#Tech

#Tech


Go-Jek extends ride-hailing service to the rest of Singapore

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 09:49 PM PST

After a limited rollout, Go-Jek said today that it will extend its ride-hailing service to all of Singapore tomorrow while continuing its beta phase. The Indonesian-based company began offering rides in Singapore at the end of November, but only for passengers riding to and from certain areas. It https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/transport/gojek-introduces-dynamic-pricing-move-will-likely-attract-more-drivers-to-joinintroduced dynamic pricing there, which increases prices during peak times, a few days ago.

"We continue to welcome feedback from driver-partners and riders during this enhanced beta phase, as we work to fine-tune the app and create the best experience for our users," the company said in a statement.

After Uber exited from Southeast Asia earlier this year by selling its local business to Grab, Go-Jek became Grab's main rival. Uber still maintains a presence in the region, however, thanks to its 27.5 percent stake in Grab.

There is currently a waiting list for Go-Jek in Singapore, with customers of DBS/POSB being given priority.

When asked about how long new users need to wait, a Go-Jek spokesperson said in a statement that the time depends on supply and demand. "The response from the driver community since we opened pre-registration has been overwhelming with tens of thousands of drivers signing up via the pre-registration portal. While we can't disclose figure at this moment, we are confident we can meet consumer expectations during the beta service period."

FCC will suspend most operations on Thursday if the shutdown continues

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 08:08 PM PST

The Federal Communications Commission said on Monday that it will need to suspend most of its operations by the middle of Thursday if the partial government shutdown continues.

The FCC will continue "work required for the protection of life and property," as well as work related to spectrum auctions, since those are funded by the money raised by auctioning off spectrum licenses. The Office of the Inspector General, responsible for conducting internal reviews, audits, and investigations of FCC programs and operations, will also remain open until further notice.

In a document outlining what needs to happen for an "orderly shutdown," the FCC said suspended activities will include: "Consumer complaint and inquiry phone lines cannot be answered; consumer protection and local competition enforcement must cease; licensing services, including broadcast, wireless, and wireline, must cease; management of radio spectrum and the creation of new opportunities for competitive technologies and services for the American public must be suspended; and equipment authorizations, including those bringing new electronic devices to American consumers, cannot be provided."

The FCC added that it will release more information on Wednesday about what will happen if it needs to suspend operations, including how it will affect electronic filing and database systems, filing deadlines, regulatory and application fee payments, and "shot clocks," also known as the length of time allocated for approving or denying pending transactions.

The partial government shutdown continued into its 11th day as President Donald Trump refuses to back down on his demands for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, forcing 800,000 federal employees to go without work or work without pay. House Democrats have said they are preparing to introduce bills that will put an end to the shutdown but not include funding for the wall.

In 2018 the ticketing industry finally killed the ‘sold out’ show

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 05:00 PM PST

Among the many myths that were laid low in 2018, perhaps none was as welcome to throngs of live event fans as the fantasy of the sold-out show. Indeed, as the ticket market has moved to adopt new technology the new-found transparency has had one prime victim: The Sellout.

The highest-profile debunking of the sellout in sports for 2018 came from Washington, DC.

Originally reported by the Washington Post, the Washington Redskins officially ended their decade-long season-ticket waitlist this June. Once claimed to be 200,000 fans deep, the reality of Redskins demand hadn't been as rosy since the glory days of Riggins and Theisman. In 2018, the Redskins have been selling single game tickets like never before — even using the secondary market as a favorable point of comparison.

Other high-profile examples of this shift include the Golden State Warriors, who, despite selling out 100% of their regular season games, had hundreds of tickets available on for Game 1 of the NBA finals in the minutes before tip-off.

If the Redskins and Warriors signaled a shift away from the sellout era in sports, Taylor Swift's Reputation tour did the same for music. Having wrapped up earlier this month, Reputation finished as the highest grossing US Tour in history, despite a flurry of articles lambasting the artist for not selling out many shows.  Ironically, it turns out that the most important factor in her record-breaking success was exactly that: not selling out.

Rather than a lack of demand, these unsold tickets for high-profile events are the result of the latest trend in the ticketing industry — making sure you have tickets to sell when fans want to buy them. Anyone that has purchased tickets on the Internet knows that the most active buying window is in the days and hours leading up to an event.

Before the Internet, while this last-minute market existed, it was contained to street corners and run by local brokers. For most of the 20th century, managing this aftermarket was a job ticket owners were comfortable outsourcing. With it's limitless reach and real-time distribution, however, Internet-based selling changed their comfort level dramatically, by removing the ticket owner from the supply chain and costing them billions in margin. It also created a product category that became one of the worst, if not the worst, on the Internet.

If not for the universal appeal of live events, ticketing as a product would have died with Pets.com .  Instead, teams, artists and promoters became the poster children for the Internet's power to disrupt. The response from many ticket owners was to simply to hang up a 'Sold Out' sign at the box office in the weeks, days and hours before the game — one that is just now starting to be taken down.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

To understand why that happened, it's important to recognize that when the Internet took off, teams were principally in the season-ticket business, while artists and promoters were in the record-selling business.  Selling last-minute, 'on-demand' tickets simply wasn't a focus. The Internet, however, turned that secondary market niche into a product category worth $10 to $15 billion at it's peak — two to three times the size of the primary market it was based on.

In order to compete in this always-on marketplace, ticketing technology has received billions of dollars of investment in the last decade, with the goal of making it more compatible with the Web itself. In the last two years, Ticketmaster, Seatgeek and Eventbrite have all announced 'open platform' models that make it as easy to sell tickets in places like Facebook and Youtube as it does in Stubhub.

In January, Ticketmaster and the NFL announced a new platform deal that, for the first time ever, allows teams and leagues to define their own distribution ecosystem.  As one of the biggest destinations for ticket buying online, sites like Stubhub and my company, TicketIQ, have become direct-to-fan distribution channels in the new ticketing marketplace.

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Before we singlehandedly credit technology for killing the sell out, it's worth asking whether the decline in sellouts is simply the result of exorbitant ticket prices and increased competition for consumer attention. While there's no question that it's become harder to get people off of their couches for average events, the robust growth of the experience economy suggests the opposite trend.

According to a December 2017 McKinsey report, millennials spend 60% more on live experiences than GenXers — all in search of not only genuine connection, but also fresh social-media content. For the Reputation tour specifically, last-minute tickets on the secondary market were actually 35% cheaper than 1989 tour, which made buying tickets day-of the event more affordable than ever.

As for the Redskins, while their 2018 season hasn't turned out as they'd hoped, at the box office, they've set themselves up for success in the years to come.  When demand spikes, whether as the result of a new stadium or a championship run, they'll benefit directly and handsomely. As a point of reference for what kind of profit they might expect, the Financial Times reported that Taylor Swift's per-show gross for Reputation increased by $1.4 million, including two dates in July at Fedex Field, home of the Redskins.

In "Look what you Made Me Do" the sixth song on the Reputation album, Taylor Swift sings about past “games”, “a tilted stage” and "unfair disadvantage", for which she now seeks retribution. As a statement about her artistic and commercial stature, it's clear she no longer wants to play nice. In addition to a jab at her artistic nemesis, Kanye West, it also reads like a farewell to the ticket market of old that has frustrated consumers for almost two decades.

Despite claims that she sold out her fans to achieve Reputation's record-breaking success, the numbers mean that it's a model we'll be seeing much more of in the years to come. Regardless of how you feel about her forcing fans to Buy, Like and Watch to get their place in line for tickets, the good news for the ticket market overall is that it was her decision to make.

This clever AI hid data from its creators to cheat at its appointed task

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 03:14 PM PST

Depending on how paranoid you are, this research from Stanford and Google will be either terrifying or fascinating. A machine learning agent intended to transform aerial images into street maps and back was found to be cheating by hiding information it would need later in “a nearly imperceptible, high-frequency signal.” Clever girl!

This occurrence reveals a problem with computers that has existed since they were invented: they do exactly what you tell them to do.

The intention of the researchers was, as you might guess, to accelerate and improve the process of turning satellite imagery into Google’s famously accurate maps. To that end the team was working with what’s called a CycleGAN — a neural network that learns to transform images of type X and Y into one another, as efficiently yet accurately as possible, through a great deal of experimentation.

In some early results, the agent was doing well — suspiciously well. What tipped the team off was that, when the agent reconstructed aerial photographs from its street maps, there were lots of details that didn’t seem to be on the latter at all. For instance, skylights on a roof that were eliminated in the process of creating the street map would magically reappear when they asked the agent to do the reverse process:

The original map, left; the street map generated from the original, center; and the aerial map generated only from the street map. Note the presence of dots on both aerial maps not represented on the street map.

Although it is very difficult to peer into the inner workings of a neural network’s processes, the team could easily audit the data it was generating. And with a little experimentation, they found that the CycleGAN had indeed pulled a fast one.

The intention was for the agent to be able to interpret the features of either type of map and match them to the correct features of the other. But what the agent was actually being graded on (among other things) was how close an aerial map was to the original, and the clarity of the street map.

So it didn’t learn how to make one from the other. It learned how to subtly encode the features of one into the noise patterns of the other. The details of the aerial map are secretly written into the actual visual data of the street map: thousands of tiny changes in color that the human eye wouldn’t notice, but that the computer can easily detect.

In fact, the computer is so good at slipping these details into the street maps that it had learned to encode any aerial map into any street map! It doesn’t even have to pay attention to the “real” street map — all the data needed for reconstructing the aerial photo can be superimposed harmlessly on a completely different street map, as the researchers confirmed:

The map at right was encoded into the maps at left with no significant visual changes.

The colorful maps in (c) are a visualization of the slight differences the computer systematically introduced. You can see that they form the general shape of the aerial map, but you’d never notice it unless it was carefully highlighted and exaggerated like this.

This practice of encoding data into images isn’t new; it’s an established science called steganography, and it’s used all the time to, say, watermark images or add metadata like camera settings. But a computer creating its own steganographic method to evade having to actually learn to perform the task at hand is rather new. (Well, the research came out last year, so it isn’t new new, but it’s pretty novel.)

One could easily take this as a step in the “the machines are getting smarter” narrative, but the truth is it’s almost the opposite. The machine, not smart enough to do the actual difficult job of converting these sophisticated image types to each other, found a way to cheat that humans are bad at detecting. This could be avoided with more stringent evaluation of the agent’s results, and no doubt the researchers went on to do that.

As always, computers do exactly what they are asked, so you have to be very specific in what you ask them. In this case the computer’s solution was an interesting one that shed light on a possible weakness of this type of neural network — that the computer, if not explicitly prevented from doing so, will essentially find a way to transmit details to itself in the interest of solving a given problem quickly and easily.

This is really just a lesson in the oldest adage in computing: PEBKAC. “Problem exists between keyboard and computer.” Or as HAL put it: “It can only be attributable to human error.”

The paper, “CycleGAN, a Master of Steganography,” was presented at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in 2017. Thanks to Fiora Esoterica and Reddit for bringing this old but interesting paper to my attention.

Epic Games surprises players on New Year’s Eve

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 03:13 PM PST

Happy New Year!

The folks over at Epic Games have a special treat in store for players hopping on Fortnite today. In celebration of New Year’s Eve all around the world, Fortnite is having an in-game live event where a massive, dropping disco ball descends on the map each hour, on the hour.

The virtual ball drop has the same affect on players as a boogie bomb, meaning that everyone playing Fortnite is collectively dancing each time the minutes on your clock read :00.

Obviously, the clock has already struck midnight and 2019 has officially begun in many parts of the world, but the in-game ball drop threw some players off guard.

Nick Chester, Epic’s PR spokesperson, tweeted this in response:

2018 was a huge year for Fortnite. Even beyond the turning of a new year, Epic Games has good reason to celebrate.

Echo Wall Clock review

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 03:10 PM PST

This was the year Amazon went all-in on the Alexa. September saw the announcement of a new Echo Dot, Show and Plus, a subwoofer, an audio input device, an auto dongle and an amplifier. That would have been plenty, but the company also started dipping its toes into the other side of things.

2018 also found Amazon experimenting in the connected device category — namely a microwave and wall clock (oh, and a singing fish, too). It's a strange move on the face of it. After all, there are countless companies currently vying for a small slice of that mindshare.

But Amazon's got a few key things going for it. For one, the company stands to gain from building products that exist solely to complement its Echo devices. For another, it's able to sell products at — or close to — cost.

The Echo Wall Clock benefits quite a bit for both of these factors. It's $30 device that's essentially useless without an Alexa device. In fact, Alexa is required to set the time. That's a downside in the off-chance you happen along one of these products without an Echo nearby. But it's handy when it comes to set up.

Find a spot within 30 feet of a compatible device (Echo, Dot, Show, Plus, E Spot or Input.). Open the back. Pop in four AA batteries (included). Tell Alexa, "Set up my Echo Wall Clock." Hold the little blue button on the back until the front light turns a kind of pulsating orange. Alexa will go to work, and when everything's good to go, that light will turn blue.

I initially attempted to set up the device on my office Wi-Fi. Never a great idea with these sort of connected products. Large enterprise networks are a crapshoot, and the two devices were off again, on again. Assuming you've got a similar set-up, you're going to want to keep the Wall Clock (and, for that matter, most Alexa devices) at home.

Once I switched to a personal network (via a MiFi), things went much more smoothly. Alexa will set the clock to your time zone. Bonus: It will automatically fall back and spring ahead when there's a time change — certainly a leg up on most wall clocks.

There are a couple of things worth noting here, before we go any deeper. First: the Wall Clock is, for lack of a better term, cheap looking. It's big and it's plasticky. There's no front glass. It is, honestly, the sort of design you'd expect from a wall clock made by Amazon. There's no razzle dazzle here. It's a simple-looking clock with a simple design. The upshot is it's minimalist enough to fit in with most living rooms and kitchens.

That simplicity also extends to its feature set, which is currently mostly limited to timers. The 60 minute markers that line the edge are actually all individual LEDs. Tell Alexa to, say, "set a 10-minute timer" and 10 minute hands will light up and then individually go dark to count down the  time. Once the countdown is over, the full diameter will flash slowly until you tell Alexa to stop.

And that's it, really. Timers and alarms. The Wall Clock is one of the first passive Alexa devices from Amazon. Your Echo is really doing all of the heavy lifting, including listening and talking. You can't, say, ask the clock for the time or the weather, which is why you need an Echo close by. It also doesn't emit a sound when the alarm goes off. Of course, that means a cheaper price — and much longer battery life.

The Echo Wall Clock isn't a necessary device, but it could prove a handy one. If you cook a lot, for instance, it's nice having a large visual reference in addition to the Echo's built-in timers. Beyond that, however, I'm struggling to come up with too many scenarios in which it feels indispensable. And honestly, I'm not holding my breath in expectation that Amazon will be bringing more to the table here.

 

The device succeeds more as a proof of concept for the ways Alexa and compatible devices can push the boundaries of the smart home. There's nothing particularly compelling here for most consumers — but at $30, perhaps it doesn't have to be.

Tesla is keeping 44 US stores open until midnight in year-end Model 3 sales push

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 02:10 PM PST

Some Tesla employees will ring in the New Year on a sales floor this year as the automaker tries to liquidate its inventory of Model 3 sedans — and even its more expensive Model S and Model X vehicles — before the federal tax credit for EVs is cut in half.

In a list of updated hours, 44 of the stores, including locations in California, Minnesota, Nevada, New York and Ohio, are open until midnight Monday. Tesla has more than 100 stores and galleries in the United States. Calls made to several of these stores indicate these locations have a mix of Model 3 sedans available for pickup today. Sales associates didn’t provide specific numbers.

After midnight Monday, the $7,500 federal electric vehicle tax credit will drop to $3,750 for anyone buying a Tesla vehicle.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been using Twitter to warn of the expiring tax credit for months now. Recently, the pace of promotion has escalated as Tesla’s inventory of Model 3 vehicles in the U.S. has persisted.

The company reportedly had more than 3,300 Model 3 vehicles in inventory in the U.S. as of Sunday, according a blog post by Electrek.

Now with just hours left before the federal tax credit drops, Tesla and Musk are making a special effort to reduce the Model 3 inventory in a final sales push.

Earlier this year, Tesla hit a milestone when it delivered its 200,000th electric vehicle. The achievement was a noteworthy occasion for an automaker that didn't exist 15 years ago. However, it also activated a countdown for the $7,500 federal tax credit offered to consumers who buy new electric vehicles.

The tax credit begins to phase out once a manufacturer has sold 200,000 qualifying vehicles in the U.S. Under these rules, Tesla customers must take delivery of their new Model S, Model X or Model 3 by December 31.

After December 31, the federal tax credit is cut in half to $3,750 for new Tesla customers. The tax credit is reduced again after June 30 to $1,875 before disappearing altogether at the end of next year.

Noa’s new Alexa skill has human narrators read news from NYT, FT, Economist & others

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 02:06 PM PST

News junkies who want something more in-depth than Alexa’s Flash Briefing now have a new option for listening to the day’s news — as well as features and other reporting — right from their smart speaker. A company called Noa has just launched an Alexa skill that uses human narrators to read you the news from top publishers like The New York Times, Financial Times, The Economist and others. With the skill, you can catch up on the stories you missed while you’re doing other things — like cooking, cleaning, commuting or exercising, for example.

The skill is aimed at those who already enjoy listening to longer-form audio, like podcasts or talk radio, on their Amazon Echo or other Alexa-powered device.

The use case here is also similar to that of “read it later” apps like Pocket or Instapaper, both of which have added an audio playback option for listening to your saved articles.

However, those apps currently rely on text-to-speech functionality, not on human narration.

Noa, meanwhile, employs a team of half a dozen narrators based across the U.S., U.K. and Ireland who read the stories published by the company’s current partners. These include: The New York Times, Financial Times, Business Insider, The Economist, The Independent, Bloomberg, The Irish Times and the Evening Standard.

That list will grow in 2019 to include more news organizations and magazine partners, the company says.

To use the skill, you must first enable it on your Alexa device by saying, “Alexa, enable Noa.” (It’s pronounced like the “Noah” from the Bible — the one with the ark.)

You can then ask Noa to read the news by publisher, journalist or category.

For example, you can say “Alexa, open Noa and play ‘The New York Times;'” or “Alexa, ask Noa to play Tim Bradshaw;” or “Alexa, open Noa and play ‘Technology.'” 

Not all articles from the publisher partners will be available, explains Noa CEO Gareth Hickey.

“Only a limited subset of articles lend themselves well to audio — namely, the opinion and feature style stories. Essentially longer-form journalism,” he says.

The skill also employs a metered-access paywall that allows listeners to stream up to 10 articles per week for free. To listen to more, you have to subscribe at $7.99 per month (or €/£7.99 per month, depending on location) for unlimited access. The company doesn’t currently support Amazon Pay, so you’ll have to sign up at Noa’s website or through its mobile apps if you want to upgrade.

The Alexa skill is the latest from the Dublin-based startup Noa, founded in 2015 by Hickey and Shane Ennis, with the goal of providing access to audio journalism.

“While audio-journalism is a core part of our offering, personalized discovery and quality curation are equally as important,” Hickey says. “The goal isn't to inundate users with audio articles, but instead to help them learn and understand the news,” he adds.

Given Noa’s focus on audio, smart speakers make sense as the next big platform to address — especially now that they’ve reached critical mass. The startup raised $600,000 last year, Hickey notes. 

It’s not the only company working to provide human narration of the news for the booming smart speaker market. SpokenLayer, for instance, currently powers “Spoken Edition” podcasts for many news publishers, including TechCrunch. And Amazon’s Audible Channels launched with spoken-word recordings from publishers like the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Foreign Affairs, Charlie Rose, McSweeney's, The Onion and other periodicals.

Noa’s Alexa skill is called “Noa – Journalism, narrated,” and is free to install and use for up to 10 articles per week.

Noa also has a limited presence on Google Home, allowing listeners to hear four Editors’ Picks each day. But its next version will allow for journalist, publisher and category navigation — the same as on Alexa. Noa will soon launch on Android Auto and CarPlay, as well.

Netflix stops paying the ‘Apple tax’ on its $853M in annual iOS revenue

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 12:48 PM PST

Earlier this year, Netflix was seen testing a bypass of iTunes billing across dozens of markets worldwide. As 2018 draws to a close, Netflix — the App Store’s top grossing app — has ditched the ability for new users to sign up and subscribe to the streaming service within its iOS app across all global markets. The change means Apple will miss out on hundreds of millions in App Store revenue per year — money it would have otherwise received by way of its standard cut of in-app transactions.

According to new data compiled by Sensor Tower, Netflix grossed $853 million in 2018 on the iOS App Store. Based on that figure, Apple’s take would have been around $256 million, the firm said.

To date, the Netflix iOS app has generated more than $1.5 billion through its in-app subscriptions, with Apple’s cut coming in around $450 million-plus, Sensor Tower estimated.

Before the change, Netflix on iOS was grossing an average of $2.4 million per day in 2018 — meaning Apple was making around $700,000 by doing nothing other than allowing Netflix to offer subscriptions in its app.

(Note, however, that Sensor Tower’s figures are based on the App Store’s 30 percent cut of transactions. After the first year, Apple’s cut on subscription renewals is lowered to 15 percent. That’s not being factored in. But it gives you a rough idea of Apple’s losses here.)

Netflix’s iOS revenue has been climbing steadily over the years.

In 2017, its gross subscriber revenue was $510 million — up from $215 million users spent in the app in 2016 — which earned it the No. 1 spot on the Top Grossing Chart for non-game apps. It snagged that position again this year, trailed by Tinder and Tencent Video.

In fact, Netflix has earned the bragging rights for being the top-grossing iOS App of all time, App Annie reported this summer.

The streaming service’s decision to bypass the App Store isn’t a first. Many companies today direct their users to the web or other platforms in order to avoid marketplace fees.

For example, Amazon has historically restricted movie and TV rentals and purchases to its own website or other “compatible” apps, instead of allowing them to take place through its Prime Video app. The same goes for Kindle e-books, which also aren’t offered in the Kindle mobile app. Spotify also discontinued the option to pay for its Premium service using Apple’s in-app payment system.

And Epic Games this year bypassed Google’s Play Store altogether — as well as its 30 percent cut — when it launched Fortnite for Android as a sideloaded app. That decision resulted in Google’s loss of $50 million+ in marketplaces fees.

Netflix earlier this year had dropped in-app subscription sign-ups in its Android app on Google Play. That signaled its intentions to later take back the so-called “Apple tax” for itself, too.

However, Netflix still earns money on Google Play through existing subscribers. That totaled around $105 million in 2018, with Google earning close to $32 million of that. But the number has been declining consistently, Sensor Tower said. Apple could soon be in the same boat.

VentureBeat was the first to notice the change to the Netflix iOS app. It would be surprising if Apple took action against Netflix, given it has not done so with other major tech companies that made similar moves.

Polite Fortnite Society

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 12:38 PM PST

My parents are approaching 60. When they were young, they hung out at diners, or drove around in their cars. My generation hung out in the parking lot after school, or at the mall. My colleague John Biggs often talks of hanging out with his nerd buddies in his basement, playing games and making crank calls.

Today, young people are hanging out on a virtual island plagued by an ever-closing fatal storm. It’s called Fortnite .

The thread above describes exactly what I’m talking about. Yes, people most certainly log on and play the game. Some play it very seriously. But many, especially young folks, hop on to Fortnite to socialize.

The phenomenon of “hanging out” on a game is not new.

Almost any popular game results in a community of players who connect not only through the common interest of the game itself, but as real friends who discuss their lives, thoughts, dreams, etc. But something else is afoot on Fortnite that may be far more effectual.

Gaming culture has long had a reputation for being highly toxic. To be clear, there is a difference between talking about someone’s skills in the game and making a personal attack:

“You are bad at this game.” = Fine by me
“You should kill yourself.” = Not fine at all

But many streamers and pro gamers make offensive jokes, talk shit about each other and rage when they lose. It’s not shocking, then, that the broader gaming community that tries to emulate them, especially the young men growing up in a world where e-sports are real, tend to do many of the same things.

A new type of community

But Fortnite doesn’t have the same type of community. Sure, as with any game, there are bad apples. But on the whole, there isn’t the same toxicity permeating every single part of the game.

For what it’s worth, I’ve played hundreds of hours of both Fortnite and Call of Duty over the past few years. The difference between the way I’m treated on Fortnite and Call of Duty, particularly once my game-matched teammates discover I’m a woman, is truly staggering. I’ve actually been legitimately scared by my interactions with people on Call of Duty. I’ve met some of my closest friends on Fortnite.

One such relationship is with a young man named Luke, who is set to graduate from college this spring.

During the course of our now year-long friendship, Luke revealed to me that he is gay and was having trouble coming out to his parents and peers at school. As an older gay, I tried to provide him with as much guidance and advice as possible. Being there for him, answering his phone calls when he was struggling and reminding him that he’s a unique, strong individual, has perhaps been one of the most rewarding parts of my life this past year.

I’ve also made friends with young men who, once they realize that I’m older and a woman and have a perspective that they might not, casually ask me for advice. They’ve asked me why the girl they like doesn’t seem to like them back — “don’t try to make her jealous, just treat her with kindness,” I advised, and then added “OK, make her a little jealous” — or vented to me about how their parents “are idiots” — “they don’t understand you, and you don’t understand them, but they’re doing their best for you and no one loves you like they do” — or expressed insecurity about who they are — “you’re great at Fortnite, why wouldn’t you be great at a bunch of other things?” and “have more confidence in yourself.”

(Though paraphrased, these are real conversations I’ve had with random players on Fortnite.)

There is perhaps no other setting where I might meet these young people, nor one where they might meet me. And even if we did meet, out in the real world, would we open up and discuss our lives? No. But we have this place in common, and as we multitask playing the game and having a conversation, suddenly our little hearts open up to one another in the safety of the island.

But that’s just me. I see this mentorship all the time in Fortnite, in both small and big ways.

Gaming culture is often seen as a vile thing, and there are a wide array of examples to support that conclusion. Though this perception is slowly changing, and not always fair, gamers are usually either perceived as lonely people bathed in the blue glow of the monitor light, or toxic brats who cuss, and throw out slurs, and degrade women.

So why is Fortnite any different from other games? Why does it seem to foster a community that, at the very least, doesn’t actively hate on one another?

One map, a million colors

First, it’s the game itself. Even though Fortnite includes weapons, it’s not a “violent” game. There is no blood or gore. When someone is eliminated, their character simply evaporates into a pile of brightly colored loot. The game feels whimsical and cartoonish and fun, full of dances and fun outfits. This musical, colorful world most certainly affects the mood of its players.

Logging on to Fortnite feels good, like hearing the opening music to the Harry Potter movies. Logging on to a game like, say, Call of Duty: WWII feels sad and scary, like watching the opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan.

Moreover, Fortnite Battle Royale takes place on a single large map. That map may change and evolve from time to time, but it’s even more “common ground” between players. Veterans of the game show noobs new spots to find loot or ways to get around. As my colleague Greg Kumparak said to me, “Every time you go in, you’re going to the same place. Maybe it’s skinned a little different or there’s suddenly a viking ship, but it’s home.”

Of course, there are other colorful, bubbly games that still have a huge toxicity problem. Overwatch is a great example. So what’s the difference?

Managing expectations

Battle Royale has introduced a brand new dynamic to the world of gaming. Instead of facing off in a one-versus-one or a five-versus-five scenario as with Starcraft or Overwatch respectively, Battle Royale is either 1 versus 99, 2 versus 98 or 4 versus 96.

“It isn’t as binary as winning or losing,” said Rod “Slasher” Breslau, longtime gaming and e-sports journalist formerly of ESPN and CBS Interactive’s GameSpot. “You could place fifth and still feel satisfied about how you played.”

Breslau played Overwatch at the highest levels for a few seasons and said that it was the most frustrating game he’s ever played in 20 years of gaming. It may be colorful and bubbly, but it is built in a way that gives an individual player a very limited ability to sway the outcome of the game.

“You have all the normal problems of playing in a team, relying on your teammates to play their best and communicate and to simply have the skill to compete, but multiply that because of the way the game works,” said Breslau. “It’s very reliant on heroes, the meta is pretty stale because it’s a relatively new game, and the meta has been figured out.”

All that, combined with the fact that success in Overwatch is based on teamwork, make it easy to get frustrated and unleash on teammates.

With Fortnite, a number of factors relieve that stress. In an ideal scenario, you match up with three other players in a Squads match and they are all cooperative. Everyone lands together, they share shield potions and weapons, communicate about nearby enemies and literally pick each other up when one gets knocked down. This type of teamwork, even among randos, fosters kindness.

In a worst-case scenario, you are matched up with players who aren’t cooperative, who use toxic language, who steal your loot or simply run off and die, leaving you alone to fight off teams of four. Even in the latter scenario, there are ways to play more cautiously — play passive and hide, or third-party fights that are underway and pick players off, or lure teams intro trapped up houses.

Sure, it’s helpful to have skilled, communicative teammates, but being matched with not-so-great teammates doesn’t send most people into a blind rage.

And because the odds are against you — 1 versus 99 in Solos or 4 versus 96 in Squads — the high of winning is nearly euphoric.

“The lows are the problem,” says Breslau. “Winning a close game of Overwatch, when the team is working together and communicating, feels great. But when you’re depending on your team to win, the lows are so low. The lows aren’t like that in Fortnite.”

The more the merrier

The popularity of Fortnite as a cultural phenomenon, not just a game, means that plenty of non-gamers have found their way onto the island. Young people, a brand new generation of gamers, are obsessed with the game. But folks who might have fallen away from gaming as they got older are still downloading it on their phone, or installing it on the Nintendo Switch, and giving Battle Royale a try. Outsiders, who haven’t been steeped in the all-too-common hatred found in the usual gaming community, are bringing a sense of perspective to Fortnite. There is simply more diversity that comes with a larger pool of players, and diversity fosters understanding.

Plus, Fortnite has solid age distribution among players. The majority (63 percent) of players on Fortnite are between the ages of 18 and 24, according to Verto Analytics. Twenty-three percent of players are ages 24 to 35, and thirteen percent are 35 to 44 years old. However, this data doesn’t take into account players under the age of 18, which represent 28 percent of overall gamers, according to Verto. One way Fortnite is like other games is that 70 percent of players are male.

There aren’t many scenarios where four people, from different backgrounds and age groups, join up under a common goal in the type of mood-lifting setting that Fortnite provides. More often than not, the youngest little guy tries to make some sort of offensive joke to find his social place in the group. But surprisingly, for a shoot and loot game played by a lot of people, that's rarely tolerated by the older members of a Fortnite squad.

All eyes on Fortnite

The popularity of the game also means that more eyes are on Fortnite than any other game. Super-popular streamer Ninja's live stream with Drake had more than 600,000 concurrent viewers, setting a record. The more people watching, the more streamers are forced to watch their behavior.

Fortnite streamers are setting a new example for gamers everywhere.

One such streamer is Nick “NickMercs” Kolcheff. Nick has been streaming Fortnite since it first came out and has a huge community of mostly male viewers. I consider myself a part of, albeit a minority in, that community — I’ve subscribed to his channel and cheered for him with bits and participated in the chat. In short, I’ve spent plenty of time watching Nick and have seen him offer a place of support and friendship for his viewers.

I’ve seen Nick’s audience ask him, in so many words, how to lose weight (Nick’s a big fitness guy), or share that they’re dealing with an illness in the family, or share that they’re heartbroken because their girlfriend cheated on them.

In large part, Nick says he learned how to be a mentor from his own dad.

“I remember being in those kinds of positions, but I have a great father that always sat me down and let me vent and then shared his opinion, and reminded me that it isn't supposed to be easy,” said Kolcheff. “It feels good to bounce things off other people and hard things always feel much easier when you know you're not alone, and I can relate to my chat the way my dad relates to me.”

Nick always has something positive to say. He reminds his audience that even if they feel alone IRL, they have a community right there in his Twitch channel to talk to. He sets an example in the way he talks about his girlfriend Emu, and the way he treats her on screen. When Nick loses a game and his chat explodes with anger, he reminds them to be cool and to not talk shit about other players.

And it’s easy to see his example followed in the chat, where young people are treating each other with respect and answering each other’s questions.

Nick wasn’t always like this. In fact, the first time that NickMercs and Ninja played together on stream, they brought up the time that Nick challenged Ninja to a fight at a LAN tournament years ago. But both Nick and Ninja have matured into something that you rarely find in online gaming: a role model — and it's had an effect.

Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, far and away the most successful Twitch streamer ever, decided to stop swearing and using degrading language as his influence in the community and his viewership grew. When his audience said they missed the old Ninja, he had this to say:

I’m the same person, you guys. 2018 can’t handle old Ninja and… guess what, I can’t handle old Ninja because the words that I used to say and the gaming terms I used to say… they weren’t ok, alright? I’ve matured.

Jack “Courage” Dunlop is another Fortnite streamer who uses his influence in the community to mentor young people. He has befriended a young fellow named Connor. Courage helped Connor get his first win and has since continued playing with him and talking to him.

Not only is he being kind to Connor, but he’s setting an example for his viewers.

“In comparison to games like Call of Duty and Gears of War and Halo, the top content creators like Ninja, Sypher PK, Timthetatman, are a little older now,” said Kolcheff. “They've come from other games where they already had a following. If you look at me five or six years ago, or any of us, we've all chilled out. We were more combative and crazy and had a lot more words to say, but I think we just grew up, and it bleeds through to the community.”

These guys are the exception in the wider world of gaming and streaming. But they represent the future of gaming in general. As e-sports explode with growth, pro players will undoubtedly be held to the same behavioral standards as pro players in traditional sports. That’s not to say that pro athletes are angels, and that’s not to say that bad actors won’t have a following. Just look at PewDiePie.

A matter of time

The e-sports world is realizing that they can’t let their professionals run their mouth without consequences. As the industry grows, highly dependent on advertisers and brand endorsements, with a young audience hanging on every word, it will become increasingly important for leagues, e-sports organizations and game makers to start paying closer attention to the behavior of their top players.

We’re already seeing this type of policing happening on Overwatch, both for pro players and amateurs alike.

There is plenty more work to do. But the problem of removing toxicity from any platform is incredibly difficult. Just ask Facebook and Twitter. Still, it’s only a matter of time before e-sports decision-makers raise the stakes on what they’ll allow from their representatives, which are pro players and streamers.

Toxic behavior is being rejected in most polite society anywhere (except Twitter, because Twitter), and it surely can’t be tolerated much longer in the gaming world. But Fortnite maker Epic Games hasn’t had to put too much effort forth to steer clear of toxic behavior. The community seems to be doing a pretty good job holding itself accountable.

Winning where it counts

Believe you me, Fortnite is not some magical place filled with unicorns and rainbows. There are still players on the game who behave badly, cheat, use toxic language and are downright mean. But compared to other shooters, Fortnite is a breath of fresh air.

No one thing makes Fortnite less toxic. A beautiful, mood-lifting game can’t make much of a difference on its own. A huge, relatively diverse player base certainly makes a dent. And yes, the game limits frustration by simply managing expectations. But with leaders that have prioritized their position as role models, and all the other factors above working in harmony, Fortnite is not only the most popular game in the world, but perhaps one of the most polite.

We reached out to Epic Games, Courage and Ninja for this story, but didn’t hear back at the time of publication.

What to expect from CES 2019

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 12:36 PM PST

The timing is… less than ideal. Just as the industry is recovering from a holiday-induced hangover, we're thrust into the country's largest consumer electronics show. The timing, of course, is not coincidental. The show is intended to offer a preview for the tech year to come.

Many companies thrive on CES's pace. It's a five-day deluge of tech news, and, for many, it's the largest platform they'll get all year. The show is fairly unique in its ability to juggle announcements from all sizes of companies, from Samsung to startup, all vying for a little mindshare.

In recent years, its focus has shifted. Many larger companies have opted to make announcements on their own stages — and their own terms. CES, meanwhile, has changed accordingly, offering smaller companies a platform through showcases like Eureka Park, while making automotive and transportation a more essential plank of the show.

We're about a week out from CES really kicking off in earnest, so it's time to take a look at some of the trends that are beginning to emerge in the lead-up to the big show.

5G beyond the phone

5g illustration taken during the inauguration of the Media group Altice' s Campus in Paris on October 9, 2018.

5G illustration, taken during the inauguration of the Media group Altice’ s Campus in Paris on October 9, 2018. (Photo by ERIC PIERMONT / AFP)

The big tech story of the year will no doubt also be the centerpiece of CES. The major U.S. carriers have already committed to rolling out 5G in 2019, so the show marks a perfect opportunity for hardware companies to get in on the action, as well.

Expect to see a lot of news out of component makers on this front, Intel especially. Qualcomm mostly showcased its 2019 offerings at its summit earlier this month, but the company will no doubt drill down on specifics, including the ways in which next-gen wireless will push IoT, automotive and other devices beyond the smartphone (more on that below).

In fact, I anticipate that's going to be the big story here: 5G's role beyond mobile. The big carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint — are intent on demonstrating how the faster technology will keep us gulp more connected than ever. That's going to apply to everything from enterprise products to health-monitoring wearables and smart home devices.

It's a future where everything is always-on — and tapped directly into your bank account.

AR/VR

Barring any unforeseen trends, VR's going to mostly have to sit this one out. We'll likely see a trend toward cheaper, standalone headsets à la the Oculus Go, but most companies are currently a lot more interested in what augmented reality holds in the short-term.

AR's immediate future is two-pronged. Most developers are focused on leveraging existing devices like smartphones and tablets, using ARKit/ARCore. But a number of headsets/glasses have already begun to pop up on the periphery. Expect plenty of these to be on display at the show as startups attempt to convince us that it's an experience we need to bring directly to our collective faces.

Automotive

As noted, automotive/transportation has become an increasingly important presence at CES over the past several years. Car stuff now comprises a full hall and several of the keynotes, as automakers invested more in tech breakthroughs and the consumer electronics side of things.

A number of key trends are already starting to emerge ahead of the event. As in past years, expect to see a focus on on-site demos of EV and self-driving technologies. Augmented reality — including head's up displays  — will be a big part of the showcase, as will smaller transport products, including delivery robots.

Smart Home

The smart home ruled last year's show. 5G is expected to take the title in 2019, but connected home products won't give up without a fight. They're going to be EVERYWHERE. From door locks to cameras to microwave to wall clocks — if you can name it, there will be a smart version at CES this year.

It's the one category that practically every company both large and small will have a hand in. That said, two big names with an increased presence are going to drive much of the conversation. Since bringing the Echo and Home to market, CES has become an increasingly important show for both Amazon and Google. Expect Alexa and Assistant on everything at CES.

Smartphones

Much of this has, admittedly, already been detailed in my recent "Top smartphones trends to watch in 2019" post. Of course, what actually gets announced at CES is a different conversation altogether. For one thing, more companies are opting to make big announcements at their own events. For another, Mobile World Congress is just over a month away, and it's been known to take plenty of smartphone wind out of CES's sails.

That said, I'd expect to see a handful of 5G handsets on display at the show. And while CES 2019 probably won't be a watershed moment for the future of foldable smartphones, we're going to get a closer look at the final version of Royole's handset. I would also anticipate seeing plenty of foldable concepts hinted at, even as the final product will still be a ways away.

2018 was the toughest year for smartphones in recent memory. As such, a lot of companies are feeling the pressure to do some soul-searching and go back to the drawing board. If nothing else, at least we'll get some interesting concepts out of the deal.

TVs

Another year, another K. This year, 8K will very much be the thing. It's like 4K, but with more Ks. Is it a gimmick? Kind of. Is it cool? Sure. Mostly, however, it's the latest reason to get you to upgrade that three-year-old TV that cost you three months' rent.

Companies have been showing off 8K sets for half a decade now. This is the year manufacturers will really get serious about the technology — though the same probably can't be said for content.

Gillmor Gang: Next

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 11:42 AM PST

The Gillmor Gang — Keith Teare, Esteban Kolsky, Frank Radice, Michael Markman and Steve Gillmor . Recorded live Saturday December 22, 2018. 2019 — the year to come in review. Tech, Trump, Connected TV: products, services and streams that could make a difference.

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

@kteare, @ekolsky, @fradice, @mickeleh, @stevegillmor

Liner Notes

Live chat stream

The Gillmor Gang on Facebook

The New Horizons probe buzzes the most distant object ever encountered first thing tomorrow

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 11:20 AM PST

Four billion miles from Earth, the New Horizons probe that recently sent such lovely pictures of Pluto is drawing near to the most distant object mankind has ever come close to: Ultima Thule, a mysterious rock deep in the Kuiper belt. The historic rendezvous takes place early tomorrow morning.

This is an encounter nearly 30 years in the making, if you count back to the mission’s beginnings in 1989, but it’s also been some 13 years since launch — the timing and nature of which was calculated to give the probe this opportunity after it had completed its primary mission.

New Horizons arrived at Pluto in the summer of 2015, and in its fleeting passage took thousands of photos and readings that scientists are still poring over. It taught us many things about the distant dwarf planet, but by the time it took its extraordinary parting shots of Pluto’s atmosphere, the team was already thinking about its next destination.

Given the craft’s extreme speed and the incredibly distant setting for its first mission, the options for what to investigate were limited — if you can call the billions of objects floating in the Kuiper Belt “limited.”

In fact the next destination had been chosen during a search undertaken in concert with the Hubble Space Telescope team back in 2014. Ground-based reconnaissance wasn’t exact enough, and the New Horizons had to convince Hubble’s operators basically to dedicate to their cause two weeks of the satellite’s time on short notice. After an initial rejection and “some high-stakes backroom maneuvering,” as Principal Investigator Alan Stern describes it in his book about the mission, the team made it happen, and Hubble data identified several potential targets.

Ultima Thule as first detected by New Horizons’ LORRI imager.

2014 MU69 is a rock of unknown (but probably weird) shape about 20 miles across, floating in the belt about a billion miles from Pluto. But soon it would be known by another name.

“Ultima Thule,” Stern told me in an interview onstage at Disrupt SF in September. “This is an ancient building block of planets like Pluto, formed 4 billion years ago; it’s been out there in this deep freeze, almost in absolute zero the whole time. It’s a time capsule.”

At the time, he and the team had just gotten visual confirmation of the target, though nothing more than a twinkle in the distance. He was leaving immediately after our talk to go run flyby simulations with the team.

“I’m super excited,” he told me. “That will be the most distant exploration of any world in the history of not just spaceflight, but in the history of human exploration. I don’t think anybody will top that for a long time.”

The Voyagers are the farthest human-made objects, sure, but they’ve been flying through empty space for decades. New Horizons is out here meeting strange objects in an asteroid belt. Good luck putting together another mission like that in less than a few decades.

In the time I’ve taken to write this post, New Horizons has gone from almost exactly 600,000 kilometers away from Ultima Thule to less than 538,000 (and by this you shall know my velocity) — so it’ll be there quite soon. Just about 10 hours out, making it very early morning Eastern time on New Year’s Day.

Even then, however, that’s just when New Horizons will actually encounter the object — we won’t know until the signal it sends at the speed of light arrives here on Earth 12 hours later. Pluto is far!

The first data back will confirm the telemetry and basic success of the flyby. It will also begin sending images back as soon as possible, and while it’s possible that we’ll have fabulous pictures of the object by the afternoon, it depends a great deal on how things go during the encounter. At the latest we’ll see some by the next day; media briefings are planned for January 2 and 3 for this purpose.

Once those images start flowing in, though, they may be even better in a way than those we got of Pluto. If all goes well, they’ll be capturing photos at a resolution of 35 meters per pixel, more than twice as good as the 70-80 m/px we got of Pluto. Note that these will only come later, after some basic shots confirming the flyby went as planned and allowing the team to better sort through the raw data coming in.

“You should know that that these stretch-goal observations are risky,” wrote Stern in a post on the mission’s page, “requiring us to know exactly where both Ultima and New Horizons are as they pass one another at over 32,000 mph in the darkness of the Kuiper Belt… But with risk comes reward, and we would rather try than not try to get these, and that is what we will do.”

NASA public relations and other staff are still affected by the federal shutdown, but the New Horizons team will be covering the signal acquisition and first data live anyway; follow the mission on Twitter or check in to the NASA Live stream tomorrow morning at 7 AM Pacific time for the whole program. The schedule and lots of links can be found here.

NYSE operator’s crypto project Bakkt brings in $182M

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 10:56 AM PST

The Intercontinental Exchange’s (ICE) cryptocurrency project Bakkt celebrated New Year’s Eve with the announcement of a $182.5 million equity round from a slew of notable institutional investors. ICE, the operator of several global exchanges, including the New York Stock Exchange, established Bakkt to build a trading platform that enables consumers and institutions to buy, sell, store and spend digital assets.

This is Bakkt’s first institutional funding round; it was not a token sale. Participating in the round are Horizons Ventures, Microsoft's venture capital arm (M12), Pantera Capital, Naspers’ fintech arm (PayU), Protocol Ventures, Boston Consulting Group, CMT Digital, Eagle Seven, Galaxy Digital, Goldfinch Partners and more.

Bakkt is currently seeking regulatory approval to launch a one-day physically delivered Bitcoin futures contract along with physical warehousing. The startup initially planned for a November 2018 launch, but confirmed this morning an earlier CoinDesk report that it was delaying the launch to “early 2019” as it awaits permission from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Along with the funding, crypto news blog The Block Crypto also reports Bakkt has hired Balaji Devarasetty, a former vice president at Vantiv, as its head technology.

ICE’s crypto project was first announced in August and is led by chief executive officer Kelly Loeffler, ICE’s long-time chief communications and marketing officer. Bakkt quickly inked partnerships with Microsoft, which provides cloud infrastructure to the service, and Starbucks, to develop “practical, trusted and regulated applications for consumers to convert their digital assets into U.S. dollars for use at Starbucks," Starbucks vice president of payments Maria Smith said in a statement at the time.

Many Bitcoin startups floundered in 2018, despite record amounts of venture capital invested in the industry. This was as a result of failed initial coin offerings, an inability to scale following periods of rapid growth and the falling price of Bitcoin. Still, VCs remained bullish on Bitcoin and blockchain technology in 2018, funneling a total of $2.2 billion in U.S.-based crypto projects — a nearly 4x increase year-over-year. Around the globe, investment hit a high of $4.6 billion — a more than 4x increase from last year, according to PitchBook.

“Notably, 2018 was the most active year for crypto in its brief ten-year history,” Loeffler wrote. “This was evidenced by rising investment in distributed ledger technology and digital assets, as well as by blockchain network metrics such as daily bitcoin transaction value and active addresses. Yet, these milestones tend to be overshadowed by the more narrow focus on bitcoin's price, which has been seen by some, as a proxy for the potential of the technology.”

Today, the price of Bitcoin is hovering around $3,700 one year after a historic run valued the cryptocurrency at roughly $20,000. The crash caused many to dismiss Bitcoin and its underlying technology, while others remained committed to the tech and its potential for complete financial disruption. A project like Bakkt, created in-house at a respected financial institution with support from noteworthy businesses, is a logical bet for crypto and traditional private investors alike.

“The path to developing new markets is rarely linear: progress tends to modulate between innovation, dismissal, reinvention, and, finally, acceptance,” Loeffler added. “Each step, whether part of discovery or adversity, ultimately strengthens the product. Twenty years ago, it was controversial to suggest that commodities or bonds could trade electronically on a screen, and many steps were required for that evolution to play out.”

10 predictions about the media industry in the New Year

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 10:26 AM PST

2018 was a year of massive mergers and acquisitions, with AT&T/Time Warner, Disney/Fox and Comcast/Sky. The #MeToo movement made headlines, and the dominant emotion in boardroom discussions around Hollywood and beyond was fear … lots of fear in the ranks of our tech-infused world of media and entertainment (as well as in the world itself).

So what does the crystal ball predict for 2019?

Here are some of the narratives that will shape the world of entertainment next year and set the stage for the roaring 20s of the media industry.

PREDICTION #1 – Blood continues to spill in the relentless battle amongst premium OTT video giants, as Apple and Disney join the subscription video fray and add to the epic collective assault on Netflix. In the midst of it all, smaller "niche" players either find their singular voices that attract "fandom" and broader monetization, or risk being marginalized and swallowed up by their strategic investors (for a fraction of what they would have commanded a couple years back). 

Originals continue to be the primary weapon used in the premium subscription streaming video battlefront, extending media’s new "Golden Age" for creators and further skyrocketing content-related development and production costs (including the price tags for A-list marquee talent). Fierce premium OTT video competitors increasingly use content both offensively and defensively, like Disney withholding its crown jewels from Netflix (Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel, Princesses, X-Men, Avatar). Netflix feels the heat, as will its investors, as the collective crew of "Netflix-Killers" put increasing pressure on its pure-play business model.

Meanwhile, the newly expanded list of virtual MVPDs (multi-channel video program distributors) fix their initial flaws, offer consumers real competitive choice, and hasten consumer cord-cutting even further.  Whereas we started 2016 with 2-3 real, viable mainstream choices in the U.S. for live television, as of 2019, consumers now can access nearly 10 (cable, satellite, Hulu Live, YouTube TV, DirecTV Now, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, fuboTV, etc.). And, even in these nationalistic times, let's not forget about massive international players like Tencent, Alibaba or Baidu's iQIYI, which went public in the U.S. markets this past year.

Amidst this battle of video giants, several smaller so-called "niche" or segment-focused video players either expeditiously find their uniquely compelling voice and build a fandom-fueled multi-pronged monetizing brand around it, or simply get lost in the noise.

FILE – This June 27, 2015, file photo, shows the Hulu logo on a window at the Milk Studios space in New York. Hulu said Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, that the company is dropping the free TV episodes that it was initially known for as it works on launching a skinny bundle of streaming TV. (AP Photo/Dan Goodman, File)

PREDICTION #2 – Media-Tech driven M&A continues to rule the day in all segments. On the video side, both traditional media companies and undercapitalized and underperforming privately-held new media companies languish in this beyond-crowded OTT video space and become logical M&A targets.

M&A is a hallmark of the overall digital, multi-platform tech-infused transformation of the media and entertainment business. Just like AT&T closed its acquisition of storied traditional (yet slow-moving) Time Warner ($85 billion), Disney beat back Comcast to acquire Fox's entertainment assets in 2018 ($71.3 billion), Comcast struck back and acquired Sky ($39 billion), and SiriusXM acquired the remaining 81% of Pandora it didn't already own ($3.5 billion), expect more massive deals in 2019, together with a number of smaller, yet still significant ones. Viacom/CBS is one likely candidate.

And don't just look within U.S. borders. No virtual wall exists in our borderless new media world, which means that M&A's pace will accelerate internationally as well. Remember, the Comcast/Sky deal represents a U.S. behemoth's ambitions to significantly expand its footprint into multiple European territories. Lots of mega-companies around the globe desperately hope to expand their footprints to places where, up to now, they have never been.

To be clear, not all M&A will flow from weakness. Sometimes the numbers offered simply will be too high to reject. But make no mistake. Weakness will abound amidst hyper-competition, and winners will swallow up losers in an environment of accelerating M&A. Many of the so-called niche-focused OTT video services still primarily rely upon ad dollars (especially the younger ones), but remember, Google and Facebook already own about 2/3 of that global digital advertising market. That means that most pure-play OTT video players simply cannot succeed on ad dollars alone. And, for most, other means of monetization will be beyond their reach, as they fail to deliver a sufficiently compelling, differentiated and emotionally connected media experience. So, much like Uproxx did this past year when Warner Music Group acquired it (likely for a song), expect several of the new media players to lose their Indie status.

PREDICTION #3 – The music industry's streaming-driven turnaround continues and streaming revenues accelerate, but pure-play music services led by Spotify continue to hemorrhage money as losses mount. Meanwhile, the giant "big box" retailers of the day — Apple, Amazon and YouTube (particularly YouTube) — brazenly march on, indifferent to that suffering with their fundamentally different underlying marketing-driven business models. 

Yes, Spotify boasts massive scale. Yet, scale alone does not financial success make. In fact, pure-play growth success leads to higher and higher losses due to sobering industry economics these pure-plays can't stomach, but the behemoths can due to their multi-pronged business models. These harsh realities mean that investors of many pure-play streaming music services will take a hard look at themselves in 2019 as they contemplate their next strategic next steps. Many will realize that they can't go it alone. And that leads to more M&A, much like we saw this past year with SiriusXM buying Pandora and LiveXLive buying Slacker. Spotify is not immune here. Unless it successfully expands its business model and drives major new revenue streams, it too could be bought. Facebook anyone?

 

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 03: The Spotify banner hangs from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the morning that the music streaming service begins trading shares at the NYSE on April 3, 2018 in New York City. Trading under the symbol SPOT, the Swedish company’s losses grew to 1.235 billion euros ($1.507 billion) last year, its largest ever. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

PREDICTION #4 – Tech-driven media companies thrive and increasingly dominate the entertainment world by using data to their advantage. They use AI, voice and machine learning to dominate further and even more broadly infiltrate our lives and impact our media and entertainment experiences.

Netflix, Amazon and Facebook increasingly mine their deep data about all of our hopes and dreams to maximize "hits" and minimize "misses" as compared to traditional media companies. In many respects, the studios simply can't compete. Faced with that reality, the quest for data — and the services that provide, analyze and inform – takes on new urgency. Further, the Hollywood establishment and creative community still have yet to understand – at least in large numbers — the power of new cost-effective tech-driven ways to test and measure new characters, stories and engagement in order to more smartly and efficiently place their big expensive bets.

Meanwhile, the new tech-driven media giants hope to increase their overall Media 2.0 dominance through the soothing voices of Alexa and Siri (sorry Google, yours is a little less so) and the overall AI/machine learning revolution. "Virtual assistants," "smart speakers" (or whatever you want to call them) increasingly dominate our home conversations, improve significantly over time, and serve up our favorite content via "intelligent" recommendations (as well as increasingly targeted and smarter incentives, promotions, ads and goods). 71% of us already use voice assistants at least once per day (most frequently for selecting the music we like to hear), so voice most definitely is here to stay.

More exotically, and perhaps somewhat alarmingly, AI also increasingly drives so-called "intelligent" creation. AI already develops movie trailers that some believe approach the impact of their human-generated counterparts. You be the judge — check out the first AI-produced movie trailer, care of IBM's Watson, for the fittingly AI-themed 2016 motion picture thriller Morgan. And, just imagine how much AI has advanced in just these past two years since then. Can AI screenwriters be far behind?  Gong Yu, founder and CEO of China's leading streaming platform iQIYI certainly doesn't think so. In his words, AI "will reshape the entertainment industry over the next 10-15 years, much more so than the Internet did over the past three decades."  Just chew on that for a bit.

So, AI may become a real threat even to creative pursuits that, up to this point, most in Hollywood believe are untouchable by computers, bots, and robots. Tesla maven and global futurist Elon Musk is downright dystopian and takes things even further, warning that AI may be an ultimate global threat to us all. Musk tweeted in 2017 that "competition for AI superiority at national level most likely cause of WW3."   Those were his precise words, so that was either Musk's particular form of Twitter-speak, or his mind had become a bit hazy during one of his notorious cannabis-fueled interviews!

Amazon is releasing a software development kit that will let developers integrate Alexa into smart screen devices.

PREDICTION #5 – Behemoths Apple, Google and Facebook, together with other tech-driven media giants and deep-pocketed financiers from around the world, increase their already-massive investments in immersive technologies and accelerate mainstream adoption of AR.

AR's gold rush means continued growth in the related wearables market and consumer adoption of AR-driven eyewear. Investors of all stripes also continue to throw boatloads of cash into the overall immersive space to fuel the development of experiences (including real world live entertainment and storytelling, not only games) to feed these new platforms. Expect significant investment in content. The immersive market opportunity is still so nascent, yet its ultimate promise is so great, that the money working to capture it in 2019 and beyond will seem endless. And, when so much money chases a market, that market becomes our consumer reality.

The onset of 5G wireless networks will only hasten the growth of extended reality (XR) in all its forms. Speaking of 5G …

Attendees look at 5G mobile phones at the Qualcomm stand during China Mobile Global Partner Conference 2018 at Poly World Trade Center Exhibition Hall on December 6, 2018 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China.

GUANGZHOU, CHINA – DECEMBER 06: Attendees look at 5G mobile phones at the Qualcomm stand during China Mobile Global Partner Conference 2018 at Poly World Trade Center Exhibition Hall on December 6, 2018 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China. The three-day conference opened on Thursday, with the theme of 5G network. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

PREDICTION #6 – 5G Networks launch, reveal their early media and tech promise and possibilities, and begin to transform our media and entertainment experiences (as well as the overall ecosystem that supports them). 

5G networks are critical for media experiences that require low latency, including AR, VR, and eSports. For AR, 5G reduces the size of consumer headsets, because processing is now done on the network itself rather than on the device. That makes wearables increasingly user-friendly and fuels further innovation and adoption. 5G also accelerates more high quality video consumption on our mobile phones, thereby pushing purveyors of premium OTT video like Netflix to increasingly focus on mobile-first content experiences.

Jeffrey Katzenberg's and Meg Whitman's new mobile-driven Netflix-like premium video service Quibi (formerly NewTV) certainly saw this train coming, and jumped on first.

PREDICTION #7 – The oft-overlooked, yet potentially game-changing, live entertainment and event plank increasingly finds itself in multi-platform Media 2.0 strategies, deepening overall brand engagement and monetization possibilities. Expect more significant "offline"-related experiments, initiatives and M&A by both traditional and new tech-driven media companies.

Call this the "Amazon Effect," as players across the Media 2.0 ecosystem stop scratching their heads about Amazon's direct-to-theater film releases, brick and mortar retail expansion, and Whole Foods superstore operations – and, instead, increasingly study, respect and emulate them. Netflix certainly did in 2018. After trashing Amazon one year earlier for releasing its features first in theaters, Netflix announced it would begin to do the same.

Amazon understands what most still haven't even considered – that direct, non-virtual offline consumer engagement may be the most impactful plank of them all, driving online engagement into the real world (and then back again) to create a virtual cycle of daily brand engagement and consumer monetization every step of the way. Even traditional media company Viacom now shows signs of understanding these online/offline brand synergies. It bought both youth-focused video industry conference VidCon and music festival SnowGlobe in 2018.

So, while MoviePass may go the way of the Dodo bird in 2019, movie theaters themselves will not die. They simply will be re-imagined. We humans, after all, are social creatures. We like to get out, and we won't be satisfied binging on Netflix alone. Movie theater subscription services most definitely are here to stay, and Amazon will offer one soon for Prime members. After all, in a fun fact that may surprise you, more museums populate the planet – significantly more – than McDonald's. See, there is hope!

ANAHEIM, CA – JUNE 23: General view of panelists at the 7th Annual VidCon at Anaheim Convention Center on June 22, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Tara Ziemba/WireImage)

PREDICTION #8 – The #MeToo Movement continues to transform the face (and faces) of both old and new media. And, new faces will invest new industry dollars in new (and frequently very different) content choices, bringing us new (and frequently different) stories and transforming our media and entertainment experiences.

Revelations aren't over. Abuse was simply far too pervasive. Old players are gone. New, frequently younger, tech-driven media savvy faces get a seat at the decision-making table. They change the game of "what" and "how" we experience content.

Ultimately, #MeToo both cleanses the overall new media industry, and fills our plates with very different media and entertainment choices.

(Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

PREDICTION #9 – Fake news, fraud and breaches of privacy continue unabated and accelerate, as does marketing concern for "brand safety."  These seemingly unstoppable negative forces continue to place downward pressure on ad-dependent open platforms. 

Make no mistake, we are in the midst of hacking wars, the likes of which we've never seen. This "good versus evil" reality is here to stay, and players across the tech-driven media and entertainment ecosystem either significantly increase their investments in counter-measures and related PR, or risk the wrath of consumers and the overall ad market (much like Facebook did this past year).

Twitter cleaned 70 million fake and automated accounts in a two month span last year (and 1 million more daily), Instagram conceded that over 50% of engagements on its posts tagged as #sponsored are fake, Spotify similarly conceded prevalent ad fraud and decreased its total reported content hours streamed by hundreds of millions of hours, and competing music service Tidal faced accusations that it had falsified tens of millions of streams. Just a few examples of how pervasive fraud and audience manipulation has become in our Media 2.0 world. These fake accounts create, in the words of Variety"a shadow army of followers that has comparatively little monetary effect. But perform the same manipulation with music streams, and it constitutes fraud." 

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

PREDICTION #10 – Blockchain technology and crypto-currency-fueled investment and experimentation, already over-hyped and under-performing, continues apace. Yet, once again, there will be little to show for it in the world of media and entertainment. At least for now.

Early blockchain leaders continue to be irrationally overvalued, which is always the case with any nascent market. But, on a happier note, the voice of blockchain technology – heard thus far mostly in investment circles with promises of "instant millions" (or even billions) – becomes increasingly heard for its more positive potential for the world of media and entertainment. Blockchain technology conceptually holds revolutionary industry-transforming new offensive and defensive power. On the offensive front, blockchain enables new ways to monetize content via micropayments and direct creator-to-consumer distribution sans today's leading middlemen. These possibilities begin to reveal themselves in 2019. On the defensive front, blockchain promises to eradicate piracy, but that happens in years, not this coming year.

The bottom line

2019 certainly will push 2018's Media 2.0 boundaries noticeably further, driven by these and other industry meta-forces. But, these changes will be barely noticeable compared to the seismic shifts to follow in the next ten years.

I close with Paramount futurist Ted Schilowitz's perspective on all of this. In our conversation, Ted points to two phenomena — the first of which he calls "the known unknown," and the second he calls "the ten year curve."  "The known unknown" refers to what he calls the "scary" fact that we all know that massive tech-driven change is coming, but we don't know the "twists and turns that get us there."  Meanwhile, "the ten year curve" refers to "big dynamic change waves" that follow ten-year cycles. In Ted's view, we just recently finished the YouTube and iPhone 10-year cycles, and now essentially everyone around the globe participates in those dual phenomena.

So, what's "the next big thing?"  Ted calls it the "the evolution of the screen" – so-called "visual computing" via new forms of eyewear (wearables) that replace our smartphones. Think Minority Report-like data and content interaction, and you get the general idea. "Surprisingly little has changed with human/screen interaction in the past 30 years," Ted points out. He reminds me that while user interfaces have become more sophisticated, actual screen interaction is not massively different — comparing interaction on Mac screens 30 years ago and on iPhones today.

That is all changing right now — as you sit, read and soak in Ted's thoughts either in print, or more likely on your own v.2019 screen. According to Ted, we are only about 3.5 years into this 10-year visual computing cycle. "In 2013-2014, we saw the first idea of commercializing a track-able screen, a spatial screen. That is a massive change. We will fundamentally change how we use our screens. I see a very distinct future where these things will emerge from their cocoon and replace the iPhone, laptop, etc. You will notice an evolution of 30 minutes per day, then one hour, then two hours, etc." 

Think that overstates things a bit?  Well, Ted cautions you this way. "It's the exact same paradigm shift we saw with mobile phones decades ago. Just imagine back then that you would – decades later (i.e. today) — carry a device with you almost every waking moment of your waking life. Even Bill Gates would have said that is ridiculous."

Yet, here we are. Today. In that "unimaginable" world. That's how fast it goes.

Ted is adamant about this inevitable "evolution of the screen" reality, and he is convincing. "I know the next evolution is coming. All of these experiments today are on their way to something really, really significant. 2019 will be very subtle in this revolution. Still for the early adopter, because none of these head mounted immersive devices today will replace our smart phones. But the constant and continuous evolution of this tech is happening.

Are rightsholders ready for public domain day?

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 10:00 AM PST

On January 1, 2019, the New Year will ring in untold numbers of additions to the public domain in the U.S., including hundreds and maybe thousands of works with at least a small public reputation. This, of course, is due to the expiration of the terms of their copyrights, some of which have been extended multiple times since the 1960s. 

This is a good thing from many perspectives, including that of authors, publishers, museum curators, teachers, old-book readers and music and film buffs. It possibly may be a slightly bad thing for a few people — primarily certain estates representing long-dead authors and other creators.

What's a "term" in the context of copyright?

The duration, or term, of U.S. copyright is set by Congress, and has gradually crept up over time from the original 14 years (plus 14 more if the author was still alive and renewed the copyright) — in Thomas Jefferson's time — to a whopping "life of the author plus 70 years," as set by the 1998 "Copyright Term Extension Act" (CTEA, which extended it from life plus 50).

For works first published between 1909 and 1978, the maximum term was finally set by Congress at 95 years (assuming the author complied with a whole lot of rules, alluded to below).  And for post-1978 works, in instances where the author/creator is not a human being (such as a business commissioning a "work made for hire" under rules developed in the case-law) or the work was published under a pseudonym for an unknown person, the term can be as long as 120 years! The copyright in a work, duly registered at the time that registration was required (pre-1978), may never have been renewed, and so its protection may have quietly lapsed some time ago; for many more obscure works, it's hard to know.

Fun fact: This Copyright Term Extension Act is also known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. Congress named it in memory of the composer of "I've Got You, Babe," who, as a member of Congress from Southern California, was among the authors of the bill; he unfortunately happened to die while it was being worked on in committee. Prior to 1978, the term of U.S. copyrights was determined by fixed terms of years, subject to publication, registration and notice requirements. Here are more details on that.

How do works pass into the public domain?

Currently, works pass into the public domain according to a complex schedule, combining (sometimes awkwardly) the rules of various laws implemented over the past century.

Bear in mind, however, that many works have passed (or “fallen” or “lapsed,” as the older phrases had it) into the public domain in the U.S. for reasons other than term expiry, even during the 20 years of the CTEA extension. According to the law in effect prior to 1978, if the work was published but never registered in the U.S. Copyright Office, it did not receive protection under copyright law; a work might also not be protected by U.S. copyright law if it lacked proper notice — the © symbol and the proper wording — or if the work's registration was not renewed after its first 28-year term expired. Or if, as a work of the federal government, it never enjoyed copyright protection in the first place.

Qui Bono? (get it?)

As it turns out, it is not just re-publishers of "classic" texts, such as Dover Thrift Editions, which benefit when new works become available. Textbook and educational publishers frequently re-use old short stories and essays in larger collections, and a work of marginal utility might become more attractive as a potential addition to these collections once the cost of clearing the rights is reduced.

For example, a few years ago a 1922 story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," (whose U.S. copyright had lapsed) was adapted into a feature film. To me, the lesson to be gleaned is that many works of the early 20th century still appear to bear some cultural cachet (or at least continuing value to society) — such that more no-cost access to these works (by their passing from copyright protection to the public domain) should have the overall effect of helping them find new audiences.

Note: Bear in mind, all of these examples are simply illustrative — without a full and careful copyright search, it is difficult to be certain of the copyright status of almost any work. On that, more below.

New works coming into the U.S. public domain also will have the effect of giving researchers new texts to run Text and Data Mining (TDM) algorithms across. It also may add to the richness of film and cultural studies.

Mark Twain proves this isn't so easy

Unfortunately, determining when a work has in fact "fallen" into the public domain due to the term of its copyright having expired is not always as simple as one might hope.

For example, one might think that everything ever laid down by the pen of Mark Twain (S.L. Clemens, d. 1910) would be in the public domain by now. But, since he left a treasure trove of unpublished works, their copyright protection has extended for many years after his death, because, under pre-1978 law, those works' copyright protection would not start until the works were published. The distinction between published and unpublished works has been discarded under post-1978 law, but won't be fully effective for another 30 years. So, some items in the microfilm edition of Twain's letters and manuscripts (their first publication) are still considered to be under copyright. He's also enjoyed considerable success recently with the full and final publication of his autobiography.

Twain, a student of intellectual property, steadfastly argued for a perpetual copyright, but he came to realize that this was not permitted under the copyright clause of the U.S. Constitution, which refers to "securing [protection] for limited times." But, in an age when copyright only protected works for which registrations had been obtained, he did point out that most books wouldn't be affected by a longer term at all — for the vast bulk of them had no commercial life remaining to them a very few years after their initial publication:

One author per year produces a book which can outlive the forty-two-year limit; that's all. This nation can't produce two authors a year that can do it; the thing is demonstrably impossible. All that the limited copyright can do is to take the bread out of the mouths of the children of that one author per year.

I made an estimate some years ago, when I appeared before a committee of the House of Lords, that we had published in this country since the Declaration of Independence 220,000 books. They have all gone. They had all perished before they were ten years old. It is only one book in 1000 that can outlive the forty-two-year limit. Therefore, why put a limit at all? You might as well limit the family to twenty-two children.

– S.L. Clemens, in testimony to Congress, concerning proposed copyright legislation (1906)

"Forever minus a day," another idea which has been occasionally bruited about (particularly by Congressman Bono and his widow, who was later elected seven times in her own right to Congress), would not constitute much of an effective limit, and so would, I believe, violate the Constitutional limitation; 95 years (an estimated average of the "Life plus 70" term) seems closer to a natural lifespan for a copyright — to me at least. If you and your heirs somehow can't get the commercial value out of your work before nearly a century is out, I think there's a takeaway lesson there.

On the other hand…

… some works do have cultural lifespans exceeding the term of copyright. The estates of certain literary, film and musical creators may stand to lose when the copyright in some of the works in their respective repertories lose copyright protection due to the lapse of their terms. For some examples of works entering the public domain on January 1, 2019, that may still have financial value to the author/creator's heirs: Hemingway's "Three Stories and 10 Poems" was first published in 1923; it was also the year of release for "Safety Last!" a silent film from Hal Roach Studios, starring Harold Lloyd, which many people remember. The same year saw the first publication (of the sheet music) for "Who's Sorry Now?" which was a hit recording for Connie Francis in 1958.

But, on balance, "Nothing gold can stay," as Robert Frost observed in a poem slated — I'm pretty sure — to enter the public domain on January 1st.* The reading, listening, and viewing public should expect to be the main beneficiary of these works entering the public domain. Indeed, 95 years is a good run for the commercial exploitation of a work. Now it's everybody else's turn to benefit.

*If it hasn't already. Copyright searches, on the detail level, can be quite difficult and time-consuming. See: https://www.copyright.gov/rrc/. For any proposed commercial republication, it is certainly the course of wisdom to consult with an attorney and have a full copyright search done.

Soulja Boy’s game consoles pulled from store weeks after launch

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 09:57 AM PST

As anyone from the Gizmondo to the Virtual Boy can tell you, it's tough to launch a console. Of course, it helps when your device apparently comes pre-loaded with thousands of games from big-name companies like Nintendo, Sony, Square and Bandai.

It was clear the moment they were launched that Soulja Boy's SouljaGame console and handhelds were too good to be true, in spite of his insistence that he'd struck deals with game publishers. Now, around three weeks after launch, both have been pulled from his online store (which also stocks a familiar-looking wearable and headphones).

What caused the systems to be pulled from his site isn't clear, though the rapper appears to have acknowledged as much in a tweet, stating, "I had to boss up, I didn't have a choice." Of course, given Nintendo's history, it seems unlikely that a deal was struck to license titles to what appears to amount to a rebranded emulator.

As Variety notes, titles like Tekken and Tomb Raider were also featured in ads for the systems, which is practically crying out for publishers to intervene. Meantime, he's promised "big plans" soon, including his already stated intention to launch an e-sports team at some point next year. For now, however, the rapper appears to be doing just fine, thank you very much:

Here’s what to expect in cybersecurity in 2019

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 09:35 AM PST

Around this time every year, my inbox fills with the same repetitive junk.

“Would you consider putting [any random company] in your gift guide?”, “are you going to CES and if so can I pitch you [a gadget that literally won’t be around this time next year]?”, and, “do you want to cover [a company you’ve never hard of’s] predictions for next year?”

To which I always respond: “No,” “absolutely not” and “predictions are not news.”

The “predictions” emails piss me off. Most of the companies that offer predictions don’t seem to fully understand the security field outside their particular niche, or worse, have an agenda they’re trying to push. This year was no different. I trawled through my inbox, scanning literally dozens of emails pushing “predictions” for the coming year.

“Artificial intelligence will stop a data breach,” said one email. “The supply chain will face more attacks,” said another. And, my personal favorite, “bad actors will combine multiple attack types to create synergistic super threats.”

Hate to break it to you, but “super threats” are not a thing.

If you thought 2018 was a tough year for tech, 2019 is going to be so much worse. The groundwork we laid this year will roll over into the next, and that’s when things will start to hit hard, from new laws and political (in)decisions to privacy issues and how employees — not companies — will start to call the shots.

Here’s what you need to know for 2019 in security.

Expect more data leaks and exposures — but not just breaches

2018 saw a rising trend in data leaks and exposures — specifically data that’s not protected with even the most basic security, like a password.

We’ve seen a ton of sites and services exposed in the past year — from gym booking sites, anonymous social network Blind, Urban Massage, FedEx, Canadian internet provider Altima, Amazon and fitness app Polar, to name a few.

Exposed databases and user data can be easily found, yet are entirely preventable — often simply by setting a password. Breaches, where a hacker exploits a vulnerability, are more difficult and require some level of skill, making them less common. But human error, a lack of security smarts or just sheer laziness makes exposed data more discoverable, and yet there’s no sign of data exposures dying down any time soon.

California’s privacy rules will come to a head

After a long fight, California passed its consumer privacy law — set to go into effect at the end of 2019.

Think of the law as like GDPR for California, which will mandate that companies disclose how they collect user data and what they do with it. The law will allow authorities to impose fines on companies that don’t comply or which violate the rules. It’s particularly important for consumers, given most of the world’s largest tech companies have their headquarters in the state.

Tech companies opposed the law. After spending collectively billions of dollars to comply with GDPR, many didn’t want to face another hefty bill to comply with more privacy rules. Instead, many companies pushed for a federal law to overrule and upend California’s soon-to-be-enacted rules. With enough lobbying power in Washington, DC, tech companies and telcos want lawmakers to roll out weaker legislation.

With almost exactly a year to go before California’s rules are set to go into effect, expect to see Silicon Valley work together — for once — to get their own way at a federal level.

Brexit will hamper U.K. tech, startup growth

Brexit, the U.K.’s departure from the European Union, is set for March 29 — and all signs point to a “no deal” that will cause serious, if not as of yet untold problems with immigration, trade, and even intelligence sharing and security arrangements with the U.K.’s European partners.

Leaving the EU without any trade or immigration deals in place will hurt startups and the wider tech scene. Attracting good overseas talent will be difficult without knowing what the immigration rules will be. Even practical things like GPS will begin to struggle, as well as data transfers in and out of the U.K. without a deal in place once the U.K. goes over the cliff-edge. It’ll be a nightmare for companies trying to comply with what’s left of the EU data protection and privacy laws.

Certain technology industries will see more trouble than others, like the gaming industry, which contributes £2 billion ($2.5 billion) to the U.K. economy every year. And, startups won’t get off easy either.

Australia’s draconian encryption laws will begin to hurt

Following in the footsteps of the U.K., Australia passed an anti-encryption law that compels companies operating in the country to turn over encrypted data on request from several government departments.

Many U.S. tech companies, including Apple and Cisco, called on the Australian parliament to ditch the proposals for fear that the law could be abused or harm its customers’ privacy. That didn’t stop a bipartisan effort to pass the bill in time for the Christmas break.

Some companies have already said they can’t — and therefore won’t comply. Signal, the encrypted messaging app, said in a blog post that it “can't include a backdoor in Signal,” despite the mandate from the country’s capitol. Other companies will find themselves facing the same dilemma. It might force companies to think about their presence in the country altogether.

Facebook’s privacy woes will spread to other Silicon Valley giants

Silicon Valley is split largely into two camps: your data for money, or your data doesn’t make money. You have Facebook, Google and to a lesser degree Twitter and Snap in the first bucket — then you have mostly hardware makers, like Apple, chip manufacturers like AMD and Intel and computer makers like HP and Dell in the other.

Facebook had scandal after scandal this year, after years of playing fast and loose with users’ data. Facebook claims it doesn’t sell your data, but it made money from it at every opportunity. And when it wasn’t actually selling access to your data, it was giving it away.

Many have wondered why other data-hungry, ad-focused companies haven’t had their reckoning yet — and many are asking the same questions. Facebook may be one of the biggest consumers of user data going, but it’s not the only one in the game. In making some of the world’s largest social networks and ad platforms, these companies have inadvertently become mass surveillance tools — either for governments with access already, or hackers and nation states that punch their way through the company’s defenses.

Their time will come — and hot on the heels of Facebook’s slew of scandals, expect it to be sooner rather than later.

Employees, not companies, will dictate how the technology they build is used

This year saw a resurgence of tech employees rising up against their employers for — in their eyes — misusing the products, services and technologies they made for uses outside their moral parameters.

Amazon employees complained that the company’s facial “Rekognition” shouldn’t be sold to law enforcement after the technology was found to racially discriminate against African-Americans. Microsoft staff complained that the company had a $19 million contract to serve U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, during a time where the agency was separating children from their asylum-seeking parents at the border. And Google employees complained when they found that the technology they helped to build would go on to serve Chinese users that enables state surveillance.

Now it’s employees who are trying to call the shots. So far, they’ve had mixed success. Amazon executives didn’t care; neither did Microsoft’s — but Google buckled. Given it’s the talented folk at the companies that make the products, they believe they have a right to say how their products are used and who gets them.

This isn’t something likely to change in the new year, as the government continues to rely on tech companies for enforcement and surveillance. Whether they will be successful, however, will be something to watch.

One incident away from sparking another Apple v. FBI crypto-war

Two years ago, the Apple v. FBI dispute could have taken a completely different path. The FBI was pushing a legal challenge that would forever undermine encryption protections — making it easier for the government to compel companies into complying with orders to undermine their own software security. This year, we saw the government approach Facebook to force the company to rewrite its Messenger app to allow federal agents to wiretap calls. It was all in secret — and only became public thanks to leaks.

We’re still dangerously close to another “crypto-war” (that’s “crypto” for cryptography) that could result in heavy-handed legislation or a legal precedent.

Nobody wants a mass casualty event. But as with San Bernardino and the apparent threat from MS-13 — whether inflated or not, lawmakers and prosecutors use bodies as a bargaining chip to push for more access to our data under the guise of preventing another national crisis.

Gloves are off for U.S. and China in cyberspace — again

The 2015 pact between the U.S. and China that promised to curb each others’ cyberespionage efforts amid rising tensions and escalating attacks between the two nations was delicate and frail, but it was almost inevitable that it would fall apart someday.

In December, when the Justice Department accused two Chinese spies of conducting state-backed hacking on dozens of U.S. companies and government departments, including the Navy, the gloves were off, and the pact was over. The writing was on the wall for a while. Security firm FireEye said in its look-ahead at 2019 that China’s reorganization of its offensive cyber operations units “will inform the growth and geographic expansion of Chinese cyber espionage activity through 2020 and beyond.”

In other words, expect the U.S. and China to begin sparring in cyberspace again.

Report: Amazon is planning a Whole Foods expansion to benefit Prime Now

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 07:08 AM PST

Amazon is planning a Whole Foods expansion in the U.S., according to a report by The Wall Street Journal published this weekend. The goal is to put more customers within the range of Amazon’s two-hour Prime Now delivery service, including those in suburban areas outside cities, as well as those in regions where the grocer has yet to establish a presence.

Currently, Amazon’s Prime Now delivery service offers two-hour delivery in more than 60 U.S. cities, and 30-minute-plus grocery pickup in nearly 30 cities. Amazon is planning to expand those services to almost all its 475 Whole Foods stores, the report said, citing sources.

The retailer will also continue to use perks for Prime members to acquire and retain customers, much as it does today.

Because of its lack of a brick-and-mortar footprint, many U.S. consumers living in the outskirts of cities or in more rural areas don’t have access to Amazon’s Prime Now two-hour delivery service. However, they do have access to Walmart stores, which today offer their own online grocery shopping service with pickup and delivery options in a number of markets.

Walmart says that 140 million customers shop its stores weekly, and 90 percent of Americans today live within 10 miles of one of its locations. That makes it a significant challenger to Amazon in terms of offering fast delivery and pickup options. It also doesn’t require an annual membership.

Other companies are competing with Amazon on same-day delivery, too, including Instacart and Target’s Shipt. Target is also rolling out a curbside pickup service called Drive Up, and is planning to expand Shipt’s assortment and reach in 2019.

The WSJ report didn’t confirm store locations, but did note Amazon was scouting retail spaces in parts of Idaho, southern Utah and Wyoming. Some of these were slightly larger than average Whole Foods stores, at 45,000 sq. ft. — which hints at their ability to operate as a hub for delivery and pickup, in addition to being a traditional grocery store.

Popsugar’s Twinning app was leaking everyone’s uploaded photos

Posted: 31 Dec 2018 06:34 AM PST

I thought the worst thing about Popsugar’s Twinning tool was that it matched me with James Corden.

Turns out, the hundreds of thousands of selfies uploaded to the tool were easily downloadable by anyone who knew where to look.

The popular photo-matching tool is fairly simple. “It analyzes a selfie or uploaded photo, compares it to a massive database of celebrity photos to find matches, and finally gives you a ‘twinning percentage’ for your top five look-alikes,” according to Popsugar, which developed the tool. Then, you share those matched photos on Facebook and Twitter so everyone knows that you don’t look at all like one of the many Kardashians.

All of the uploaded photos are stored in a storage bucket hosted on Amazon Web Services. We know because the web address of the bucket is in the code on the Twinning tool’s website. Open that in your web browser, and we saw a real-time stream of uploaded photos.

We verified the findings by uploading a dummy photo of a certain file size at a specific time. Then, we scraped a list of filenames uploaded during that time period from the bucket’s web address, downloaded them and found our uploaded image by searching for that photo of a certain file size. (We didn’t download any more than necessary to preserve people’s privacy.)

TechCrunch did not hear back from Popsugar prior to publication, but the bucket was locked down shortly after. Later, vice-president of engineering Mike Patnode confirmed in an email that “the bucket permissions weren't set up correctly.”

As data leaks go, this is definitely on the low-end. You might not care that their selfies were exposed and easily downloadable. (Many photos were already leaking out of Google’s search results — even before people shared their selfie matches on Twitter!) It’s not as if the site was leaking your passwords or your Social Security number. Most probably didn’t go in expecting any reasonable level of security or privacy to begin with.

But like any free app, quiz or some viral web tool, it’s worth reminding that you’re still putting your information out there — and you can’t always get it back. Worse, you almost never know how secure your data will be, or how it might end up being used — and abused — in the future.

This is Captain Buzzkill, signing off.

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