The UpStream

Despite Reports, Microsoft is Not Shedding Departments

posted Friday Jul 10, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Despite Reports, Microsoft is Not Shedding Departments

Following an email from CEO Satya Nadella stating that hard choices would need to be made, Microsoft has made a lot of announcements about changes to the structure of the company. Unfortunately, the details of those changes seem to have been misunderstood by many in the press. In some cases, the people writing about the topic seem to have not actually read the press releases from the company at all. Because of this, I feel it is important to set the record straight, so let's get started.

Advertising Business

It has been reported by many institutions that Microsoft has sold its online display ad business to AOL. Unfortunately, except for the names of the companies and departments, nothing else is accurate. In fact, Microsoft has expanded its online display ad business by entering into a 10 year sales and search partnership with the content creator. Microsoft will provide AOL with search for their platforms, powered by Bing, while AOL will serve as the sales force for Microsoft's advertising service.

This partnership provides AOL with a fully customized advertising platform for their sites, like Huffington Post and Engadget. It also provides AOL with recurring revenue from sales of advertising services to other sites, all without having to build or maintain the technology. What Microsoft gets is a dedicated sales force for its advertising business, a guaranteed revenue stream from AOL's own advertising needs, and a new outlet to build the reputation of its Bing search capabilities.

At a time when Bing is quickly gaining ground on Google, partnerships like this are essential. Apple uses Bing as its search provider within iOS and OS X, and even powers Siri with Microsoft's data. Adding AOL, another major content producer and recent addition to the Verizon family, will help them edge ever closer to Google in search popularity.

Phone Business

Nadella was openly against the purchase of Nokia right from the beginning. He famously spoke out against it even as he was being considered to replace Ballmer as CEO of the company. As soon as he was given the job, he publicly changed his tune, though it was no secret that he still personally thought that producing phones was outside of Microsoft's core competency. Because of that, early into his tenure, the Lumia team was cut by a lot.

This week, it was announced that a $7.6 billion write-off was being filed as a result of the Nokia purchase. In addition, 7,800 employees would be cut form the company, mostly coming from the Lumia team. Many tech sites have reported that this signals the end of Windows-powered phones, which is obviously laughable. Microsoft is betting big on the One Microsoft philosophy, which includes Windows devices of all sizes, including smartphones.

What this does indicate is that the Lumia team was far too big for the plans that Nadella has. It is likely that, like the successful Surface line, Microsoft's new intent is to produce a small number of flagship Windows-powered Lumia devices whose intent is to push other manufacturers to try big things in the market. Before the Surface line, the idea of a convertible was insane, while today nearly every manufacturer of computers offers one. It is unlikely that this push would have happened if it weren't for the Surface.

With the idea of producing only flagship devices, the design and implementation teams do not need to be large; certainly not large enough to produce all of the phones that Nokia was making. With that type of shift comes layoffs, which is what was announced this week.

The shift from flooding the market with lots of Lumia phones to producing only industry spec flagships would put Microsoft into an interesting middle ground between Apple and Google's philosophies. On the one extreme, Apple gives its customers absolutely no choices and controls every aspect of the ecosystem: a philosophy that once nearly collapsed their company and today leaves them in 2nd or 3rd place, depending on the country. Google, on the other hand, controls absolutely no aspect of the ecosystem, except for the platform name. Devices can be of any size, shape or quality, can look or function in any variety of ways, and have a huge discrepancy in user experiences. This model has put Google in 1st place worldwide, but it also opens users up to any number of issues.

Microsoft has positioned themselves in the middle for the tablet space and are likely aligning their Lumia business with this move. Microsoft would control the ecosystem and offer a set of devices that set a standard, while licensing their platform for other manufacturers to expand the ecosystem. It is an interesting gamble, but one that could pay off huge if successful.

The Problems With YouTube's Copyright Policies: Nonsense Claims

posted Sunday Jul 5, 2015 by Scott Ertz

The Problems With YouTube's Copyright Policies: Nonsense Claims

Anyone who has ever interacted with YouTube knows about copyright notices. Whether you are a content producer who has had a video muted because there was music playing in a room during an interview with a company that sells speakers, a musician whose music is being used without permission or a user who has encountered ads for music in the video, you likely have some experience.

What most people don't know is that there are companies who represent audio copyright holders on YouTube. These companies scour YouTube looking for audio that infringes copyrights held by their clients. This is great for artists of any size, from local indie to international superstars. It is no wonder a number of these companies have emerged to help artists monetize their music on YouTube.

From time to time, however, these companies can get a little over-anxious. For example, this week, a company called Adafruit that produces Arduino-based products posted a simple video. It was basically an Arduino spinning to the song "America the Beautiful." YouTube copyright protector Rumblefish took issue with the music used and filed a copyright notice against Adafruit. YouTube contacted them to inform them that they could not monetize the video and Rumblefish could run their own ads on the video.

The problem? Rumblefish has no rights to the music. As it turns out, the song "America the Beautiful" is no longer protected by copyright. It was recorded at another time when copyright laws had fast expirations, and it has expired. Of course, just because a song has lapsed doesn't mean a particular recording can't be protected. Unfortunately for Rumblefish, the recording used here was by the US Navy Band. Since the Navy is a government organization, their recordings are all public domain.

Clearly Adafruit has disputed the claim. They chose the song and recording specifically because it was entirely in the public domain, so this is quite a shock. It is not, however, the first time Rumblefish has made a ridiculous claim. In 2012, a video of a guy walking in a park and eating leaves had a takedown notice because Rumblefish claimed to own the birds chirping in the park.

Perhaps YouTube should have a better process for verifying claims before taking down videos or issuing copyright notices.

Reddit on Verge of Staff vs. Community Battle

posted Sunday Jul 5, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Reddit on Verge of Staff vs. Community Battle

Reddit is an incredibly popular community on the Internet, referring to themselves as "The front page of the Internet." I have personally never understood the appeal of the site, but I have understood that it is a place where people can go and have frank, open discussions about topics of the day. The topics tend to be based on opinions that are not based in reality, but people are welcome to talk about whatever they like.

The community is falling apart, however, because of the decisions of interim CEO Ellen Pao. For those who follow the tech industry, that should be a familiar name, as she is the woman who lost the gender discrimination case against venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers. The same attitude that led to the tenuous case also led to some decisions inside the company that is pushing the community away.

The turning point was the way the company handled firing Victoria Taylor, a popular admin on the site. In solidarity with Taylor, many boards closed to the public, making Reddit a very quiet place to be. As criticism mounted against the company and Pao in particular, she made a public statement, saying,

The bigger problem is that we haven't helped our moderators with better support after many years of promising to do so. We do value moderators; they allow reddit to function and they allow each subreddit to be unique and to appeal to different communities. This year, we have started building better tools for moderators and for admins to help keep subreddits and reddit awesome, but our infrastructure is monolithic, and it is going to take some time.

We hired someone to product manage it, and we moved an engineer to help work on it. We hired 5 more people for our community team in total to work with both the community and moderators. We are also making changes to, adding new features like better search and building mobile web, but our testing plan needs improvement. As a result, we are breaking some of the ways moderators moderate. We are going to figure this out and fix it.

While an interesting statement, it does not address the issue at hand at all. The community, in particular the moderators, have issues with how the firing went down, not about how hard it is to moderate. In addition to the privatizing of boards, a petition is also circulating asking for Pao to step down as interim CEO. Based on her poor handling of her own life, followed by her handling of the company, in addition to the public backlash received, that might just be the best idea right now.

Miyamoto, Gun-Shy Over VR, Doesn't Understand the Hype

posted Sunday Jul 5, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Miyamoto, Gun-Shy Over VR, Doesn't Understand the Hype

Augmented and Virtual Reality technology is all the rage right now. Both technologies have a lot of potential in the gaming space, I cannot see VR having a lot of success outside of gaming; certainly not in the same way as AR. As Microsoft readies their HoloLens AR headset, Sony readies their Project Morpheus and Valve readies their SteamVR platform with partner HTC, the only major player not involved is Nintendo.

This could be because Nintendo, way ahead of the technology, released their own VR headset, the Virtual Boy, in 1995. The headset was really great at making people sick to their stomach, but not very good at anything else. This could definitely have poisoned Nintendo towards VR or AR technology. It could also be because Nintendo has twice consecutively launched consoles based on novel peripherals and not had huge sales successes. No matter the cause, Shigeru Miyamoto had some harsh words for the technology and its announcements.

I got the general impression that they were showcasing not only the products for this year but also many products for next year or the year after and, because of that, introductions for many of their software titles were done visually, not with playable demos. Also, many demonstrations for virtual-reality devices have been conducted at recent trade shows, and at this year's E3, I noticed a number of dream-like demonstrations for which the schedule and format for commercialization are unknown.

The current software for these virtual reality devices cannot be played simultaneously by a number of people. And since it is generally expected that the development for the applicable software for a high-performance device will take two to three years, there were a number of visual demonstrations for virtual reality devices.

Nintendo took a very difference approach to their E3 presentation from its competition - rather than showcases for stuff coming in 2017 or 2018, Nintendo had a lot of playable games that will be released in the near future. Whether Miyamoto understands VR and AR in today's world, Microsoft, Sony, Valve and Oculus believe they have the next exciting gaming technology on their hands and are putting a lot of their resources behind it. Let's see if Nintendo's cautious approach to the future or everyone else's approach will work better.

AT&T-DirecTV $48.5B Merger Should Clear Approval Process This Week

posted Sunday Jul 5, 2015 by Nicholas DiMeo

AT&T-DirecTV $48.5B Merger Should Clear Approval Process This Week

While T-Mobile might still be trying to merge with Dish Network, an approval for AT&T and DirecTV to join forces might come through as early as next week. The rapid progress behind the $48.5 billion merger will result in an OK from the FCC as by Friday according to sources inside the negotiation room.

If it seemed like this came out of nowhere to you, don't worry, because it sort of did. While the world was talking about T-Mobile-Dish and Charter-Time Warner in 2015, last May AT&T and DirecTV landed the deal and have been quietly hammering out the details. So far, nobody has really batted an eye to the deal like they did with both the T-Mobile-AT&T and the Comcast-Time Warner attempts. The Department of Justice has already cleared the deal, so now it just rests on the Federal Communications Commission to finalize everything.

The merger has been slowly moving through the FCC approval process, with the Commission collecting the necessary documents along the way. The FCC has also delayed their "timer" on the merger while awaiting to receive contracts and other information. AT&T went ahead and filed an extension with the SEC to push the break-up trigger back from two months ago to August, which still gives the companies a month to nail down an approval.

The DoJ's approval process took almost no time at all, with the Department closing the investigation without any stipulation or complaint. Aside from the FCC's go-ahead, both AT&T and DirecTV still require the DoJ's antitrust committee to analyze the deal and OK it as well. This should come during the same time of the FCC approval, so long as everything passes over there.

What does this mean for consumers? Right now, a whole lot of nothing. That is, until all the transitional logistics take place over the next year or so. From there, it could mean that a lot of different things, but AT&T has a roadmap in place for its ideas. In a statement, AT&T said that, "AT&T will use the merger synergies to expand its plans to build and enhance high-speed broadband service to 15 million customer locations, mostly in rural areas where AT&T does not provide high-speed broadband service today."

Details Emerge About Minecraft: Story Mode at Minecon 2015

posted Sunday Jul 5, 2015 by Nicholas DiMeo

Details Emerge About Minecraft: Story Mode at Minecon 2015

Microsoft's acquisition of Mojang and Minecraft for $2.5 billion finally made sense to me this week at Minecon. At the game's convention in London, details were finally announced about how Microsoft will completely change the way you look at Minecraft with Minecraft: Story Mode, expected to be released later this year. Using the power of Microsoft, the Mojang team rang up Telltale Games to produce this new title.

Until this weekend, there was no other information other than a new storyline surrounding the popular block building game. Telltale Games told us that there will be one new story, launched in five episodes. You will play the protagonist Jesse - who is not the beloved Steve - in an effort to save the world. No word on if Herobrine makes an appearance.

Players will control protagonist Jesse throughout the season, as portrayed by actor Patton Oswalt. Jesse and his group of friends revere the legendary Order of the Stone; four adventurers who slayed an Ender Dragon. The Order are the very best at what they do: Warrior, Redstone Engineer, Griefer, and Architect. While at EnderCon, Jesse and his friends discover that something is wrong... something dreadful. Terror is unleashed, and they must set out on a journey to find The Order of the Stone if they are to save their world from oblivion.

So having Patton Oswalt lead this new game with his incredible voice acting is pretty great. However there's definite bonus points that need to be awarded as well, and it's to Billy West for also taking on a role in the game. I can't see a way that this combination won't be a totally good thing.

As far as the game itself, Telltale says it is working closely with Mojang to make sure this Minecraft experience is as good as it can be. The game can be played many different ways, as the scenarios are completely choice-based. This means you can change the story based on the decisions you make as you play. Sometimes, those decisions may not have the best results.

Telltale said that each episode of the game will take around two hours to complete, and that a Season Pass of sorts will be available for purchase that should save you money over buying each of the five individually. The game will be launched on the 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, PC, Mac, compatible iOS devices, Android and the Amazon Fire TV.

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