The UpStream (Page 9)

Microsoft's altered approach to gaming is working as planned

posted Saturday Nov 14, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Microsoft's altered approach to gaming is working as planned

This week saw the much-anticipated release of Microsoft's 4th (or possibly 5th, depending on your view of the Xbox One X) generation of Xbox consoles - the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S. The launch comes during a time when Microsoft has reconsidered its gaming business, placing a focus on services and subscriptions to increase recurring revenue, rather than occasional peaks and valleys. The change is part of a wider change to the company's business model, with services becoming a core aspect of the company under CEO Satya Nadella. And, as it has in other divisions, the change seems to be a success.

The console launched as the best launch day Xbox ever. Xbox head Phil Spencer said,

Thank you for supporting the largest launch in Xbox history. In 24 hrs more new consoles sold, in more countries, than ever before. We're working with retail to resupply as quickly as possible. You continue to show us the connective power of play is more important than ever.

This is compared to the Xbox One, which sold one million units in its first 24 hours. This pair of units have sold more than double that in the same time period. But, this is not the only major accomplishment for this generation of Microsoft gamers. Of those who have the new consoles already, 70 percent are Game Pass subscribers. Some were already subscribers coming into the new generation, while others signed up with their purchase. Either way, the company's subscription business model has connected with gamers in a big and meaningful way.

This milestone could have a lot to do with the addition of EA Play to the subscription, which also began this week. It could also be tied to the Xbox All Access program, which gives you access to Game Pass and a console for one monthly price. Or, it could be because of the $1 first month deal, which would be a quick and inexpensive way for new console owners to test out their new hardware.

Considering how the previous generation's launch and lead up went, it's impressive that we're here at all. As Microsoft watchers have known for years, Microsoft considered leaving the business entirely, with current CEO Nadella advocating for the sale of the Xbox division. Phil Spencer recently went into detail about the chaos that happened behind the scenes and in front of the cameras.

The company's E3 conference that year was overshadowed by Sony, which altered their entire business model before their won conference after seeing the negative response to the forced inclusion of the Kinect sensor with the Xbox One, an accessory which is officially dead today. That was followed by staff changes and merged with Ballmer's controversial view of the brand, created a lot of mixed emotions inside of Microsoft. Thankfully, Nadella did not kill the brand upon taking over, and instead brought clarity and focus on what gamers ultimately wanted - fun.

New processor competition in Apple M1 and Amazon's AWS Inferentia

posted Saturday Nov 14, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Over the past year, Intel's place as THE processor maker has continued to slip away because of a stalling in innovation. Consumer devices have become less computer-focused and moved to phones and tablets, both generally powered by ARM chips. For those who are looking for a laptop, even Windows has implemented support for the ARM architecture in partnership with Qualcomm. But, in traditional terms, AMD has continued to creep up and steal market share with its Ryzen line, which has begun to outperform Intel's chips for less money and using less electricity.

AI processes work better on GPUs than CPUs, putting NVIDIA in the lead for that industry, taking a large chunk of new server construction for itself. But NVIDIA is a video card company and has struggled to make the transition to AI in a meaningful way, leaving the door open there for new competition.

But, these are not the only challengers to the traditional processor business. Apple announced this year that it would begin to migrate all of its computers from Intel's processors to the company's own Apple Silicon. Even Amazon is getting in on the game, developing its own server chips for AWS.

Apple M1

Apple is no stranger to shaking up its processor infrastructures for the Mac. The original era Macs ran on the Motorola 68000 series. Those were replaced by the second era PowerPC processor line, built by Motorola and IBM (the irony there was palpable). The third era has been powered by Intel chips, dating back to the Core Solo and Core Duo line.

This year, Apple will launch the fourth era of Macs, powered for the first time by its own Apple Silicon. The company has worked to become a contender in this space by building the chips that power the other products in its primary business - the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. That learning has led to the Apple M1, which will power the first generation of new Macs, including the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini.

These new chips, which are siblings of the A14 chips in other products, are based on the ARM license. It contains 8 cores, though it is not an 8-core processor. In fact, it is two separate 4-core processors in one. One is designed for high draw uses, while the other is designed for casual uses. This architecture concept has been in play in other computer processors for years, with netbooks often using a processor with 3 or 5 cores, with one dedicated to low draw uses. The intention is to increase battery life for some tasks. Apple claims 15 hours of web browsing and 18 hours of video playback, but we'll wait to see what LAPTOP Mag says.

The M1 also contains an 8-core GPU, hopefully bringing some real graphics capabilities for the Mac. The portable products have long suffered from less than impressive performance, leading game developers to often skip the Mac entirely. Unfortunately, Apple has no focus on gaming for these new M1-powered computers, so don't expect the problem to get better in this generation - in fact, expect it to get worse.

The M1 also has dedicated processing capabilities for AI, which could allow Siri to become more useful on the new era of Macs.

But, do not let Apple's marketing fool you - these new Macs are not more powerful than 98% of Windows laptops. You knew that was a lie when they said it, and so did everyone else, including Apple. They have refused to publish any information about how they arrived at that claim, including tests run, benchmarks used, and computers tested. This is not to say that they are not a huge improvement over the current Macs but making such a wild and baseless claim is ridiculous.

Amazon AWS Inferentia

While the Apple M1 adds dedicated silicon for AI, Amazon is going one step farther. Its new AWS Inferentia chips are designed specifically for its own AI processes. The chip is an Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC), or chipset designed for a very specific task load, not something more universal like a standard GPU. That means that there are not wasted processes for converting load, making them more efficient for their purpose.

Amazon looks to use these chips to replace its reliance on NVIDIA for AWS infrastructure. The company's AI chips are generally modified GPUs, meaning that there is overhead in tasks, though they are far more efficient than a standard CPU. This move will be initially aimed at Alexa workloads for rollout. The goal is to speed up the already impressively fast responses for Alexa, which are almost entirely processed at the server level. In fact, only the wake word is processed on-device. Stormacq, an AWS advocate, calculates a 30 percent cost reduction and 25 percent performance increase using the new chips.

Amazon will also allow developers to access the increased performance of its new chips through the AWS Neuron SDK, bringing the power of Inferentia to AI workflows like MXNet, PyTorch, and TensorFlow.

Buying a video on Amazon does not mean you can keep it forever

posted Friday Oct 30, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Buying a video on Amazon does not mean you can keep it forever

When it comes to digital video content, there is nearly an unlimited number of ways to watch. From services like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix to iTunes, there are different methods and ownership types. These days almost people seem to prefer the idea of an overall content subscription to individual ownership, which explains the rise of services like Hulu and Disney+. However, some people prefer to purchase their digital content, but that isn't as easy as some people believed. A legal case against Amazon made that all the more clear this week.

Amanda Caudel, who is an Amazon Prime Video user, purchased content on the service. After finding out the hard way that this purchase did not actually grant her ownership over the content and can be revoked at any time, she sued the company. The company argued that every time you make a purchase, you are reminded that it can be revoked by presenting the Prime Video Terms of Use.

The most relevant agreement here - the Prime Video Terms of Use - is presented to consumers every time they buy digital content on Amazon Prime Video. {The terms} expressly state that purchasers obtain only a limited license to view video content and that purchased content may become unavailable due to provider license restriction or other reasons.

The court agreed with the argument, finding in favor of Amazon. The problem, of course, comes in the business model for Amazon Prime Video. Purchasing for the right to stream a video should certainly have been a clue that, if Amazon loses the right to stream the video, you'll lose access to it. It's why many people who purchase digital video content use Apple's service because you get the ability to download the video rather than just stream it.

We live in an age of digital access versus ownership. Paying for a game does not mean you'll get to play it forever. Paying for software doesn't mean it will work forever. Nearly everything is a subscription service and few services are downloadable for future use.

Internet Explorer to push users of hundreds of sites to Edge

posted Friday Oct 30, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Internet Explorer to push users of hundreds of sites to Edge

Over the past few months, Microsoft has put all of its energy into the new Microsoft Edge. The browser is available on Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, and Linux. It has nearly completely replaced the legacy Microsoft Edge on Windows 10, installing itself over top of the legacy browser. However, there has been one major hurdle to the company's total focus on the future - Internet Explorer. No matter how hard they try, they cannot get some people to abandon the almost officially unsupported browser. Somehow, the browser whose last major version was released in 2013 still holds about 5 percent of the browser market.

The company has a new idea to retire IE, and they have put it into place in Windows. When you try to open one of over a thousand websites in Internet Explorer, it will automatically switch to the production version of Edge and show a dialog (pictured below) explaining what has happened.

It is perfectly reasonable that Microsoft is trying to get rid of the Internet Explorer browser (not the Trident rendering engine that powers it). The browser has not been updated to support more modern security technologies potentially making connections less secure. Pushing websites, especially ones that use more secure technologies, into the more modern browser will protect users' data. This will also, hopefully, encourage users to switch to Edge full time, allowing Microsoft to finally retire the browser entirely.

One of the biggest concerns with the switch happens within large corporate environments. This is because a lot of internal web software was built years ago, and designed for IE. Switching to Edge, without IE's rendering quirks, can cause these applications to render incorrectly. Because of this, Microsoft has made the Trident rendering engine available within the Edge browser. This means that an enterprise can retire IE, but users can still render websites using Trident for legacy applications. To enable this, you can go to the settings for Edge and, under Default Browser, turn on "Allow sites to be reloaded in Internet Explorer." After that, users can reload a site in Trident using the "Reload in Internet Explorer Mode" option under "More Tools."

The death of Internet Explorer is just around the corner and will be a benefit for everyone - better security for users and less mess for developers. A win-win scenario.

Todd Howard says Elder Scrolls 6 is unlikely to be Microsoft exclusive

posted Friday Oct 30, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Todd Howard says Elder Scrolls 6 is unlikely to be Microsoft exclusive

When Microsoft purchased Zenimax Media, the parent company of Bethesda Softworks, the biggest question that was asked was, "Will future Bethesda games in existing franchises be Xbox exclusives?" We discussed this possibility a few weeks ago on the show, agreeing that Microsoft's ownership would not limit the release of future entries, especially for The Elder Scrolls and Fallout. This week, Todd Howard hinted that our theory was correct.

In an interview, the Bethesda director and producer on both of the company's high profile series said that it would be hard to imagine Microsoft locking future entries in either franchise behind the Xbox or PC brands. However, he did also state that Microsoft and Bethesda have not fully discussed future plans in detail. On the decision-making process, Howard said,

We do view it, and always have by ourselves, on a case-by-case basis. We'll do that as part of Microsoft as well. They've been pretty open on other platforms and not just within Xbox. This is an outside perspective, but if you go back 10 years at Microsoft, you wouldn't expect them to have a full Office suite on an iPhone either.

The beginning of the response is similar to what Xbox's Phil Spencer said during the announcement of the purchase, stating that they would evaluate each future title individually to determine its availability. But, that is what all studios do with every release. If they didn't, the Final Fantasy games would still be Nintendo exclusives, which would not have been good for the brand. He also discussed the company's business model, saying,

We felt very strongly about their view of access; games for everybody that we can bring to anybody regardless of where they are, what devices they're playing on. We're very, very passionate about that, and at the end of the day we're convinced we'll make better products and get them to more people easily by being part of Xbox as opposed to being just a third party.

Microsoft's business model under CEO Satya Nadella has been to offer the company's products everywhere people already are. It's why Microsoft Office offers some features for iPad Pro that take advantage of the device's unique hardware capabilities, despite having its own Surface tablet line. Plus, after purchasing Mojang, Microsoft expanded the number of platforms Minecraft was available for and fought to make the PlayStation version crossplay capable.

With this business model, it seems incredibly unlikely that they would behave differently on these titles than other game franchises they have acquired.

Yahoo Phone is a strange but affordable trip back to the 90s

posted Friday Oct 30, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Yahoo Phone is a strange but affordable trip back to the 90s

When Verizon bought Yahoo, we assumed that would be the strangest thing to happen with the aging brand. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of a very strange usage for Yahoo. Earlier this year, the company created Yahoo Mobile - an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) running on their own network. The idea is to compete with AT&T's Cricket and T-Mobile's Metro, offering unlimited data for $40 per month. Adding to the collection of odd decisions comes the newly announced Yahoo Phone, a Yahoo Mobile exclusive.

This new device is an Android 10 powered phone with a very purple body, which they call grape jelly. The phone is simply a rebranded ZTE Blade A3 with a lot of pre-installed apps, which we assume cannot be uninstalled. These apps include Yahoo Finance, Yahoo Mail, Yahoo News, Yahoo Sports, and Yahoo Weather, plus the obvious Yahoo Mobile companion app.

The Yahoo Phone is a very low powered device, with only 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, and a 720p screen. However, the company is trying to make up for the low specs with a low price of only $50. Of course, the phone is designed only for the Yahoo Mobile prepaid service, so they aren't focusing on the high-end or high price market.

In 2020, all of this leaning on the Yahoo brand seems confusing. Yahoo has never been known for understanding the mobile ecosystem, making the branding odd. Yahoo was successful in the early days of the web, long before search engines changed the way we used the web. Providing an index for the small number of web pages that were available made the site popular, and the custom homepage angle made it a success. But, those days are long gone, and people generally do not think of Yahoo as a mobile-friendly brand, let alone their primary mobile brand.

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