The UpStream (Page 82)

It Looks Like a Pricing Investigation Might be Underway into Amazon's Policies

posted Saturday Jul 22, 2017 by Scott Ertz

It Looks Like a Pricing Investigation Might be Underway into Amazon's Policies

Last week was Amazon Prime Day, and the company was very happy with the results. One of the issues that we pointed out was that some products were more expensive during their Prime Day deal than they had been the day or two previous. We pointed to one product in particular, which was $20 more than it has been in recent days.

Consumer Watchdog, whose name clearly describes their purpose, issued a study that showed that, like on Prime Day, the pricing listed on Amazon is often misleading. Of the 1000 products tested, about 46% of the products showed that the reference price for a sale were higher than during the quarter leading up to the sale. This means that Amazon's product listings falsely showed a greater sale discount than the customer was actually receiving, exactly what was noted during Prime Day.

A letter was sent to the Federal Trade Commission following the study, urging an investigation into the issue. While the FTC has not commented on whether or not they will be investigating this claim, it is likely that they will. Amazon is in the process of purchasing Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, a company that has its own issues with consumer groups. As part of that purchase, the FTC will be running investigations, so this will likely be part of that existing process.

Amazon has responded to the report, saying,

The study issued by Consumer Watchdog is deeply flawed, based on incomplete data and improper assumptions. The conclusions the Consumer Watchdog group reached are flat out wrong. We validate the reference prices provided by manufacturers, vendors and sellers against actual prices recently found across Amazon and other retailers.

Have you ever experienced false pricing on Amazon? Let us know in the comments.

Public Augmented Reality No Longer a Crime in Wisconsin

posted Saturday Jul 22, 2017 by Scott Ertz

Public Augmented Reality No Longer a Crime in Wisconsin

Since Niantic released Pokémon GO last year, it has caused a lot of people and organizations to consider how it impacts them and their resources. Wireless networks have seen increased data consumption, which has resulted in increased bandwidth in heavy usage areas. Some churches have seen increased property usage, which has given them opportunity to reach out to new people. Some restaurants and business have seen increases in attention, to which they have reached out looking for new customers.

One place where increased usage has been more confusing than anything has been in public parks. Many cities, counties and states have embraced the increased awareness of the parks, and even worked to create events. Some parks have created Pokémon GO meetups, luring Stops at their own cost, to get people out and engaging in the parks. It has been well-received by most people across the world.

Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, rather than embracing the popularity of the game, decided to pass a law requiring that augmented reality game makers receive special usage permits to allow for games to be played in their parks. Without question, this law was bound to be challenged in court, if not by Niantic itself, by another AR game maker. That is exactly what happened, with a federal suit being filed by Candy Lab, maker of Texas Rope 'Em, another AR game with similar features to Pokémon GO. The suit was brought on First Amendment grounds, with prior restraint being placed on speech. The county argued, saying,

Texas Rope 'Em is not entitled to First Amendment protection because it does not convey any messages or ideas. Unlike books, movies, music, plays and video games-mediums of expression that typically enjoy First Amendment protection - Texas Rope 'Em has no plot, no storylines, no characters, and no dialogue. All it conveys is a random display of cards and a map. Absent the communicative features that invoke the First Amendment, Candy Lab has no First Amendment claim.

The player simply views randomly generated cards and travels to locations to get more. That is not the type of speech that demands First Amendment safeguards.

A federal court disagreed with the county's argument this week, declaring the law to be in violation of the Constitution. US District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller issued an injunction this week, preventing the county from enforcing their law, one that was nearly impossible to enforce in the first place.

The timing of the ruling couldn't be better, with this weekend being the big Pokémon GO Fest in Chicago, with events happening globally through Monday evening. Being able to play in Milwaukee parks will give plays more opportunity to engage with other trainers.

Cortana Thermostat: The Best of Today and Tomorrow

posted Saturday Jul 22, 2017 by Scott Ertz

Cortana Thermostat: The Best of Today and Tomorrow

Microsoft has made no secret of the fact that they want Cortana, their voice-powered, Halo-inspired personal assistant to be everywhere. She premiered of Windows Phone several years ago, made her way to the desktop with Windows 10 and has expanded from there. Harman Kardon is building a speaker named Invoke, while HP is also building a Cortana-powered speaker.

Cortana isn't just about voice - her powers of AI and neural networks extend her capabilities to learning about all manner of data, and making decisions based on that information. To show off this technology, Microsoft has paired up with Johnson Controls, possibly the best-known name in HVAC electronics, to produce a Cortana-powered thermostat called GLAS. This device, shown off in a YouTube video from Microsoft, is taking a very different approach to a smart home control than Nest or its competitors.

While Nest decided to make a thermostat that looks similar to a traditional device, Johnson and Microsoft decided to make GLAS look more appropriately Cortana. It features a square, semi-transparent LCD touchscreen that is set slightly off the wall. The styling gives the appearance of a heads-up display, which is how Cortana appeared in the original Halo games.

As for functionality, Johnson uses Cortana's processing to determine HVAC usage, scanners to determine room usage and makes determinations on where, where and how much to run the air conditioning to maintain proper temperatures. Unfortunately, there is no word on whether this is a concept device or if Johnson Controls plans on bringing it to market. Based on the massively positive comments on the video, though, Johnson would be nuts to not make this happen immediately.

Hit the break to see the video, or let us know what you think about the GLAS.

A Legacy Console War has Ignited with SEGA's New Mini Genesis Announcement

posted Monday Jul 17, 2017 by Allante Sparks

A Legacy Console War has Ignited with SEGA's New Mini Genesis Announcement

It has finally happened ladies and gentlemen! In the light of Nintendo releasing updated (and mini) versions of their classic consoles, another classic company plans to do the same. I don't know about you all, but after the SNES Classic was announced I was really pumped. Many of my favorite classics are pre-loaded onto the system (Metroid, Super Mario, Donkey Kong Country) including my favorite game of all time (Yoshi's Island) and even one game that has not actually been released before (Star Fox 2 a game that hand been canceled before it was released). But after that announcement, I talked with some people about how cool it would be if SEGA were to follow suit and release a mini Genesis with pre-loaded games just like Nintendo is doing.

Well my friends, as if the gods of gaming hath rained their blessings upon my beckoning call, SEGA (with a helpful partnership with AtGames) is now releasing a mini Genesis console. Not only that but there are two versions of the console: one branded "Classic," which comes with 81 pre-loaded games and two wired controllers and will sell for $59.99, and another branded "Flashback," which comes with 85 pre-loaded games, two wireless controllers and HD (720p) output, and will sell for $79.99!

Are you ready for the real kicker? You're all probably like me and have some Genesis cartridges in a box or tucked away somewhere that hasn't seen daylight in decades, right? Well, it's time to dust them off and give them some sunshine because both console versions are fully compatible with the cartridges! Yes, you read that correctly: you can play your classic game cartridges on your brand new mini console, a feature that sets this new Genesis apart from the NES and SNES mini systems. The pre-loaded games will include classics like: Altered Beast, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat and Golden Axe. However, there are some hidden gems in there as well like Vectorman, Phantasy Star, Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine (one of my faves), and Super Thunder Blade.

Get your pre-ordering fingers ready because they go live Friday, July 28th!

It is important to note that the games do vary between consoles, so we have included the full lists after the break.

SoundCloud is Not Safe, Even With Help From Chance the Rapper

posted Sunday Jul 16, 2017 by Scott Ertz

SoundCloud is Not Safe, Even With Help From Chance the Rapper

Anyone who has followed audio hosting and streaming platform SoundCloud over the past year or so knows that they have had major financial issues. There have been layoffs and office closures, amid rumors that they might not survive 2017. The company offers free or nearly-free hosting of audio files for musicians and, to a lesser extent podcasts. The popular differentiator for the company is their player, which many people seem to like. As it turns out, though, offering a very expensive and popular service like media hosting for little to no money is not a sustainable business plan.

Someone I worked with several years ago used to say, "You can sell dollar bills for 90 cents and you will have a lot of customers, but eventually the dollar bills run out." That expression was used at the time to describe the business model, or lack thereof, of MetroPCS. For them, when the dollars bills ran out, the company sold itself to T-Mobile. Unfortunately for SoundCloud, there has not been any interest in helping them out.

This week, co-founder Alex Ljun announced internal that 40% of the staff were being laid off, and newly hired employees' contract offers were being revoked without notice, despite clauses requiring 4 weeks notice. According to information from inside the company, during a conference call with the remaining employees, the co-founders announced that, even with the layoffs, there was only enough money to survive another 80 days.

This news created turmoil within the company, including employees jumping from the sinking ship. One customer, however, took action. Chance the Rapper, who shouted out SoundCloud in his Grammy acceptance speech in February, tweeted that he was working on it. Unfortunately, there is no information on what exactly this means, but it is unlikely that he would be investing in the company, or buying it outright. After confirming a conversation with SoundCloud, he tweeted SoundCloud is here to stay, with the company posting a similar message on their blog.

The problem here is that, even if they had a MASSIVE influx of cash, there is no way that their "business model" will be able to keep the lights on. The company is going to have to completely change the way they do business, starting with removing their free hosting, and increasing their existing plans significantly. Once that happens, smaller podcasters, who have tried to use the service to keep costs low, are going to switch to companies like Blubrry, or close entirely, rather than stay with SoundCloud - something that has already started. Musicians are going to leave, and the relevance of SoundCloud is going to drop, meaning that new musicians will likely switch to another platform, like Groove or Spotify.

At this point, there is no real way for SoundCloud to save themselves. The company leadership dug a hole that is too deep from which to escape. If you're using the service now, you should definitely look for alternatives before it is too late.

Amazon Prime Day 2017 Dashes Record, Expands Memberships

posted Sunday Jul 16, 2017 by Scott Ertz

Amazon Prime Day 2017 Dashes Record, Expands Memberships

For the 3rd year in a row, Amazon hosted a full day of sales aimed at their Prime members. This event has had varying degrees of success, with the first year being a complete dumpster fire. Unlike 2015's 55 gallon drum of lube or "female urinal," 2017 offered mostly products that someone somewhere would be looking for. That did not stop the #PrimeDayFail hashtag from making an appearance, though (you've got to love the horse grooming block).

Even though there were some oddities and issues, Amazon was more than pleased with the day. In fact, the company announced that Prime Day 2017 was their single largest sales day in company history, claiming the mantle from Prime Day 2016 by quite a margin. In fact, 2017 exceeded 2016 by more than 60 percent. Even when you consider that Prime Day was more than 20% longer this year than last, they still came out way ahead. July 11, 2017, also heralded the most number of new Prime members of any single day in company history.

While the top product of the day was the Amazon Echo, and the highest sales for any TV in company history was the Element 55 with Fire TV, there were some very popular non-Amazon products, too. Some products, like the Instant Pot in US and Canada make sense, others are pretty weird. For example, the #2 product in Canada was an 8-pack AA batteries, and the top 2 products in Japan were whey protein and bottled water.

Prime Day did not go off without problems, though. Many people experienced problems trying to watch deals on the evening of the 10th, getting repeated failures due to overloaded servers. This does not make Amazon Web Services look great as a service, considering Amazon can't even load balance their own content, let alone customers' servers. Other people noted that some prices were higher during Prime Day than they were before the "sales" began. For example, Merrell Men's Vapor Glove 2 Trail Running Shoe 9.5 D was on sale for $85, but a user bought the shoes on July 8 for $56, and today they are available for $70, with a lowest price of $50. Other products were erroneously marked as free, such as Star Wars miniatures.

One of the more bizarre issues on Twitter was a woman named Zeina Koinis‏ who claimed repeatedly that some technical glitch on Amazon's part resulted in an issue that put her family's business in jeopardy. Someone from Buzzfeed reached out to her on Twitter, but no article was ever published. Most of her tweets are in response to a post by another user, StevenKoinis, whose original tweet has been removed. There is no telling what might have happened, if anything, but it seems that whatever it was turned out to be less than presented.

Despite the issues, clearly Amazon had a positive day, in the middle of the summer, when sales are traditionally lower. Let us know about your Amazon Prime Day experiences in the comments.

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