The UpStream

Uber: A Highly Funded Company With No Direction

posted Saturday Jul 25, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Uber: A Highly Funded Company With No Direction

Uber is an interesting company. They are, in theory, a taxi service that doesn't want to be considered a taxi service for a variety of reasons, including regulation and licensing. It has caused them no end of trouble, with cities and countries worldwide working to shut them down. In New York, until this week, the city had been building a case to ban the service from its streets. In France recently, Uber drivers had their cars damaged, totaled or even impounded as part of a systematic crackdown by the government and other taxi companies. In some countries, such as South Korea, the executives are considered criminals and have arrest warrants issued.

With all of this, you would expect the company would be focusing on its lobbying or legal efforts to try and get these governments to come around to their way of seeing the world. Unfortunately, this is not really the case. In fact, the company seems to be completely unaware of their legal issues around the world. Instead, it seems that every week we see another press release from the company or a new partner introducing a new service or feature coming.

This week might have been the weirdest yet. Chinese up-and-coming smartphone maker Xiaomi has partnered with Uber to deliver their Mi Note phone "within a few minutes" using the ridesharing drivers. The courier service will initially be available only in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but it seems like this is a feature that would be coming worldwide, though not necessarily with Xiaomi. The feature seems fairly simple to use:

Ordering a Mi Note follows the exact same process as calling for an Uber - users simply open the Uber app, use the slider at the bottom of the screen to select 'Xiaomi.' Payment will be charged directly to the credit card tied to a rider's Uber account and a Mi Note will be delivered to the user within a few minutes.

While easy to use, it does seem like a feature that had to be developed specifically for this purpose. It is unlikely that the company would have spent the time and money to build a feature like this for just a single provider in 2 small countries, so expect to see courier services arrive in more places in the future. The move does, however, bring up questions about why the company is getting into this business with Xiaomi. Is the company unfocused or is it an attempt to find a similar yet unrelated business model?

If it is the latter, the company obviously did not research courier services worldwide any better than they research taxi services before launching. Courier services in many places are regulated similarly to taxi or limousine services, meaning they might have actually opened themselves up to more legal troubles rather than trying to find a less obtrusive business.

Personally, I believe this move to indicate a company with a lot of money and no business model. In 2010 we wrote about a similar problem at Twitter. While Twitter has resolved the problem somewhat, it still exists in the culture, with little chance of ever going away entirely. This is one of the problems when an industry sees an investment bubble like technology is seeing again right now.

While investors can argue there is no bubble all they want, it is clear that we're in the end-phases of too much money for too little value. Billion-dollar buyouts from companies like Facebook/Instagram show too much money in the industry, not success. In reality, no investor would have put money into Uber with all of the legal action, yet it seems that they get whatever money they ask for. With no plan for that money, however, you see floundering and business jumps that make no sense and ultimately damage the brand. Will this move close their doors? No. But it could indicate a problem with the culture inside the company.

An Unexpected Success: FilmOn Wins Argument Aereo Could Not

posted Sunday Jul 19, 2015 by Scott Ertz

An Unexpected Success: FilmOn Wins Argument Aereo Could Not

If you have never heard of the company FilmOn, it's okay. Until the Supreme court put an end to rival Aereo, the company was certainly overshadowed. The service provides live Internet-based viewing of television stations of varying types, locations and qualities; some for free and some for a fee. If this story sounds familiar, you're correct: it is a very similar business model to what Aereo provided.

While Aereo may have set an unfortunate precedent in the highest court in the land, it does not seem to have affected anything. FilmOn was sued in a US District Court by the same group that sued Aereo: the big 4 broadcast networks. Their claims were very similar to the complains against Aereo, and entirely expected, claiming copyright infringement by the company. This comes from the fact that the networks own the distribution rights to the content and see no royalties from the company on distribution.

When Aereo lost their case, they asked for a different option: to be considered a cable company so they could license the content from the broadcasters for a fee. The 2nd Circuit Court that heard that argument denied the request, which ultimately closed the doors for Aereo for good. FilmOn, however, seems to have won the exact same argument in a different court. US District Judge George Wu has granted the company the right to negotiate as a cable company, and acknowledges that this decision is in violation of precedent.

As a way of appeasing the broadcasters, he also allowed them to immediately escalate the case to the 9th Circuit, which they are likely to follow through on. This decision, if allowed to stand, could potentially open the door for the Aereo brand to resurface, likely under the new owners: TiVo. It could also open up the doors for other competitors to enter this clearly lucrative market, which could help drive prices down. Of course, precedent has clearly not had an effect on the matter previously, so there is no telling where this could all go.

Amazon Prime Day - The Best and Worst of the Internet

posted Sunday Jul 19, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Amazon Prime Day - The Best and Worst of the Internet

If you have watched any content, be it online or on the television, over the past few weeks, you have been inundated with ads for Amazon's Prime Day sale. The promotion was to celebrate Amazon's 15th anniversary, and promised more deals than Black Friday only for Prime subscribers. As with any promotion like this, the Internet was all abuzz with the excitement of deals on gadgets and nonsense.

The sale, however, was not exactly what people were expecting. Amazon may have lived up to its promise of more deals than Black Friday, but what they didn't do was maintain the imbalance traditionally found on that day. Black Friday may have deals on things like clothes, but the real winner of the day is technology. Gadgets and home electronics are what people tend to go out or browse the web for on Black Friday; things like televisions, tablets and laptops tend to be the big draws. In addition, home and high fashion items tend to do well.

For Prime Day, however, there were very few actual tech-related deals. Among the products offered at a discount were several brands of women's underwear, a lip enhancer, a "female urinal" and a 55 gallon drum of lube. These deals did not exactly excite the majority of people who had been waiting for Prime Day, but it did create a fascinating reaction on social media. In fact, during the day, the hashtag #PrimeDayFail trended ABOVE Amazon's official #PrimeDay hashtag. The tweets from disappointed customers were creative to say the least.

As the day went on, and the disappointment was growing, Amazon got quite defensive. In a statement, Greg Greeley, Vice President of Amazon Prime said,

Prime Day peak order rates have already surpassed 2014 Black Friday. Prime members have already bought tens of thousands of Fire TV Sticks, 35,000 Lord of the Rings Blu-Ray sets, 28,000 Rubbermaid sets, and 4,000 Echo devices in 15 minutes. The Kate Spade purse was gone in less than a minute. We also sold 1,200 of the $999 TVs in less than 10 minutes. And there are thousands more deals coming.

Despite the company's attempt to spin the scenario into a positive, it is important to note that the products listed in the statement are all traditional Black Friday success stories: a high-end purse, Blu-Rays, Fire TV Stick, a television, etc. While the company maintains that the day was a huge success and will repeat it in the future, it is likely they will make adjustments to prevent the public relations disaster that this year's event created.

Xbox One Game Streaming Officially Available to Everyone (With Windows 10)

posted Sunday Jul 19, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Xbox One Game Streaming Officially Available to Everyone (With Windows 10)

Since the announcement of Xbox One game streaming, the world has been waiting to try it out. We all knew that it would require a few things: a Windows 10 computer and an Xbox One running a version of the dashboard supporting the feature. All of these features have been available only in limited preview - available to those who were part of the Xbox One dashboard preview program and Windows 10 Insider program.

This week, however, a number of updates from Microsoft have brought this feature to the world at large. The Xbox One dashboard July update brought the core functionality to the console for all owners. This makes it possible for any Xbox One console to be used to stream content outwardly. All that was left was for Microsoft to make Windows 10 available more widely. We know that the official release of Windows 10 is not until July 29, but Windows Insiders received a new build this week: 10240.

This new Insider build has a few important distinctions. For example, the watermark in the bottom-right corner has been removed, and Microsoft also released an installation ISO for the build, making it likely that this build is the final version. Adding to the theory is that 10240 will be directly upgradable to Gold on July 29, and can be upgraded to from Windows 7, 8 or 8.1 with little to no trouble.

Shortly after this build came a series of updates to core Microsoft applications, including Xbox. That update was the final piece of the puzzle, introducing Xbox One streaming to all gamers, assuming you've install 10240. While we have had access to this feature in the office for a while, I decided to try out the final version of the feature and found it to be even more responsive than it was during the preview period.

Console streaming could definitely be a turning point for both Xbox One and Windows 10. The streaming capabilities allow you to interact with the whole console, not just games, and is two-way interactive. If you have a microphone on your computer, for example a USB or Bluetooth headset, you can speak to the console as if you were sitting right in front of it. My fear is that this is going to change bathroom gaming time from Angry Birds on your tablet to bringing a Surface and Xbox controller and playing Halo; if so, people are going to spend a lot more time in the bathroom.

Hacking Team Finds a Way to Bypass Google Security With Malicious Code

posted Sunday Jul 19, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Hacking Team Finds a Way to Bypass Google Security With Malicious Code

In the past, we have written about the major security issues of the android platform. The company's "come one, come all" approach to application publishing and incredibly liberal access to data stored on your device by any and all applications created an environment that was very conducive to taking advantage of owners.

There was no way that Google could have let this environment persist. In an attempt to prevent their customers from being taken advantage of, and to prevent the complete collapse of Android, Google implemented a system that checks code of applications as they are submitted to see if they contain code specifically designed to steal data or hijack the device. It has been fairly successful, preventing many scam apps from entering Google Play.

The group at Hacking Team, however, seems to have found a way around Google's checks. A sample app, which was designed to show Hacking Team clients how to implement the workaround, was found by Trend Micro researchers in the Hacking Team files that were released recently. The app, BeNews, uses the name of a legitimate but retired news application, and only asks for 3 traditional, non-issue permissions at installation time. All of this makes the app appear legitimate to both customers and bypass the Google security checks.

After the app is installed, though, it takes advantage of a security hole in Linux to inject additional code from the outside world, which escalates the permissions and installs the group's RCSAndroid backdoor Trojan horse. Android is a flavor of Linux, meaning that any version of Android built upon a Linux kernel that contains this exploit, which was documented a year ago, can be affected by the Trojan. It is known that all versions from Android 2.2 to 4.4.4 are affected, but there could be more.

As of now, it appears that the BeNews app has been downloaded less than 50 times, but there is no telling how many other apps published by Hacking Team clients have included this exploit. The moral of the story is, you can't trust an app from Google Play. Always make sure the app is from official, known authors before downloading.

Phil Spencer Talks New Xbox One Elite Controller

posted Sunday Jul 19, 2015 by Nicholas DiMeo

Phil Spencer Talks New Xbox One Elite Controller

One of the big announcements at Microsoft's E3 presentation was a new Xbox One controller. While the price is a little steep, it does bring to the table a pretty incredible feature set. But outside of a few display units, there wasn't much more information on the device in the post-conference panels and news releases. That is until Phil Spencer went into more detail about the new gaming pad in an interview about the future of Xbox.

In the most recent edition of Edge magazine, the Xbox head took some time to address the criticism and glory behind the new controller. He also explained who the hardware specifically targets, along with how the community had input in the design.

Spencer was asked if the design was an internal project or something driven by the community. He responded by saying,

Definitely from the community. There's a lot of innovation that happens in the controller space - people want more customisation when they're at the higher end, and they want to be able to make it their controller. Whereas for me I take the default setup that I've learned. But you think about your eSport pro gaming, which is a very, very strong growth category: those people - a growing segment of our population - really care about making the controller feel exactly the way they want it to feel.

So the controller is targeted at pro gamers who not only take their gaming more seriously, but require a bit more customizability and durability in their peripherals. Does this mean that the regular Xbox controller is gone? Contrary to what the majority of the Internet believes, no. If you'll recall, Microsoft also announced an improved Xbox One controller which (thankfully) brings back the 3.5mm audio jack and improves the bumpers.

I think that controller, especially with some of the recent modifications we made with the audio jack and the shoulder buttons, is the best controller, obviously, that we've made up until the point the Elite controller comes out. We look at the Elite controller as being for somebody who feels they're an elite competitive gamer, and that's great for them, but we'll continue to be very supportive of our Xbox One controller. It's what a vast majority of our gamers will be playing (for the) life of the console.

While I may not be a "pro gamer," I definitely want to pick up the Elite controller and use it in my every day gamer, and a lot of the Xbox community has chimed in with the same feelings about the new accessory. And if that's not for you and you're in the market for an additional controller, the revamped standard one is perfect for you. This gives the Xbox One some more diversity and really does appeal to several different markets now.

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