The UpStream

Harmonix Developing New Rhythm Game in Partnership with Twitch

posted Friday Oct 26, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Harmonix Developing New Rhythm Game in Partnership with Twitch

While two decades ago Konami was the kind of rhythm games, today that title definitely belongs to Harmonix. It seems that no one knows how to produce a fun and creative rhythm game quite like Harmonix. The company created their name on the massively successful title Rock Band, and last year, in partnership with Hasbro, launched one of our top holiday gifts: DropMix. Our team at DDRLover was surprised to see not only a new music title but even more surprised that it was a new take on music.

This year, at TwitchCon 2018, the Amazon-owned company announced that they had partnered with Harmonix to bring a new spin to an old music idea: karaoke. Taking the best strengths of both companies, Twitch's active community, and Harmonix's music knowledge, combining them into a karaoke title makes perfect sense. Karaoke is an activity that works the best when there is an audience, which is something that Twitch will bring to the game automatically. Combined with Harmonix's execution of making music fun, and their established history of success with vocal games in Rock Band, there is a lot of potential in Twitch Sings. According to Twitch,

We're just starting to scratch the surface of what's possible when everyone wants to play together. There are many games and genres that are made better on Twitch, and we believe there's an opportunity for a new category of game to emerge that's made to be streamed, where the audience isn't a 'nice to have' - they're a crucial part of the game experience.

We knew karaoke would be the perfect place to start. It's live. It's always entertaining. And when it really gets going, the line between the crowd and the stage disappears completely.

The most interesting aspect of the game is the ability to involve your Twitch followers in the game itself. You can actually perform duets with members of your streaming community, sharing the whole experience live with the rest of your viewers. While the closed beta will be limited to a small number of streamers, anyone can apply.

Good News for Fixers: You Can Now Repair Your Tech

posted Friday Oct 26, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Good News for Fixers: You Can Now Repair Your Tech

While many aspects of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) are in place to protect the correct entities, in some cases the wording has created unintended problems. The most notable issue has been Section 1201, which is described by the Electronic Frontier Foundation,

Section 1201 makes it illegal to circumvent the computer code that prevents copying or modifying in most software-controlled products-which nowadays includes everything from refrigerators and baby monitors to tractors and smart speakers.

This has been felt most recently by new software implemented by Apple which disables computers repaired by unapproved people. Those unapproved people include the owner of the device, who apparently doesn't quote own the computer - at least in Apple's eyes. This policy is enforced by the fact that it is not legal to circumvent the software that locks the computer out because of copyrights.

This week, the Library of Congress, who is entrusted with the regular maintenance of the DMCA, revised the rules surrounding software circumvention, adding a collection of exceptions. These exceptions include unlocking brand new phones, jailbreaking smart speakers, and, most importantly, repairing devices yourself or on behalf of the owner. This means that getting locked out of a device you own because you repaired it should no longer be a part of the small electronics world.

Unfortunately, products that are not smartphones, home appliances, or home systems, such as boats and airplanes, are not covered by these exceptions. That means that Apple can continue to prevent owners from repairing their computers and Sony can continue to ban PlayStations from the PlayStation Network that have been repaired unofficially. While the rules around gaming console bans make sense because of cheating, allowing computer manufacturers to lock their devices because of a simple repair is unacceptable. However, as iFixit founder Kyle Wiens said,

With those few exceptions, the Copyright Office went as far as they could in granting access to the repair community. There are still significant limits, though, that will need to be addressed by Congress.

Perhaps, during a future review, more devices will be added to this list.

European Union's Newest Consumer Attack is Against Streaming Services

posted Saturday Oct 20, 2018 by Scott Ertz

European Union's Newest Consumer Attack is Against Streaming Services

Over the last year or so, the European Union has seemed intent on either isolating itself from the rest of the digital world or in crippling the ability of consumers within. GDPR seemed to be the beginning, though the regulations ended up being mostly easy to implement (unless you're using blockchain). They followed it up with copyright laws that could prevent user-generated content sites from operating within the Union.

Their newest attack on consumers comes in the form of what is being referred to as "content quota." This new idea would mean that, if a streaming service operates within the European Union, at least 30% of all of the content available on the platform must be produced within the region. This means that companies like Netflix, which produce content wherever makes the most sense, either for the story, scenery, or budget, will have to make decisions to either move production to the EU (which is unlikely), or remove content from their European services.

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, took the opportunity on the company's quarterly conference call to speak out against the idea. He said that, rather than imposing a penalty for not producing content locally, which will only limit the availability of content, especially in the short-term, the EU would do better to provide incentives to produce content locally. In their release, the company said,

We are heavily investing around the world to share stories broadly and to strengthen local production capacity and opportunity. We'd prefer to focus on making our service great for our members, which would include producing local content, rather than on satisfying quotas, but we anticipate that a regional content quota which approximates the region's share of our global membership will only marginally reduce member satisfaction. Nonetheless, quotas, regardless of market size, can negatively impact both the customer experience and creativity. We believe a more effective way for a country to support strong local content is to directly incentivize local content creators, independent of distribution channel.

Take Atlanta, Georgia, as a great example: 20 years ago, nothing entertainment-based was produced in the city. Today, a lot of television and film projects are produced in and around Atlanta, entirely because of incentives provided by the city. Decades before, Toronto did the same thing, transforming the city into an entertainment hub, thanks to production incentives. Neither of these cities got to where they are because of coercion.

Netflix believes they can satisfy the rules by "evolving our content offering," but what this means is questionable. Luckily, the member countries have a couple of years before enforcement begins, giving the companies involved time to comply.

Google Chrome 70 Helps Fight Multiple Battles, Privacy and PWAs

posted Saturday Oct 20, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Google Chrome 70 Helps Fight Multiple Battles, Privacy and PWAs

When Google released version 69 of their Chrome web browser, they introduced a new "feature": if you log into any Google service using the browser, Google will automatically sign you into the browser. This is a small but important change. It means that as soon as you sign in to Gmail or YouTube, all of your browser activity is immediately attachable to you - no more anonymity using Chrome. Geek News Central describes the problem in detail.

Needless to say, privacy groups were immediately concerned about this change. Forced and purposeful removal of privacy from a product as ubiquitous as a web browser is a special kind of problem, for which consumers should definitely be concerned. Fortunately, after privacy groups and tech outlets made a lot of noise, Google quickly agreed to fix the problem. This week saw that fix, which is far less of a fix and more of a joke.

In Chrome 70, Google has added a new setting under "Privacy and security" which allows you to toggle on or off the "Allow Chrome sign-in" capability. Unfortunately, the setting is ON by default, meaning that it is an opt-out feature rather than an opt-in feature. That means that, unless you are aware of the privacy violation, you don't know that you need to turn it off. While this is technically a fix, it is far from what privacy groups or consumers would want. We recommend turning this setting OFF immediately.

In addition to "fixing" their privacy violation, Google has also doubled down on a technology that no one else appears to care about: Progressive Web Apps. These "apps" are nothing more than websites, a rehashing of the failed technology that was Cordova and PhoneGap. This is a technology that Microsoft already supports (the Windows 10 Twitter app, for example). It seems that Google is catching up with Microsoft on web technology, despite the overall disinterest in it from most developers.

Discord Finally Launches Game Store, Ups Battle with Steam

posted Saturday Oct 20, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Discord Finally Launches Game Store, Ups Battle with Steam

A few months ago, Discord announced a game store to compete with Valve's Steam service. This was part of a back-and-forth between the companies, which started with Steam trying to clone Discord's core product: chat. The store launched initially in Canada alone for testing, but this week has grown their market to cover the globe. This means that all of Discord's 150 million users now have access to the curated collection of indie games.

That is what sets Discord's store apart from Steam: while Steam runs its business like Barnes & Noble, Discord intends to be more like your neighborhood bookstore. Content will be curated, with employees having an opportunity to write about why a game is great and why it is in the collection. Think of it like a review site where the reviewers are so committed to their beliefs that they agree to sell the products.

In addition to launching worldwide, the company also announced the initial First on Discord titles. These games will premiere on the Discord store, usually for 90 days, before being made available on other platforms (read Steam). Those titles are AT SUNDOWN by Mild Best/Versus Evil, Bad North by Raw Fury, King of the Hat by Business Corp. Incorporated, Minion Masters by Beta Dwarf, and Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption by Another Indie. Ben Palevsky, VP of Business Corp Incorporated, said of their partnership with Discord,

Being a First on Discord title is an opportunity to bring King of the Hat directly to our community in the place where we know they spend their time. It's amazing to watch people forge new friendships while playing and for us to connect with that community in real-time in our official server.

On top of the store and First on Discord, the upgraded Nitro service also went live. Rather than the former $5 monthly fee for emotes and other chat features, the new service costs $10 per month and adds unlimited access to 60 titles. This works similar to the Xbox Game Pass, including offering a fairly exciting lineup of games, featuring Limbo, Super Meat Boy, and Wasteland 2: Directors Cut.

You can try any and all of the features directly in the Discord app now. It will be interesting to see if this makes any dent in Steam's dominance, or if the addition of another store will simply increase the overall game buying industry.

Tim Cook Denies Bloomberg Report Again, Demands Retraction

posted Saturday Oct 20, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Tim Cook Denies Bloomberg Report Again, Demands Retraction

On October 4, 2018, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article detailing how China included a tiny microchip on server motherboards in an attempt to bypass corporate security at some major companies, including Amazon and Apple. They described an intricate plot, involving manufacturing plants in China that produced motherboards for Supermicro server hardware. They claim that Amazon noticed the chip, which they reported to US authorities, who have spent over 3 years investigating. The article cites information from insiders at Amazon, Apple, and the Federal government. Newsweek felt this investigative piece, which covers incidents dating back as far as 2015, was important enough that it was the cover story for October 8, 2018.

The story surprised almost nobody in the technology industry. The idea that a Chinese company could be purposely inserting spy technology into products they manufacture is not a far-fetched one. In fact, two Chinese-owned smartphone brands have previously been banned from import into the US over fears that they contained technology designed to spy on US citizens and, hopefully, intercept calls containing sensitive data. To extend the threat from smartphones to servers was a fairly mundane and, frankly, expected.

There are a few in the industry who take particular exception to the story, however; namely, the companies mentioned by name. Amazon claims that they never knew anything of compromised server hardware and have never been in contact with Federal law enforcement, either in reporting or in questioning, regarding the topic. They say that the only issues they have found regarding Supermicro servers were in a web-based application designed for server management, which was addressed prior to implementing the hardware. They say they have no record of any hardware issues ever being reported for hardware.

Apple had a similar response to the article, claiming that they also never had any hardware incidents with Supermicro and the first they were aware of the concept was when Bloomberg themselves started contacting the company asking questions. They also claim that the fact that the company canceled their contract with Supermicro to purchase over 30,000 servers immediately following the timeline Bloomberg claims would have been the disclosure of the server hacks is unrelated.

This week, Apple CEO Tim Cook, who has taken this story very personally, has upped the denial rhetoric. In fact, he has gone so far as to demand Bloomberg retract the entire story. He told Buzzfeed,

I personally talked to the Bloomberg reporters along with Bruce Sewell, who was then our general counsel. We were very clear with them that this did not happen, and answered all their questions. Each time they brought this up to us, the story changed, and each time we investigated we found nothing...

We turned the company upside down. Email searches, data center records, financial records, shipment records. We really forensically whipped through the company to dig very deep and each time we came back to the same conclusion: This did not happen. There's no truth to this.

For Cook, this seems to be some sort of personal attack, either on his credibility or his intelligence; maybe both. To have employees of Apple being part of the investigation, and 4 Federal agents claiming that Apple both reported and participated in the investigation when he believes that it never happened does not seem to be something that he can heal from. It could have to do with the relationship that Supermicro has with Foxconn, who also manufactures most of Apple's products. A stain on their manufacturing process could leave a stain on all of Apple's hardware and security, which is something that has been in question following a couple of security issues at the company. If Cook had ignored it, no one would even remember the report today, but he keeps picking at it, meaning that it keeps being brought to the top of everyone's minds.

Considering their commitment to the story, it is unlikely that Bloomberg is going to retract the story, no matter how much noise Cook makes, though anything is possible at this point.

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