In the early days of Roku, one of its big selling points was that there was no editorial control. Basically, anyone could develop an app for the platform and deploy it without interference from Roku, so long as very minimal rules were obeyed (no adult or pirated content). However, that has all changed in the past few years, with Roku requiring big platforms to agree to additional terms, and sign special publishing agreements. That makes Roku more like a cable provider than a content-agnostic platform. This week, YouTube TV fell victim to these contract disputes.
Anyone with cable has seen the ads from your local stations saying that your provider is going to remove the network. We've also seen ads from the cable company saying that FOX or NBC is trying to bully the cable company into a bad contract. That is precisely the back and forth seen between Roku and Google surrounding YouTube TV. Because of this fight, Roku has removed YouTube TV from the channel store following the expiration of the previous contract.
On Roku's side, the company complains that Google has made unreasonable demands of the platform. For example, YouTube TV has its own search result row on the main screen, when no one else has the same feature. The company also uses the Roku voice search capability to search only within their own platform, which is something Roku plans to change in the next major update. There is also talk of Google wanting YouTube Music to be prioritized in search over the user's primary platform setting.
Roku claims that the reason they have given in on so many of Google's demands has been because of Google's size and power. Google, especially in the search and YouTube space, is often accused of anti-competitive behavior, but this is the first time we have seen a company really call them out and follow through on it.
Google says that Roku is infamous for these types of tactics, abusing its position as platform provider to bully the competition. Google and Roku compete on hardware, and this is an attempt to show dominance in contract negotiations. It truly does follow the path of cable providers before them.
Goog,e also argues that they have asked for no special treatment (though the operating system itself provides evidence to the contrary). Claims that Google wants to affect search results are false, and Roku is trying to make them look bad.
As of Friday, the YouTube TV app is no longer is the channel store. For now, users who already have it installed can continue to use it, but no new downloads ar permitted. It is possible that, depending on the direction of the contract negotiations, everyone could lose access in the future.
It would be a surprise if the app is pulled entirely, as it is a high-profile platform. But, Roku also famously delayed HBO Max's launch on the platform over similar contract disputes, so anything is possible.
Over the past few years, a lot of companies have attempted to prove the game streaming is a possibility. And, many companies have failed - until recently. Microsoft, Google, and NVIDIA each have a successful game streaming service that allows players to run the games remotely on a powerful gaming computer and only output the video to your computer. This concept was inevitably going to lead to other parts of the industry running similar experiments. The newest entry in this space is Mighty, a browser that runs remotely.
The concept is far from new. In the mid-2000s, before smartphones were common, Opera Mini was available for flip phones and smartphones alike. The browser rendered most content locally, but rendered Adobe Flash content remotely, streaming it to devices that did not support Flash. That concept is being expanded with Mighty, taking all browser rendering off-device and into the cloud.
Of course, the idea of pushing rendering off-device has a lot of appeal. We spend a lot of time in our browsers, and they tend to perform poorly. Chrome chunks up on memory quickly. Safari seems to find itself more useful closed than open. Edge has its new browser growing pains. Allowing all of the hard work to be done on a powerful machine is really attractive, especially when that machine is super powerful. The computers doing the rendering in this case have dual Intel Xeon processors with up to 16 vCPUs, 16 GB or RAM, and NVIDIA GPUs. Plus, you can likely use this method to get around content blockers at school and work.
But there is still a major problem with this idea: privacy. Because all of your web browsing is done through a remote server, it provides an even bigger potential for abuse than through a proxy. While a proxy or VPN handles your traffic, Mighty has the ability to capture all of your keystrokes, including passwords and credit card numbers. This is required for anything like validators to function, so they couldn't NOT behave this way.
Clearly, this behavior introduces a major source of data theft, as well as mishandling of data. When even the biggest brands have mishandled data or had major breaches, opening oneself up to this kind of attack surface seems unlikely. Perhaps, for features and services of low risk this could be a nice option, but it is not recommended to use it for anything of value.
While Apple fights in court to retain their policies, other stores are changing their policies in order to attract users and developers alike. Epic Games, the most vocal opponent of Apple's App Store rules, started the trend by reducing commissions to 12%, while most other stores remained at 30%. Now, Microsoft is doing the same for game developers in the Microsoft Store on Windows.
The Microsoft Store, while being pre-installed in Windows and being integrated with the operating system, has failed to gain the needed interest from developers and consumers. The company has tried a number of things over the years to get more developers to bring their products to the Store, from lowering the commission to start an account to nearly nothing ($10 at last check), to making it easy to bring Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) into the fold (Hulu and Twitter have both taken this approach).
But now, as the company is focusing on the Xbox Game Pass PC and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate services, Microsoft is working to position the Microsoft Store as a great home for games. To accomplish this, they are dropping their commission on games to 12%, matching Epic Games. It's a strong move, and one that the industry has already rewarded once. Epic Games Store was not expected to be a huge success, until that 12% commission was launched. With it came interest from indie developers, a group that Microsoft has had a strong relationship with on Xbox. By bringing that same policy to the Microsoft Store, the company hopes to expand its relationship with indie game developers, possibly even bringing them into the Game Pass family.
But, Epic Games Store still has features that Microsoft doesn't, like the tie-in with Unreal Engine, and the Epic Games Publishing service. If there is enough success with the move, Game Pass might see new games, and Steam might have to drop its commission, as well.
There is no question that Apple's App Store policies are causing them a ton of trouble. They have been investigated by the European Union, The US Government, and more. There is a high-profile lawsuit against the company and a trade organization that has formed around changing Apple's policies. While Apple has continually argued that it's their store, their platform, and no one is required to participate, but many companies have disagreed - from Epic to Spotify, and that is where we pick up this week.
A complaint filed in the EU by Spotify in 2019 alleged that Apple's 30% fee for subscriptions in the App Store constitutes anti-competitive behavior, especially when it affects a direct competitor of Apple. In this case, Spotify and Apple compete with one another in the music streaming space and podcast space. The direct complaint was that, with the 30% fee for a service that Spotify does not want to use, they have to charge Apple customers $12.99 instead of $9.99 to make the same amount of money, while Apple can charge the $9.99, making their service look more attractive.
Of course, we all know that this story is bigger than just Spotify and Apple, or just Apple Music. This same complaint has been levied against the company from nearly every company that makes a competing product or service. This led the European Commission to look at it in larger terms, considering all of the surfaces on which Apple could use its 30% fee to hinder competition. And, the end result is a finding against Apple, showing that the company is engaged in illegal anti-competitive activity.
The EU does not take this charge lightly, with the potential for very stiff penalties. In fact, they European Commission has the option to fine Apple as much as 10% of all global turnover, which would amount to $27 billion. The Commission rarely, if ever, charges the maximum, but event 10% of the maximum 10% would take nearly $3 billion from the company. The amount of fine here is less important, though, than the ruling. With similar cases against Apple around the world, this could be the beginning of a change in tide for Apple, and a potential change in policy, similar to what we're seeing with other stores already.
In 2018, Google began the transition from Google Play Music to YouTube Music. While the Play brand stuck around for a while, it was clear that its days were numbered. This week, Google began the next version of the Google Play brand shift by announcing that Google Play Movies & TV would be leaving most smart TVs this year (Roku, LG, Vizio, and Samsung). In the announcement email sent to customers, the company said,
Starting June 15, 2021, the YouTube app will be your new home for movies and shows on Roku, Samsung, LG, and Vizio smart TVs. The Google Play Movies & TV app will no longer be available on these devices.
To access all of your previous purchases, log into the YouTube app using the account you use on Google Play Movies & TV, navigate to the "Library" tab, and click on "Your movies and shows."
So, once again, the YouTube brand is eating part of the Google Play brand - a name that was created because the Android Marketplace was offering media content as well as apps. But, the move should not come as a surprise following last year's related announcement about Google TV (the new one, not the old one) becoming Google's central hub for media. For most users, this signaled the eventual end of the Google Play Movies & TV brand. So, the idea that Google would be working on a transition plat on non-Google-powered TVs is perfectly natural.
If you are an Apple user, you can likely expect a similar announcement in the near future for the iOS and Apple TV apps. Those two are a little less important, though, as you cannot make purchases in the apps because of Apple's much disliked payment restrictions.
The real surprise here is the concept that Google is going to transition the sales of digital media in the age of streaming video to the service that made streaming video a household name. Will people be interested in puchasing access to movies and TV episodes through YouTube when they can easily subscribe to a service like Peacock or Hulu? YouTube Red's lack of success, along with the existing lack of interest in YouTube rentals, would suggest no, but we'll see in time.
Google has been working to remove third-party tracking cookies from Chrome. The company has received a lot of negative feedback, including from the advertising industry, which does not feel confident in the company's new approach to the Privacy Sandbox. Now, additional criticism is coming in for Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), the approach to tracking users' interests, and it comes from a scary place: browsers and search engines.
Several privacy-focused brands, including browsers Brave and Vivaldi, as well as search engine DuckDuckGo, have pushed back on FLoC. While Google claims that it is intended to improve user privacy, these companies claim that it is actually worse than cookies. The selling point is that advertisers no longer get individual reports, but instead target based on common or shared browsing history.
Privacy advocates, however, point out that this requires a more detailed browsing history tracking than cookies ever did. To build a complete model of a user's browsing to determine interests, the system needs a lot of detailed information. While Google claims that these profiles and interest groups are built locally, that would require every browser to track, build, and report this history to Google. We know there is little chance that Microsoft is planing to report any tracking data to Google, so how can this concept possibly work?
The clear answer is, "Not well." The assessment comes from the announcement that Brave and Vivaldi will not be implementing the technology in their browsers. This comes as Google has begun testing the technology in Chrome for a number of users, without their knowledge or consent.
In addition, DuckDuckGo will block the technology by default. When it comes to privacy, it's clear that these companies are putting their money where their mouths are by standing up for the privacy concerns they see in Google's new offering.