The UpStream

Entertainment companies are trying to make quarantine more enjoyable

posted Saturday Mar 21, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Over the past few weeks, the world has definitely changed. As the global outbreak of COVID-19 continues to worsen, more and more people are staying home, not just during their off-hours but during work hours as well. Non-essential businesses are closed worldwide, including all entertainment companies, such as movie theaters, venues, and bars. As the scenario worsens, the entertainment industry has made changes to the way it works in order to make the experience of living and working at home a little better.

Venues and Bars

Local artists, including musicians, dancers, and drag performers, rely on bars and local venues to pay their bills. With these locations being closed, the venues and performers are working together to bring unique experiences to their fans. Many of these groups are doing live streams, either from the venues themselves or remote locations, and making them available through the larger fanbase of the venues. They accept tips to help keep the local scene going.

Movies

Movie studios schedule their theatrical releases sometimes years in advance of the films' releases. For those who have films scheduled to release in the next few months, or that released just before the shutdown, decisions have had to be made. Without theaters to show the movies, they have looked at new ways to distribute those films. As a result, a number of high profile movies, including Pixar's Onward, DC Entertainment's Birds of Prey, and Disney's Frozen II are all releasing on digital well ahead of the planned schedule. Some are available for standard streaming, while others are available for rental or purchase on platforms like iTunes.

The Downsides

As more things move online, the internet's infrastructure and corporate infrastructures are seeing heavier than normal stresses. As such, the streaming companies, who are seeing the largest portion of the increase, are starting to throttle their output. This is happening for a variety of reasons, but mostly because their own networks are not designed for this load. These companies build their networks such that they can handle their customers' standard needs, but no one was prepared for this increase. As streaming companies are also the largest users of internet bandwidth, by reducing the stream quality, they can try and prevent interruptions to other systems being used to keep businesses online.

Facebook decides now is a good time to roll out new web interface

posted Saturday Mar 21, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Facebook decides now is a good time to roll out new web interface

A year ago, at Facebook's F8 developer conference, the company announced a major redesign of its desktop web experience. The new version of the application is the largest change since the update that moved the Facebook logo on the header and introduced the righthand panel years ago. A quick glance will make it clear that the new web experience is based on the mobile experience, with the site's content being broken into top-level content categories, each with its own tab across the top. These include the Feed, Videos (Watch), Marketplace, Groups, etc.

While a small group of users has had access to the new design for a little while, the majority of users have not had access to the new features. That changed this week, as the company has begun rolling out the new interface to a larger group of users. Some had it forced upon them, while others have the option to enable it manually. Either way, it appears that users will have the ability to swap back to the current interface - at least for a while.

This change is coming at a time when the web experience is being used more than usual, with more people working from home and using a computer during their day. With a captive audience, the company seems to have decided that it was a great tie to swap to the new experience. While this might be a strange choice for those who use the desktop experience on a regular basis as we do here in the office, it actually makes a lot of sense for those who are used to mobile. Having a more familiar look and feel to the desktop application could encourage people to use the web application more.

Of course, not everyone has been invited to test the application. Our team is mixed, with some seeing the option to change. If you are interested in trying out the new interface, check under the user menu (top-right corner) and look for "See New Facebook" under the Settings option.

GameStop changes stance, closes inside of stores amid pressure

posted Saturday Mar 21, 2020 by Scott Ertz

GameStop changes stance, closes inside of stores amid pressure

Companies across the globe have been changing the way they do business during this global viral outbreak. Many have shut down offices, allowing their employees to work from home (unless you're a Comcast employee). Many retailers have shut down entirely, while others have shut their doors to the public, allowing only curbside pickups. Even restaurants, who depend on on-site business, have shut their doors across the world. In this environment, only essential businesses, such as grocery and pharmacy, are still open to the public, and even they are looking for new ways to do business.

And then there's GameStop, the videogame retailer that has seen hard times in the last few years. As retailers have closed their doors, GameStop has taken a different strategy - claiming that they are essential retail. The reason they make this claim is that, in addition to videogames and toys, the company also sells computer accessories and peripherals that people who are working at home for the first time will be needing. The corporate office even sent a letter to store managers to provide to law enforcement in the case they tried to enforce store closures on GameStop locations. At least, in the midst of bad decision making, the company did decide to cancel its midnight events for the launch of Doom Eternal and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Fortunately, the national attention brought to the company because of its refusal to close stores has led to a change in policy. After California refused to allow GameStop to keep its doors open after a statewide shutdown, headquarters changed its position, closing all of its stores to the public. The stores will remain open, allowing customers to pick up online and phone orders. This move is finally a smart one, as employee health and safety were being put at risk in order to sell more videogames.

With Instagram, disappearing messages are the new hot feature

posted Saturday Mar 21, 2020 by Scott Ertz

With Instagram, disappearing messages are the new hot feature

Facebook has been in the middle of reimagining the way that messaging works across and between the company's platforms. In addition to introducing encrypted messaging across Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, the company has been looking to introduce other features to the company's offerings. One of those new features, which is available in other messaging platforms, might be disappearing messages for Instagram.

Reverse engineering expert Jane Manchun Wong discovered in the code for Instagram's Android app revealing an in-progress feature denoted by the "speak no evil" emoji. This feature, according to Wong, features disappearing messages, similar to Snapchat. In the case of Instagram's feature, this "dark mode" messaging will clear the messages when the chat is closed. The company's communications office responded to the tweet, ci=onfirming the feature,

We're always exploring new features to improve your messaging experience. This feature is still in early development and not testing externally just yet!

While we know that the feature is currently in development, it doesn't mean that it will ever see the light of day. Facebook and its subsidiaries build features that are scrapped all the time, and this might be one of those features. This does seem like something that will be implemented eventually, however. We also don't know what "disappearing" actually means - is it just in the client, or does Instagram purge the messages from its servers as well?

This is not Facebook's first foray into the disappearing messaging game. In 2014, Facebook tried to purchase Snapchat for $3 billion (three times the price for Instagram). When the offer was rejected, Facebook built its own version of the platform called Slingshot. If you don't remember Slingshot, that's okay - the platform never gained any traction and was shut down the next year. Facebook has successfully stolen other Snapchat features over the years, however, like Stories.

Disappearing messages are becoming a more popular feature across messaging platforms right now. Twitter has been experimenting with the concept as well, though in a more Twitter style. The experimental feature lets posts, photos, and videos disappear after 24 hours, similar to the Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram Stores concept.

Fire TV might be having trouble with adoption because of Google

posted Friday Mar 13, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Fire TV might be having trouble with adoption because of Google

When it comes to streaming sticks and set-top boxes, it is a close battle between Google and Amazon. Chromecast and Fire TV devices share a large majority of the device market. However, when it comes to televisions themselves, the Fire TV market is incredibly small. It's certainly not because Amazon is uninterested in the market, as they do produce a TV operating system. It's also definitely not because customers don't want Fire TV built into their televisions, or they wouldn't continue buying over the top devices.

So, why is Fire TV almost entirely missing from the smart TV market? According to industry insiders, the problem lies with Google. Because Fire TV is a branch of Android, it causes problems with Google's licensing contracts. For a manufacturer to be able to include the Google Play services into their devices, they cannot manufacture a product featuring a branched version of Android.

As it turns out, this is not platform-specific. In fact, companies that manufacture Android smartphones cannot use the prime version of Android or the Google Play services, including the app store, if they also manufacture a Fire TV television. So, companies like Samsung, LG, and TCL, all of whom produce Android phones, cannot use Amazon's smart TV platform.

Google has used this tactic as a means to strongarm its hardware partners into not making competing platforms, specifically for smartphones. However, when it comes to Android TV, it has not produced the same result. Samsung has its own platform, LG uses webOS, and TCL uses the Roku TV platform. The restriction has not led to a large number of Android TVs, only a large number of non-Amazon televisions.

Google has been under a lot of fire for its policies that are intended to extend its market lead by exploiting that lead. There is little doubt that this potentially anti-competitive behavior will also come under scrutiny thanks to the revelation of the industry's best-known secret.

ISPs and wireless carriers remove limits to support remote workers

posted Friday Mar 13, 2020 by Scott Ertz

ISPs and wireless carriers remove limits to support remote workers

As the COVID-19 coronavirus continues its global spread, normal activities are being canceled. Of those activities, work and school are having the single largest impact on people's daily lives. Whether you are working from home or experiencing online education, your internet connection is going to be an important part of your day. Thankfully, as many private companies have done, internet service providers and wireless carriers are making adjustments to their policies to make life easier for their customers.

Over the past few years, we have seen home and business internet service providers have implemented data caps on their services. Many of these providers, including AT&T and Comcast, have temporarily removed these restrictions for their customers. This will allow people who normally do not work from home, and those who are going to be taking classes online, to have a better and more consistent experience. It will also mean that there will be no additional charges for overages.

There are also some additional changes available for some people across the country. For Comcast subscribers who are on the Essentials plan, their speeds will be increased from 15/2Mbps to 25/3Mbps. This change should also make life a little easier. For people in a Spectrum market who are not currently Spectrum subscribers and have a school-aged child who is moving to online education, there is an option to get free service for the next 2 months.

As for wireless carriers, they are also removing data caps from their cellular plans. Some are waiving overage fees, while others are simply removing the caps altogether. Either way, the end result is the same. In addition, Sprint and T-Mobile will be providing 20GB of hotspot data to anyone who is a hotspot subscriber.

On top of all of these changes, many services, including home internet, wireless, and power, are removing late fees for payment and skipping terminations. Some services even have programs to provide free service for those whose lives are being significantly disrupted, such as losing a job, or an industry in significant decline (live event production, for example). Check with your local utilities and services to see exactly what they are offering.

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