Now that Sony is embracing PC gaming with the PlayStation brand, the next important question is, Could cross-platform multiplayer be around the corner? Microsoft has opened its platform up for the possibility, so the ball is in Sony's court. Maybe this change in philosophy could indicate a possibility in the future. Psyonix, developer of Rocket League, has a technical solution to the problem and could be the first game to bring this feature.

Facebook's WhatsApp Begins Policy Changes, Shares Data with Parent

posted Sunday Aug 28, 2016 by Scott Ertz

Facebook's WhatsApp Begins Policy Changes, Shares Data with Parent

After Facebook bought WhatsApp for way too much money, the company reiterated a promise to its users: It would never allow its service to be used by advertisers to message users. Founder Jan Koum once said,

When we sat down to start our own thing together three years ago we wanted to make something that wasn't just another ad clearinghouse. We wanted to spend our time building a service people wanted to use because it worked and saved them money and made their lives better in a small way. We knew that we could charge people directly if we could do all those things.

We knew we could do what most people aim to do every day: avoid ads.

With that said, in January of this year, WhatsApp dropped its small fee, making the service free. This was either an indication that people didn't want the service, or the company was getting ready for a new revenue model. That model was announced officially this week in the form of changes to the WhatsApp privacy policy. The changes allow WhatsApp data to be shared with Facebook for the purposes of "showing relevant offers and ads on Facebook."

This is a sharp change in policy for the company, but one that everyone knew was coming. For users whose accounts existed before the change, you will be able to turn off the Facebook sharing option. However, WhatsApp said,

The Facebook family of companies will still receive and use this information for other purposes such as improving infrastructure and delivery systems, understanding how our services or theirs are used, securing systems, and fighting spam, abuse, or infringement activities.

So, checkbox or not, Facebook will know a lot more about you if you use WhatsApp.

Hulu's Free Service Not Ending, Moving to Yahoo View

posted Monday Aug 15, 2016 by Scott Ertz

Hulu's Free Service Not Ending, Moving to Yahoo View

At the beginning of the week, a slightly misunderstood collection of announcements were made by Hulu. First, their Hulu-branded free TV service was coming to an end. For the few of you who used it, the service provided the last 5 episodes of many TV Series for free with heavy commercial interaction. Once a new episode aired, the 5th oldest was retired and the new one would take its place.

Ben Smith, Hulu Senior VP and Head of Experience, said,

For the past couple years, we've been focused on building a subscription service that provides the deepest, most personalized content experience possible to our viewers. As we have continued to enhance that offering with new originals, exclusive acquisitions and movies, the free service became very limited and no longer aligned with the Hulu experience or content strategy.

The second announcement goes hand-in-hand with this one, though. Hulu has formed a new partnership with Verizon's Yahoo to launch a new video portal called Yahoo View, which will offer the last 5 episodes of many TV Series for free, with ad support. If that sounds familiar, that's because it is exactly the Hulu free service.

The new service will launch using Hulu's web-based video player, will offer Hulu's catalog of content and will contain advertising sold by Hulu's sales team. In other words, Hulu's free option isn't going away; it's just being rebranded. It's always possible that Yahoo View might bring this content to native apps, making it even better than it was before.

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