The UpStream

After a year on the market, Epic Games Store has made a big impact

posted Friday Dec 6, 2019 by Scott Ertz

After a year on the market, Epic Games Store has made a big impact

When Epic announced its Epic Games Store, there was a lot of concern about what it might do to the industry. Epic is not exactly known for being a great company, despite having built one of the world's most popular games. The company decided to take a different approach towards its store, focusing on the publishers rather than the customers. They did this by offering only a 12 percent fee, compared with the Microsoft Store's 20 percent, or Steam's 30 percent. This move has attracted a lot of developers, especially smaller developers, for whom that additional 18 percent revenue could be essential.

As the Epic Games Store has grown in popularity, for both publishers and gamers, it has had more of an effect than we expected, especially on its biggest competitor: Steam. Over the years, Valve has seemed to have a level of confidence that can often cause a company to lose its place in the industry. Steve Ballmer's confidence in the market domination of Windows Mobile in 2007 (they were the largest smartphone platform at the time) is the reason the Surface Phone Duo runs Android.

However, Valve saw the challenge and responded. The company has promised a Steam redesign for years and has never delivered on it. However, this year, the company has begun implementing those changes, starting with a big update to the game library. This UI has not aged well, especially as libraries have grown over the past 15 years to an unwieldy size. The updated UI has made it easier to find what you're looking for in your library, including new sorting options, better game details, and even a wider screen (no more bezels).

Based on Valve's development process, without a big push internally, these changes would never have happened, and we all know it. Without the new challenger in the marketplace, that internal push would never have been made, so the existence of the Epic Games Store has had a positive impact across the industry.

AR is where the investment is, with Qualcomm & Niantic going all-in

posted Friday Dec 6, 2019 by Scott Ertz

AR is where the investment is, with Qualcomm & Niantic going all-in

It's no secret that, in the world of ultra-portable computing, the Qualcomm Snapdragon platform is the preferred choice. It's partially because the processors are the best in the market (even driving Intel to abandon their product line), and partially because they are incredibly easy to integrate. The chipset offers more than just a processor, as it includes radio technologies as well. This makes designing a device easier, as there is no need to try and integrate various components.

At Qualcomm's Snapdragon Summit, the company announced a new generation of its mixed reality system, the Snapdragon XR2 Platform. With this new model, Qualcomm has brought 5G to the augmented reality and mixed reality world. AR/MR has had one of its biggest limitations, and the introduction of 5G on a Snapdragon processor designed for the technology could finally alleviate that limitation. While the company's spec hardware may not be anything visually spectacular, it's designed to show hardware designers what can be created, not to be a consumer-facing device.

However, as part of the announcement for the platform, Qualcomm announced an important partner: Niantic. The company that has made augmented reality a household technology that is approachable for everyone is officially developing their AR headset powered by the new Snapdragon XR2 Platform. This will mark a transition point for the concept of standalone AR hardware, made popular by Microsoft's HoloLens and highly marketed by Magic Leap. Unlike Microsoft and Magic Leap, however, Niantic hardware will almost certainly come with the added benefit of an absolutely killer app (Pokemon GO, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, Ingress Prime). Also, unlike Magic Leap, Niantic will be able to position their hardware as a must-have for consumers, enthusiasts, and professionals.

To sweeten the pot, Niantic also announced that its Niantic Real World Platform will be made available to developers, both on their hardware and other platforms, to help bring new shared experiences to the world. As the company that made these shared experiences possible and popular, it is a great idea to make that platform available to other developers because it will make it easier for developers to bring more experiences to their hardware.

Apple hits another snag with original content, cancels film premiere

posted Saturday Nov 23, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Apple hits another snag with original content, cancels film premiere

While the release of Disney+ has seen its share of difficulties, including missing features and system availability, it's been the release of Apple TV+ that has been the real disaster. Disney has almost a century worth of content to fall back onto, but Apple is just getting started with content, and that content has been its downfall thus far.

The company put a lot of money and marketing efforts behind its original series. Unfortunately, critics and consumers alike have met these projects with indifference at best and disdain at worst. The flagship series, The Morning Show, has been the hardest hit. Of the reviews I've seen, the nicest comment called it boring, and it got worse from there.

On the heels of the challenges presented by their lackluster series productions, Apple now has a new issue to overcome. The premiere of one of their first major films, The Banker, has been canceled and the release has been postponed indefinitely. The move does not come because of a lack of confidence in the content itself, but instead because of behind the scenes issues.

The release's pause comes after sisters Cynthia and Sheila Garrett alleged that Bernard Garrett Jr. sexually assaulted them for nearly a decade. The incidents happened in the 1970s, and are semi intertwined into the actual story of the film itself. The movie, set in the 1950s, centers on two land developers, one of which is Bernard Garrett Sr. Adding to the controversy, Garrett is the half-brother of the sisters in question. Apple said in a statement,

Last week some concerns surrounding the film were brought to our attention. We, along with the filmmakers, need some time to look into these matters and determine the best next steps.

While Samuel L. Jackson has been discussed as a potential long-shot nomination for an Oscar, Apple has made it clear that promoting a film produced by an accused rapist is not on their holiday wish list. The future of the film is definitely in question, though the likeliest outcome is stripping Garrett's producer credit.

US government looking for international support against encryption

posted Saturday Nov 23, 2019 by Scott Ertz

US government looking for international support against encryption

The government has long had a complicated relationship with data security. On the one hand, Congress held hearings with top-level executives of Facebook, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, over the handling of user data, spurred on by the Cambridge Analytica issues. On the other, the Justice Department has campaigned against encryption, wanting a "backdoor" into encrypted data. The tech world has continued to fight against the idea of an easily broken encryption system because that undermines the entire concept of encryption.

This week, the government has begun trying to rally an international coalition against secure encryption. A draft resolution, written by members of the FBI, was presented at INTERPOL's child protection meeting in Lyon, France. The draft stated,

The current path towards default end-to-end encryption, with no provision for lawful access, does not allow for the protection of the world's children from sexual exploitation. Technology providers must act and design their services in a way that protects user privacy, on the one hand, while providing user safety, on the other hand. Failure to allow for Lawful Access on their platforms and products, provides a safe haven to offenders utilizing these to sexually exploit children, and inhibits our global law enforcement efforts to protect children.

While attendees of the meeting claimed that the resolution would be published shortly, INTERPOL representatives have stated in no uncertain terms that the draft would not be addressed. Part of the draft that likely raised concern was the massively false statement that "technologists agree" that backdoors are a good thing. The reality is that almost no one in the technology field believes that backdoors are a good idea and, instead, believe that it could be the end of security as we know it.

One of the most ardent and vocal defenders of encryption has been Apple. The company famously fought a court order demanding that they decrypt a device that law enforcement locked down due to carelessness and negligence. The company's argument has been the same as in all encryption arguments: once a hole exists, it will be exploited forever.

There is no way that the Justice Department stops fighting for their terrible idea, but hopefully, the rest of the world will continue to respond with the same indifference towards their outbursts.

Half-Life and virtual reality get a boost from new Valve game

posted Saturday Nov 23, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Half-Life and virtual reality get a boost from new Valve game

It has been over 12 years since the latest entry in the Half-Life franchise was released. It was Half-Life 2 Episode 2, released in October 2007, part of the Orange Box, which also included the undisputed game of the year, Portal. In the subsequent decade, players have hoped that Valve would release the third chapter in that story, Episode 3, but to no avail. In its absence, the existence of Half-Life 3 has become the constant joke of the Internet.

This week, Valve announced neither Half-Life 2 Episode 3 nor Half-Life 3. Instead, they announced details about an entirely new entry in the franchise: Half-Life: Alyx. This previously known game, but with no details, will live between the first and second games and will tie together the gap between the stories. The idea of being able to re-enter the chaotic world of Black Mesa has excited fans of the franchise.

While the excitement over the new entry is a big announcement from Valve, there is something potentially more exciting about the new game. Half-Life: Alyx will be a AAA title released as a virtual reality game, and a flagship title for the Valve Index headset. One of the biggest limiting factors for the success of VR has been the lack of a truly killer title for any VR platform. By bringing the most demanded franchise in gaming into the world of VR could finally represent the tipping point for VR.

In addition to the excitement over the title, there is another reason to be excited. Valve plans on bundling this AAA title with the headset. That means that anyone who owns the Valve Index will get Half-Life: Alyx for free. As we have seen with other gaming platforms, giving games for free is a huge incentive for people to use it. However, this is a big move from Valve to increase the value of the Index. Half-Life: Alyx will be available in March 2020, assuming no typical Valve delays.

But that's not all Valve had to say about the franchise. Valve's David Speyrer told The Verge that people inside of Valve have been excited to have returned to the franchise and that, assuming success on the new title, the company could spend more time working within that universe. Maybe finishing the current story, maybe starting an entirely new one. Either way, fingers crossed for continued content.

The US Government will not pay for new Chinese network hardware

posted Saturday Nov 23, 2019 by Scott Ertz

The US Government will not pay for new Chinese network hardware

There has been a lot of questions over the validity of Chinese hardware existing in the West, led by the United States. The worry comes from the close relationship between some of the big tech companies and the Communist government that controls China. This concern has covered everything from $200 phones and laptops to million-dollar cellular network hardware. While the future of the relationship between US and Chinese companies is still in question for consumer goods, the Federal Communications Commission has decided on network hardware.

The FCC has voted unanimously to ban Huawei and ZTE hardware from being purchased under the commission's Universal Service Fund (USF). This fund is used to subsidize installations to provide service to low income and hard to serve areas, which would likely never turn a profit on their own. The ban currently prevents companies using this fund from purchasing hardware from the two named companies, but also provides a mechanism for evaluating other manufacturers for future bans. It could also require the removal of existing hardware from these manufacturers in the future.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said of the decision,

(Huawei and ZTE) have close ties to China's Communist government and military apparatus. Both companies are subject to Chinese laws broadly obligating them to cooperate with any request from the country's intelligence services and to keep those requests secret. Both companies have engaged in conduct like intellectual property theft, bribery, and corruption.

While the move is entirely about the security of voice and data transmitted across networks built using government subsidies, at least one Commissioner is concerned that the topic could get pulled into the greater story of global trade with China. Jessica Rosenworcel said,

When the United States government pursues action against Huawei or ZTE, its objective should be security. But in Washington right now, I fear these issues can easily get swept up into broader trade matters. Despite our actions today, we have to grapple with the fact that at any moment the administration could trade away our security objectives for some momentary advantage in bilateral trade negotiations. I hope that does not occur, but let's be honest, it has happened before, when this administration reversed course on banning ZTE from doing business in the United States. If it happens again, it will have serious consequences for our credibility.

The credibility of the FCC, especially in security matters, is an important one right now. With the greater security threat from China growing, and the topic of data security and privacy at the forefront of everyone's mind, standing strong on security is essential. Hopefully, Commissioner Rosenworcel's fears won't be realized.

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