The UpStream (Page 124)

Columbia House Files for Bankruptcy

posted Sunday Aug 16, 2015 by Nicholas DiMeo

You remember Columbia House, right? You know, the website and mail-order service where you could get 13 records, tapes, CDs or DVDs for JUST $1? As a kid, I thought this was the coolest and best deal ever, and I remember seeing those commercials on TV, in the mail and online for as far back as I can remember. And even though some of their marketing tactics were downright shady, it pains me to report that another nostalgic company has fallen.

Columbia House, which is now owned by Filmed Entertainment, Inc. has filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection this week. The company has acknowledged that it can no longer compete in selling CDs and DVDs with the advent of digital music. It seems like that statement could have been made about 5 years ago with the same impact.

This decline is directly attributable to a confluence of market factors that substantially altered the manner in which consumers purchase and listen to music, as well as the way consumers purchase and watch movies and television series at home.

In its hey-day, Columbia House brought in $1.4 billion. That was in 1996. Since then it's been a spiral downward, with the company only making $17 million last year. How anybody was still paying them money is beyond me, but here we are. Even crazier, the company stopped selling CDs in 2010 and was completely outsourcing its DVD distribution until this announcement.

It's crazy to think how such a shady company stayed in business for so long, and that only the change in technology led to its closure. I can't tell you how many horror stories I've seen over the years of young adults getting suckered into the long-term commitments to Columbia House with no way out. While I wasn't one that fell for the 12 CDs for a penny or a dollar or whatever, I did fall victim to similar scams at the time with other companies. So while it's weird to see another 90s brand crumble, this one is oddly satisfying.

Microsoft Extends NFL Partnership to Include New Surfaces and a New App

posted Sunday Aug 16, 2015 by Nicholas DiMeo

Microsoft Extends NFL Partnership to Include New Surfaces and a New App

The NFL and Microsoft have had a bit of a tumultuous partnership. A couple of years ago, the full push behind Microsoft's Surface as the technology that powered on-field devices ended up with announcers calling them iPads. This led to Microsoft issuing a statement and demanding all personnel know what the computers were actually called. This seemed to have fixed the problem, with NFL teams adopting more and more Microsoft technology, and even venturing into the virtual reality world. Now, the partnership between the National Football League and the team behind Windows has been extended even further, with new things coming for the fan, player and coach.

Fans of the NFL who are using Windows devices will benefit from having a new app for the Xbox One and Windows 10 that will feature improved video playback, new stats and an added fantasy football tracker. The NFL app on the Xbox One was badly missing a fluid user interface and not many people used it as it was reported that the app would freeze and crash on occasion. And with fantasy football becoming more and more popular, being able to snap a tracker on your Xbox seems like a perfect match for those watching football through their TV input on the console. Adding it to other Windows 10 devices gives customers the ability to check out all the content while away from home.

Added to the app will be a new feature called Next Gen Stats. The NFL has added sensors into player equipment that will provide really cool stats like the distance a player has traveled throughout a game or play, how fast they were going and even replays that feature player movements combined with those stats.

Next Gen Stats have opened up a new game for NFL fans to play, called NGS Pick'em. This new quick-hit game lets Xbox users pick players who they think will perform well in a game and will award them prizes for picking the right ones. The winners will be picked weekly, with one winner for the entire season getting tickets to Super Bowl 50. Microsoft has said all these features will be identical on the Windows 10 app as well, naturally.

For coaches and players, Microsoft has supplied them with an abundance of new Surface Pro 3 tablets. Players have fallen in love with the older Surface Pro 2s, as it gave them next to real-time feedback on their last plays and current performance on the field. Coaches were using the computers over printing each and every play from the 12 angles they have access to and instead were swiping, zooming and drawing right on the screen. Referees will get to join in on the tech fun, too, as they will continue to use a Surface for all replay reviews under the hood.

Lastly, Microsoft has made sure that nobody will forget what these devices are called ever again. Instead of just putting the Microsoft logo or the word on the back of the Surfaces, each and every one will have the word Surface labeled on the back of the special housing, in big, bold white lettering. This way, the only people who will misname them again will be those with a secret anti-Surface agenda.

RIAA Attacks CBS and BitTorrent, BitTorrent Responds Rationally

posted Sunday Aug 9, 2015 by Scott Ertz

RIAA Attacks CBS and BitTorrent, BitTorrent Responds Rationally

It has been quite a while since the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA, has made any moves that required discussion. Over the past few weeks, however, the industry trade group has begun sending out letters to organizations that they believe to be actively harmful to the music industry as a whole. First they contacted CBS complaining that the company provides software that promotes the theft of otherwise legal music.

In particular they take offense to software that allows people to strip the audio from online streaming services, such as YouTube. These products are easily obtained from all over the Internet, including in most of the YouTube clients available in Google Play, the Apple App Store and Windows Store. So, with all of this easy availability, why CBS? Because they own CNET, and CNET runs, one of the original popular software download services. The site dates back to 1996, before most people really knew about the Internet.

In addition to the audio strippers, also hosts installers for BitTorrent. The BitTorrent client for windows on has nearly 24 million downloads as of this writing, which is likely the actual reason for targeting CBS. This guess is because BitTorrent was the next company to receive one of these letters. RIAA believes that BitTorrent is used solely for the transfer of illegal content and they want it to stop.

The problem with this assertion is that BitTorrent is a protocol, no different from HTTP. The protocol can be used to transfer any content, and is used by many companies to transfer large amounts of data in a decentralized manner, allowing them to free resources on their corporate servers. For example, Amazon, Blizzard, Facebook and Twitter all use the protocol. It is less than likely that Facebook is out there moving music they don't own.

BitTorrent responded to the claims in a rational, calm manner, certainly setting themselves apart from, say Napster, who would respond to RIAA like a scolded child. In a statement, the company said,

Our position is that they are barking up the wrong tree, as it seems they were with their approach to CBS last week.

As informed commentary in the past few days has made plain, there is a distinction between the BitTorrent protocol and piracy. Piracy is a real thing, but BitTorrent, Inc. is not the source. We do not host, promote, or facilitate copyright infringing content and the protocol, which is in the public domain, is a legal technology.

We do however have a direct-to-fan platform for artists and content owners to use. More than 30,000 publishers have signed up for it to date, including some of the most popular music artists around the world.

It is difficult to vilify a company who provides a service for the purchasing of music direct from artists by saying they promote the theft of music. It is actually in their best financial interest to discourage theft and, instead, encourage the purchasing of said music through their own platform. My guess is this is RIAA trying to get their name back out into the world as a legal group, though I suspect it will be with the same laughable tactic they have used before. Anyone remember the older woman who was sued for using Morpheus to download music, though she had a Mac and the software wasn't available on Mac?

Reddit Begins Implementing New Rules, Bans Racist Communities

posted Sunday Aug 9, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Reddit Begins Implementing New Rules, Bans Racist Communities

After the Ellen Pao disaster, Reddit has been working to implement the new policies announced at her resignation. The process has not been a particularly simple one, as backlash from some of the communities on the site has been vocal. Fortunately, those communities have been a small percentage of the overall userbase.

The vocal minority might have something new to complain about soon, however, as the company has altered their policies once again. Now, instead of quarantining offensive communities, such as those that promote racism, they will ban them. While you might immediately look at this as a positive move, let me explain to you the culture of Reddit and why there is likely to be a negative response associated with the decision.

The stated goal of the site is to provide a safe place for the free exchange of ideas. One of the things that comes along with free speech is the likelihood that some people will be offended by said speech. As the site grew, a larger than expected portion of the community became more a place for people to say insane or hurtful things rather than to spread ideas and thoughts. This has left the executives with an interesting dilemma: do they back off of their idea of a true free speech zone, or do they deal with the public outcry about it being a community filled with hate?

Right now, they are trying to find a harmony between the two sides. In removing communities who intention is to take advantage of the free speech zone only to say hurtful, offensive and racist things, they seem to have found a balance they think will keep their users and community positive, while still mostly adhering to the intentions of the site. It will not make everyone happy, but it should not affect those who use the site for the purposes it was originally created to serve.

In addition to offensive content, the management will also take steps to remove what CEO Steve Huffman calls animated child pornography, likely referring to the rising popularity of lolicon or shotacon on Reddit and similar sites. While not technically illegal in the west, many believe that the content leads to the mistreatment of minors in the real world, and sites like Reddit are taking a preemptive stand against the content. It's a pretty smart move as the company does not need any potential legal issues as they are trying to redefine themselves on the Internet.

Microsoft Announces New Features for Xbox One Coming November

posted Sunday Aug 9, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Microsoft Announces New Features for Xbox One Coming November

It has been no secret the PlayStation 4 has continually outsold the Xbox One. Microsoft is not unaccustomed to this position, having been outsold in both of their previous generations, only to gain the upper hand as they improved and added to the platform. For example, Xbox 360 sales really took off after the NXE (New Xbox Experience) in 2009. The Xbox 360 ended up being the undisputed leader of its generation.

We know that this year, the Xbox One is set to receive its equivalent of the NXE - Windows 10. Along with Windows 10 will come a slue of new features and capabilities, similar to what the 360 received with the NXE. At Gamescom 2015, Microsoft gave a lot of information about what we can expect to come along with said upgrade.

First will come an NXE-level overhaul of the controversial dashboard. While some, like myself, have loved the interface in theory, others have hated it. The changes won't be as visually drastic as the 360's transition from blades to tile groups, it will be a welcome change for most. The important change will come in its speed - a complaint that every Xbox One owner has had. Enhancing that aspect will make everyone's life easier.

As I predicted, Cortana will be taking over voice commands from the Kinect after the update. That will certainly enhance the capabilities of the voice commands above their already impressive response. It should also give more capabilities to the browser, which I assume will be swapped from Internet Explorer to Edge in the update. This means we could see the ability to draw on the web using Edge and the Kinect.

Xbox 360 backward compatibility details were also expanded. We know that around 100 games will be available at launch, and starting now all Games With Gold for Xbox 360 titles will be included in the backward compatibility list. That means that the free games included for the 360 will also be playable on the Xbox One. That will enhance the catalog of free, playable games on the Xbox One. While we may not know all 100 titles coming, we do know that all games in the Gears of War franchise will be included.

Also drawing from the Xbox 360, Microsoft showed off a Chatpad. It looks nearly identical to the one for the 360, which is a positive as the original was popular and efficient. It will clip into the controller in the same way, but adds the new features of the console, such as screenshot and 30 second video backup. The Chatpad will work on the console and Windows 10, and will be available sometime in 2016.

The most exciting information was the release date for Windows 10 on Xbox One. The new platform will release to the world in November of this year, with the preview program having begun for a very small group of testers, rolling out to more in the near future.

Verizon Wireless Goes Contract-Free With New Plans

posted Sunday Aug 9, 2015 by Scott Ertz

Verizon Wireless Goes Contract-Free With New Plans

The US wireless market has always been a bit of an oddity in the global wireless industry. Much of the world operates on the premise that you are responsible for purchasing your phone, the US wireless companies have long paid the cost of your phone up-front in exchange for you promising to stick with them for 2 years. This allowed you to spread out the cost of the device over the length of the contract, meaning you wouldn't have to pay $700 for a new iPhone (excluding the first generation).

That business model has been changing recently, however. Pushed by T-Mobile US, the North American arm of German operator Deutsche Telekom, American wireless companies have been shifting away from subsidized phone prices. T-Mobile introduced a lease program a few years back, and subsequently the other 3 major carriers implemented similar or identical programs. Now, Verizon Wireless, a wholly-American operator is taking the lead in the transition to a more European style business model.

The company's new plans will retire service contracts and phone subsidies completely in exchange for outright phone purchases or device leases and far simpler plans. In fact, all plans come with unlimited voice and text, and 4 levels of data, labeled small, medium, large and extra-large. These sizes offer 1, 3, 6 and 12GB of sharable data, respectively. Device additions are easy as well, at $20 per smartphone, $10 per tablet and $5 per connected device (smartwatches, etc.). Rob Miller, vice-president of consumer pricing, said,

Choosing a wireless plan is now easier than ever. Customers said they don't want to have to do a lot of math to figure out their best options, and we heard them. A plan with small, medium, large and x-large choices makes sense for the way people actually use their wireless service.

While the idea of abandoning contracts might sound good on its face, it is important to note one thing: A contract is an agreement between 2 parties. In the case of wireless contracts, the thing people always focused on was that they were being "locked in" to a specific carrier. There has always been an exit clause, and the buyout was often less than the price of purchasing the handset outright, making the option potentially less expensive than the new plans. On the other side, however, is the fact that the carrier is also "locked in" with you, meaning they could not change the details of your plan. Without the service agreement, technically the carriers can change the pricing of your plan over time, because there is no contract preventing it.

We have seen no-contract carriers do this in the past. MetroPCS, especially in its early days, changed the prices of plans for all of their customers a number of times (having started at $30 for unlimited data in our market). Virgin Mobile, under Richard Branson's management before becoming part of Sprint, also forced plan changes across the board with no ability for customers to remain on previous plans.

We have never seen the big 4 make this move on their no contract brands, however we have seen them force changes when handsets were upgraded. Under this plan, if Verizon discovers they have made a bad deal, they could change the pricing, similar to how your cable, power or landline phone service works.

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