Opinion

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey falls far short of its own wondrous sandbox

Posted by | Gaming, Opinion, TC | No Comments

It’s hard to imagine a better demonstration of the state of AAA gaming today than Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a game where the whole of the wine-dark Classical Aegean is available for you to ply with your oars — but which operates according to a risible, cartoonish video game logic that seems, if possible, even more anachronistic. Should you play it? Absolutely.

(Very minor spoilers ahead.)

In case you haven’t been following the Assassin’s Creed… well, odyssey, the last few years, the game took some time off following the lavishly produced but ambivalently received Unity and Syndicate games, set in revolutionary Paris and Victorian London, respectively. The series, critics said, was wearing itself a bit thin despite the fabulous set dressing.

You can imagine everyone’s surprise when AC returned in Origins, set in an enormous swathe of ancient Egypt. New systems nudged the game from the stealth action of its roots toward the expansive, open-world RPG currently in vogue. It was a little rough around the edges, but the scale was welcome, as was the shift away from the increasingly turgid Assassins versus Templars secret society scramble.

The news that the next game would take place in Ancient Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian War thrilled me to no end. I’ve always been a fan of the Classical era, Homer and Herodotus and Periclean Athens and all that. I’ll also admit to an unironic love of “300” and the story of Leonidas’s last stand — the graphic novel, not the movie, which was awful.

Are you kidding me? Look at this.

Here, then was that world brought to life with all the fidelity that Ubisoft’s hundreds of artists and modelers could bring, with a narrative combining secret societies with classical warfare, historical figures and high-seas adventure (I loved the pirate-themed AC Black Flag). On paper this is the greatest game ever to grace the screen.

And in a way, it is. Ubisoft’s rendering of the Classical world is so beautiful, so massive, so obviously a labor of love and skill and intensive research that I have spent much of my time in the game simply gawking.

The costumes! The statues! The landscapes! The light! It’s a feast of details at every location, from the idyllic backwater of Kephallonia, where your hero begins their story, to the sprawling, bustling Athens just approaching the zenith of its glory. I (that is to say, my character) walked past the Theatre of Dionysus in its construction, which I have visited in person (now ruined and restored, of course), and on up to the Acropolis, where I scaled the Parthenon and looked out over the tiled roofs under one of which, for all I know, I may find Plato sitting and writing The Symposium.

Seriously.

Then I meander to the harbor, board my black ship and split the seas to explore any of the islands in the entire Aegean — any of them. The whole Aegean! Well, most of it, anyway. Enough that you won’t ask for more. Here be mythical creatures, political machinations, stormy seas and sunny shanties.

The world that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey inhabits, I feel confident in saying, is the largest and most impressive that I have encountered, with special credit given for having to reflect reality to a certain extent, which is not a limitation shared by its eminent competition in the open-world genre, like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild.

In my opinion, both as a gamer and a lover of antiquity, it is worth the price of admission to experience this world, to see and hear Ancient Greece in a way that was heretofore impossible, and simply to revel in the almost inconceivable level of craft that was so obviously put into this mind-boggling world.

And now, having made that judgment, I will proceed to trash the game I just recommended for about two thousand words.

The game itself

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the game itself, is embarrassing to play. The characters you interact with and the minute-by-minute gameplay are so uneven that I truly believe that Ubisoft simply didn’t have time to adequately play-test it. It feels like the game was just too big to run through once they’d made it so they just shipped. If someone from Ubisoft were sitting next to me as I played, I would expect them to be cringing constantly.

It’s an incredibly lopsided collection of old and new ideas, balanced and unbalanced systems, good and bad UI, intuitive and baffling combat, beautiful and repulsive graphics, and excellent and laughable voice acting. I haven’t finished the game, let alone all the side quests, but although I expect to encounter more good things as I go, the bad things were apparent pretty much from the first few minutes and haven’t abated.

The AI of the people in this game seems to have regressed 10 years to a simpler age. They are truly idiots all, from people on the street to elite soldiers.

Good old Adrastos the Logician, engaging in hand to hand combat.

One of the first things that happened when I got my horse and learned to have it follow a road was that it mowed down a few laborers. This, I found, would happen everywhere I went: every character in the game walks right in the center of the road and dives madly out of your way as you canter down it, screaming and cursing. Wild animals cluttered the road, and reacted confusedly as I approached, throwing themselves under the hooves of my steed, Phobos.

This was my first taste of what would become a theme. Why, I asked myself, wouldn’t these people just walk on the side of the road? The developers clearly accounted for horses riding down it, and have behaviors and barks for when that happens. But it’s so weird, so unrealistic, so video gamey. Surely in this lovingly rendered world it is not unusual for a horse to run down a mountain road? Why then do they behave in this way? Because the people were not created intelligently — it’s as simple as that. None of them.

I once emptied a military camp of guards and then set about looting the place. A woman was being held captive in a cage — not an uncommon thing to find — so I let her out. As she escaped, thanking me, I turned to take the items out of a nearby chest. The woman, mid-escape, screamed with rage at me for this theft, snatching a nearby spear and rushed me in righteous anger. What?

Perhaps I can’t expect every peasant to be a genius, but guards too (of all ranks) are unbelievably dense. They will step over the corpses of their fellow men to get to their post and not say a word. They will fail to hear the clashing of swords, or not notice a guy being violently flipped over and disemboweled, a matter of feet away. They will follow you one by one around corners where you can dispatch them individually and fail to see or care about the ever-widening pool of blood. They are as dumb as the dumbest guards from games that came out 10 years ago.

“Mother of Spiders”

Not much better are the much-ballyhooed mercenaries, who come after you if you do too many bad things. It’s not really clear what the bad things are, but eventually you’ll see a red helmet icon on your map and know you’ve been naughty. They’re basically guards with special weapons and a few characteristics like “weak to fire” or “takes 20 percent less ranged damage.” Technically they have backstories but you have to drill down to their description to find them, and by the time you’re doing that you’ve probably already killed them. You can recruit them for your ship, like you can recruit anyone, but they generally amount to stat bonuses with funny names like Demos the Drunk. He didn’t act drunk — just had a spear I wanted, so I took him out. I mean, the variation is welcome, but it’s nothing like, for example, the nemesis system in the Mordor series.

Combat is a real mix. You are no longer a fragile assassin who can be killed from a few good hits, but a powerful warrior with supernatural skills like instant mid-battle heals and teleportation. This is combat between equals, but your equals are generally stiff types with two or three attacks they repeat over and over, glowing a bright red or gold before doing so.

A slippery-feeling dodge system zips you through these attacks, or you can parry some of them, then slash away at your attacker. Some guards or targets, especially if they’re a level or two above you, will take minutes of patient slashing before they drop. I was sent on a hunt to kill a legendary boar that I gave up on after a couple minutes because I had only taken its health down by a quarter while not being hit myself.

Compared with other action RPGs it’s pretty listless stuff. More appealing is the stealth, which the fools of guards are obviously there to encourage, since you can empty a camp or fort of its occupants systematically and it can be quite satisfying. But with the perfect knowledge effected by scouting such a place with your eagle’s x-ray vision, it feels more like bullying than anything.

The Peloponnesian War is going on around you, though you’d be hard-pressed to notice most of the time. You don’t exactly take sides, since whatever area you’re in, your enemies are the ones in control. You can weaken the faction in power by various means and force a battle (a melee in which the combat, now against dozens, feels frustratingly sloppy), but ultimately the guards and camps feel much the same as one another — Spartans have different helmets from Athenians.

I thought at first this would be deeper than it is. I had looted a variety of armor pieces, several of which suggested I could use them to blend in among the Athenians whom I was at that moment working to undermine. So I donned them and headed to the nearest camp, hoping to walk about unsuspected, Hitman-style, sowing chaos by releasing caged animals and setting fire to supplies. Nope: I was immediately attacked on approaching the gate, before I’d even come in or done anything suspicious. The guard that had never seen me before apparently recognized me as the bloodthirsty mercenary who’d wiped out a camp a mile or so away, minutes earlier. No espionage for me.

It’s never really clear who you’re fighting or why, because the locations and people are just names. It doesn’t matter if they’re Athenian or Spartan, just that they’re the ones between you and the treasure chest. I guess that’s the life of a mercenary, but it doesn’t make you care a lot.

That was a quest?

The RPG elements, from gear to abilities, have almost no integration with the game itself. From the very beginning you can see your whole skill tree, including things involving the magic spear that you don’t yet know is magic. You gain new abilities and upgrade your ship not through interesting quests or meeting interesting people, but simply by spending points and resources.

When your ship’s captain says the hull ought to be upgraded, it’s not the start of a quest to find some cool big trees or visit his hometown where he left his ship-building tools and pals. It’s literally just a reminder to stock up on wood and iron and press the button to upgrade in the pause screen.

When you meet a talented carpenter whose brother is being held by bandits, it isn’t a quest to reunite these guys for a power team that enables a ship repair superpower. He just turns out to be a regular guy who increases your hull strength by a couple of percentage points.

Quests, talked up ahead of release as being fully voiced and emergent, as though you’re receiving a request from help from a needy merchant or the like, are nothing of the sort. Every one I’ve encountered so far has been a variant of: Kill these five wolves specifically. Kill these three Spartan elite guards specifically. Kill these bandits. Sink these ships.

Each has a flimsy justification (they’re blocking the road; they stole money from me) and are often atrociously acted. In one I found the quest giver asleep; he obligingly woke me up to say he wanted to take the fight to some bandits who had been demanding money from him. As soon as I agreed, those very bandits appeared not 10 feet away and instantly ran him through. Quest failed.

There are deeper side quests, to be sure. But the hundreds of quests you’ll see on quest boards or appearing randomly in the wild are like this, and rarely give more than a spritz of XP and gold. Sometimes you can recruit the quest-giver, though they might or might not be helpful on your crew.

I wish that they had taken the time and effort that went into creating 20 or 30 of these quests and made one single side quest with multiple steps, characters that mattered a bit, and provided substantial rewards like a new ability for your ship.

Even main story quests, such as the targets you’ll be taking on, can be disappointingly shallow. You’re supposed to be following threads and clues, but several are just handed to you: Here’s some lady. Here’s her exact location. Go kill her. No dialogue, no footwork, no alternatives. Stab this person and take their shiny thing. Shouldn’t I at least try to get some information out of her? Why isn’t there even a death cut scene like in so many of the other games?

The writing is hit and miss. The main story and its immediate side quests are fine — I’m perhaps 25 hours in and I’m interested to see where it’s going, even if it’s not particularly surprising. And it helps that the writing and voices for the main characters are leaps and bounds above the rest.

I chose to play as Kassandra, as opposed to Alexios, for a lot of reasons. And I love her. She’s well-acted, her writing is funny and occasionally realistic, and I like that she is indistinguishable from her male alternative in every way. Your companions, especially Herodotos and your exuberant captain Barnabas, are great.

Yet other characters are ridiculous: badly written, worse acted. Even major ones. I remember one exchange with a soon-to-be-target who was pressuring me to torture some poor sap. His voice acting was so bad, especially compared to his interlocutor Kassandra’s, that I was laughing out loud. He was far from the only example of this.

Games like The Witcher 3 have spoiled us on the quality of the writing and quests, but that should be a new bar to meet, not a high-water point. It’s sad that Ubisoft hasn’t upped its game here, so to speak; it feels like 90 percent of the game I’ve played so far is purely mechanical, and even at its best it sits like a layer of butter spread thinly across an enormous Greek piece of toast. But what toast!

It’s tantalizing to see how good a game like this could be, only to be let down again and again with elements that would feel out of date 10 years ago. I’m having a great time when I’m not shaking my head at it, and enjoying the scenery when I’m not being attacked by one of the evidently 50,000 bears out for my blood in the Classical world.

As I wrote earlier, to me it is worth buying just for the good parts. But as someone who cares about games and loves the idea of this one, I can’t help but observe how dated and baffling it is at the same time. It doesn’t live up to the world it was created to inhabit, but that world is practically a complete game in itself, and one that I immediately loved.

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Instagram denies it’s building Regramming. Here’s why it’d be a disaster

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, instagram, Instagram algorithm, Mobile, Opinion, Social, TC | No Comments

Instagram tells me Regramming, or the ability to instantly repost someone else’s feed post to your followers like a retweet, is “not happening”, not being built, and not being tested. And that’s good news for all Instagrammers. The denial comes after it initially issued a “no comment” to The Verge’s Casey Newton, who published that he’d seen screenshots of a native Instagram resharing sent to him by a source.

Regramming would be a fundamental shift in how Instagram works, not necessarily in terms of functionality, but in terms of the accepted norms of what and how to post. You could always screenshot, cite the original creator, and post. But Instagram has always been about sharing your window to the world — what you’ve lived and seen. Regramming would legitimize suddenly assuming someone else’s eyes.

The result would be that users couldn’t trust that when they follow someone, that’s whose vision would appear in their feed. Instagram would feel a lot more random and unpredictable. And it’d become more like its big brother Facebook whose News Feed has waned in popularity – susceptible to viral clickbait bullshit, vulnerable to foreign misinformation campaigns, and worst of all, impersonal.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Newton’s report suggested Instagram reposts would appear under the profile picture of the original sharer, and regrams could be regrammed once more in turn, showing a stack of both profile thumbnails of who previously shared it. That would at least prevent massive chains of reposts turning posts into all-consuming feed bombs.

Regramming could certainly widen what appears in your feed, which some might consider more interesting. It could spur growth by creating a much easier way for users to share in feed, especially if they don’t live a glamorous life themself. I can see a case for this being a feature for businesses only, which are already impersonal and act as curators. And Instagram’s algorithm could hide the least engaging regrams.

These benefits are why Instagram has internally considered building regramming for years. CEO Kevin Systrom told Wired last year “We debate the re-share thing a lot . . . But really that decision is about keeping your feed focused on the people you know rather than the people you know finding other stuff for you to see. And I think that is more of a testament of our focus on authenticity.”

See, right now, Instagram profiles are cohesive. You can easily get a feel for what someone posts and make an educated decision about whether to follow them from a quick glance at their grid. What they share reflects on them, so they’re cautious and deliberate. Everyone is putting on a show for Likes, so maybe it’s not quite ‘authentic’, but at least the content is personal. Regramming would make it impossible to tell what someone would post next, and put your feed at the mercy of their impulses without the requisite accountability. If they regram something lame, ugly, or annoying, it’s the original author who’d be blamed.

Instagram already offers a demand release valve in the form of re-sharing posts to your Story as stickers

Instagram already has a release valve for demand for regramming in the form of the ability to turn people’s public feed posts into Stickers you can paste into your Story. Launched in May, you can add your commentary, complimenting on dunking on the author. There, regrams are ephemeral, and your followers have to pull them out of their Stories tray rather than having them force fed via the feed. Effectively, you can reshare others’ content, but not make it a central facet of Instagram or emblem of your identity. And if you want to just make sure a few friends see something awesome you’ve discovered, you can send them people’s feed posts as Direct messages.

Making it much easier to repost to your feed instead of sharing something original could turn Instagram into an echo chamber. It’d turn Instagram even more into a popularity contest, with users jockeying for viral distribution and a chance to plug their SoundCloud mixtapes like on Twitter. Personal self-expression would be overshadowed even further by people playing to the peanut gallery. Businesses might get lazy rather than finding their own styles. If you want to discover something new and unexpected, there’s a whole Explore page full of it.

Newton is a great reporter, and I suspect the screenshots he saw were real, but I think Instagram should have given him the firm denial right away. My guess is that it wanted to give its standard no comment because if it always outright denies inaccurate rumors and speculation, that means journalists can assume they’re right when it does “no comment.”

But once Newton published his report, backlash quickly mounted about how regramming could ruin Instagram. Rather than leaving users worried, confused, and constantly asking when the feature would launch and how it would work, the company decided to issue firm denials after the fact. It became worth diverging from its PR playbook. Maybe it had already chosen to scrap its regramming prototype, maybe the screenshots were just of an early mock-up never meant to be seriously considered, or maybe it hadn’t actually finalized that decision to abort until the public weighed in against the feature yesterday.

In any case, introducing regramming would risk an unforced error. The elemental switch from chronological to the algorithmic feed, while criticized, was critical to Instagram being able to show the best of the massive influx of content. Instagram would eventually break without it. There’s no corresponding urgency to fix what ain’t broke when it comes to not allowing regramming.

Instagram is already growing like crazy. It just hit a billion monthly users. Stories now has 400 million daily users, and that feature is growing six times faster than Snapchat as a whole. The app is utterly dominant in the photo and short video sharing world. Regramming would be an unnecessary gamble.

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The iPhone SE was the best phone Apple ever made, and now it’s dead

Posted by | Apple, Gadgets, hardware, iPhone, iPhone SE, Mobile, Opinion | No Comments

I only wanted one thing out of 2018’s iPhone event: a new iPhone SE. In failing to provide it Apple seems to have quietly put the model out to pasture — and for this I curse them eternally. Because it was the best phone the company ever made.

If you were one of the many who passed over the SE back in 2015, when it made its debut, that’s understandable. The iPhone 6S was the latest and greatest, and of course fixed a few of the problems Apple had kindly introduced with the entirely new design of the 6. But for me the SE was a perfect match.

See, I’ve always loved the iPhone design that began with the 4. That storied phone is perhaps best remembered for being left in a bar ahead of release and leaked by Gizmodo — which is too bad, because for once the product was worthy of the lavish unveiling Apple now bestows on every device it puts out.

The 4 established an entirely new industrial design aesthetic that was at once instantly recognizable and highly practical. Gone were the smooth, rounded edges and back of the stainless original iPhone (probably the second-best phone Apple made) and the jellybean-esque 3G and 3GS.

In the place of those soft curves were hard lines and uncompromising geometry: a belt of metal running around the edge, set off from the glass sides by the slightest of steps. It highlighted and set off the black glass of the screen and bezel, producing a of specular outline from any angle.

The camera was flush and the home button (RIP) sub-flush, entirely contained within the body, making the device perfectly flat both front and back. Meanwhile the side buttons boldly stood out. Volume in bold, etched circles; the mute switch easy to find but impossible to accidentally activate; the power button perfectly placed for a reaching index finger. Note that all these features are directly pointed at usability: making things easier, better, more accessible, while also being attractive and cohesive as parts of a single object.

Compared to the iPhone 4, every single other phone, including Samsung’s new “iPhone killer” Galaxy S, was a cheap-looking mess of plastic, incoherently designed or at best workmanlike. And don’t think I’m speaking as an Apple fanboy; I was not an iPhone user at the time. In fact, I was probably still using my beloved G1 — talk about beauty and the beast!

The design was strong enough that it survived the initially awkward transition to a longer screen in the 5, and with that generation it also gained the improved rear side that alleviated the phone’s unfortunate tendency towards… well, shattering.

The two-tone grey iPhone 5S, however, essentially left no room for improvement. And after 4 years, it was admittedly perhaps time to freshen things up a bit. Unfortunately, what Apple ended up doing was subtracting all personality from the device while adding nothing but screen space.

The 6 was, to me, simply ugly. It was reminiscent of the plethora of boring Android phones at the time — merely higher quality than them, not different. The 6S was similarly ugly, and the 7 through 8 somehow further banished any design that set themselves apart, while reversing course on some practical measures in allowing an increasingly large camera bump and losing the headphone jack. The X, at least, looked a bit different.

But to return to the topic at hand, it was after the 6S that Apple had introduced the SE. Although it nominally stood for “Special Edition,” the name was also a nod to the Macintosh SE. Ironically given the original meaning of “System Expansion,” the new SE was the opposite: essentially an iPhone 6S in the body of a 5S, complete with improved camera, Touch ID sensor, and processor. The move was likely intended as a sort of lifeboat for users who still couldn’t bring themselves to switch to the drastically redesigned, and considerably larger, new model.

It would take time, Apple seems to have reasoned, to convert these people, the types who rarely buy first generation Apple products and cherish usability over novelty. So why not coddle them a bit through this difficult transition?

The SE appealed not just to the nostalgic and neophobic, but simply people who prefer a smaller phone. I don’t have particularly large or small hands, but I preferred this highly pocketable, proven design to the new one for a number of reasons.

Flush camera so it doesn’t get scratched up? Check. Normal, pressable home button? Check. Flat, symmetrical design? Check. Actual edges to hold onto? Check. Thousands of cases already available? Check — although I didn’t use one for a long time. The SE is best without one.

At the time, the iPhone SE was more compact and better looking than anything Apple offered, while making almost no compromises at all in terms of functionality. The only possible objection was its size, and that was (and is) a matter of taste.

It was the best object Apple ever designed, filled with the best tech it had ever developed. It was the best phone it ever made.

And the best phone it’s made since then, too, if you ask me. Ever since the 6, it seems to me that Apple has only drifted, casting about for something to captivate its users the way the iPhone 4’s design and new graphical capabilities did, all the way back in 2010. It honed that design to a cutting edge and then, when everyone expected the company to leap forward, it tiptoed instead, perhaps afraid to spook the golden goose.

To me the SE was Apple allowing itself one last victory lap on the back of a design it would never surpass. It’s understandable that it would not want to admit, this many years on, that anyone could possibly prefer something it created nearly a decade ago to its thousand-dollar flagship — a device, I feel I must add, that not only compromises visibly in its design (I’ll never own a notched phone if I can help it) but backpedals on practical features used by millions, like Touch ID and a 3.5mm headphone jack. This is in keeping with similarly user-unfriendly choices made elsewhere in its lineup.

So while I am disappointed in Apple, I’m not surprised. After all, it’s disappointed me for years. But I still have my SE, and I intend to keep it for as long as possible. Because it’s the best thing the company ever made, and it’s still a hell of a phone.

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Snapchat adds new styles as Spectacles V2s get used 40% more than V1

Posted by | Apps, eCommerce, Evan Spiegel, Gadgets, hardware, Mobile, Opinion, Snap, snap inc, Snapchat, snapchat spectacles, Social, TC, Wearables | No Comments

Snapchat isn’t revealing sales numbers of version 2 of its Spectacles camera sunglasses, but at least they’re not getting left in a drawer as much as the V1s. The company tells me V2 owners are capturing 40 percent more Snaps than people with V1s.

And today, Snapchat is launching two new black-rimmed hipster styles of Spectacles V2 — a Wayfarer-esque Nico model and a glamorous big-lensed Veronica model. Both come with a slimmer semi-soft black carrying case instead of the chunky old triangular yellow one, and are polarized for the first time. They look a lot more like normal sunglasses, compared to the jokey, bubbly V1s, so they could appeal to a more mature and fashionable audience. They go on sale today for $199 in the US and Europe and will be sold in Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom later this year, while the old styles remain $149.

 

The new Spectacles styles (from left): Veronica and Nico

Spectacles V2 original style (left) and V1 (right)

Snap is also trying to get users to actually post what they capture, so it’s planning an automatically curated Highlight Story feature that will help you turn your best Specs content into great things to share. That could address the problem common amongst GoPro users of shooting a ton of cool footage but never editing it for display.

The problem is that V1 were pretty exceedingly unpopular, and those that did buy them. Snap only shipped 220,000 pairs and reportedly had hundreds of thousands more gathering dust in a warehouse. It took a $40 million write-off and its hardware “camera company” strategy was called into question. Business Insider reported that less than 50 percent of buyers kept using them after a month and a “sizeable” percentage stopped after just a week.

The new styles come with a slimmer semi-soft carry case

That means the bar was pretty low from which to score a 40 percent increase in usage, especially given the V2s take photos, work underwater, come in a slimmer charging case, and lack the V1s’ bright yellow ring around the camera lens that announces you’re wearing a mini computer on your face. Snap was smart to finally let you export in non-circular formats which are useful for sharing beyond Snapchat, and let you automatically save Snaps to your camera roll and not just its app’s Memories feature.

I’ve certainly been using my V2s much more than the V1s since they’re more discrete and versatile. And I haven’t encountered as much fear or anxiety from people worried about being filmed as privacy norms around technology continue to relax.

But even with the improved hardware, new styles, and upcoming features, Spectacles V2 don’t look like they’re moving the needle for Snapchat. After shrinking in user count last quarter, Snap’s share price has fallen to just a few cents above its all-time low. Given most of its users are cash-strapped teens who aren’t going to buy Spectacles even if they’re cool, the company needs to focus on how to make its app for everyone more useful and differentiated after the invasion of Instagram’s copy-cats of its Stories and ephemeral messaging.

Whether that means securing tentpole premium video content for Discover, redesigning Stories to ditch the interstitials for better lean-back viewing, or developing augmented reality games, Snap can’t stay the course. Despite its hardware ambitions, it’s fundamentally a software company. It has to figure out what makes that software special.

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For IGTV, Instagram needs slow to mean steady

Posted by | Apps, Casey Neistat, Facebook, IGTV, instagram, Josh Elman, Kevin Systrom, Media, Michael Sayman, Mobile, Opinion, shots, Social, TC, Tiffany Zhong, YouTube | No Comments

Instagram has never truly failed at anything, but judging by modest initial view counts, IGTV could get stuck with a reputation as an abandoned theater if the company isn’t careful. It’s no flop, but the long-form video hub certainly isn’t an instant hit like Instagram Stories. Two months after that launched in 2016, Instagram was happy to trumpet how its Snapchat clone had hit 100 million users. Yet two months after IGTV’s launch, the Facebook subsidiary has been silent on its traction.

“It’s a new format. It’s different. We have to wait for people to adopt it and that takes time,” Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom told me. “Think of it this way: we just invested in a startup called IGTV, but it’s small, and it’s like Instagram was ‘early days.’”

It’s indeed too early for a scientific analysis, and Instagram’s feed has been around since 2010, so it’s obviously not a fair comparison, but we took a look at the IGTV view counts of some of the feature’s launch partner creators. Across six of those creators, their recent feed videos are getting roughly 6.8X as many views as their IGTV posts. If IGTV’s launch partners that benefited from early access and guidance aren’t doing so hot, it means there’s likely no free view count bonanza in store from other creators or regular users.

They, and IGTV, will have to work for their audience. That’s already proving difficult for the standalone IGTV app. Though it peaked at the #25 overall US iPhone app and has seen 2.5 million downloads across iOS and Android according to Sensor Tower, it’s since dropped to #1497 and seen a 94 percent decrease in weekly installs to just 70,000 last week.

Instagram will have to be in it for the long haul if it wants to win at long-form video. Entering the market 13 years after YouTube with a vertical format no one’s quite sure what to do with, IGTV must play the tortoise. If it can avoid getting scrapped or buried, and offer the right incentives and flexibility to creators, IGTV could deliver the spontaneous video viewing experience Instagram lacks. Otherwise, IGTV risks becoming the next Google Plus — a ghost town inside an otherwise thriving product ecosystem.

A glitzy, glitchy start

Instagram gave IGTV a red carpet premiere June 20th in hopes of making it look like the new digital hotspot. The San Francisco launch event offered attendees several types of avocado toast, spa water and ‘Gram-worthy portrait backdrops reminiscent of the Color Factory or Museum of Ice Cream. Instagram hadn’t held a flashy press event since the 2013 launch of video sharing, so it pulled out all the stops. Balloon sculptures lined the entrance to a massive warehouse packed with social media stars and ad execs shouting to each other over the din of the DJ.

But things were rocky from the start. Leaks led TechCrunch to report on the IGTV name and details in the preceding weeks. Technical difficulties with Systrom’s presentation pushed back the start, but not the rollout of IGTV’s code. Tipster Jane Manchun Wong sent TechCrunch screenshots of the new app and features a half hour before it was announced, and Instagram’s own Business Blog jumped the gun by posting details of the launch. The web already knew how IGTV would let people upload vertical videos up to an hour long and browse them through categories like “Popular” and “For You” by the time Systrom took the stage.

IGTV’s launch event featured Instagram-themed donuts and elaborate portrait backdrops. Images via Vicki’s Donuts and Mai Lanpham

“What I’m most proud of is that Instagram took a stand and tried a brand new thing that is frankly hard to pull off. Full-screen vertical video that’s mobile only. That doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Systrom tells me. It was indeed ambitious. Creators were already comfortable making short-form vertical Snapchat Stories by the time Instagram launched its own version. IGTV would have to start from scratch.

Systrom sees the steep learning curve as a differentiator, though. “One of the things I like most about the new format is that it’s actually fairly difficult to just take videos that exist online and simply repost them. That’s not true in feed. That basically forces everyone to create new stuff,” Systrom tells me. “It’s not to say that there isn’t other stuff on there but in general it incentivizes people to produce new things from scratch. And that’s really what we’re looking for. Even if the volume of that stuff at the beginning is smaller than what you might see on the popular page [of Instagram Explore].”

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom unveils IGTV at the glitzy June 20th launch event

Instagram forced creators to adopt this proprietary format. But it forget to train Stories stars how to entertain us for five or 15 minutes, not 15 seconds, or convince landscape YouTube moguls to purposefully shoot or crop their clips for the way we normally hold our phones.

IGTV’s Popular page features plenty of random viral pap, foreign language content, and poor cropping

That should have been the real purpose of the launch party — demonstrating a variety of ways to turn these format constraints or lack thereof into unique content. Vertical video frames people better than places, and the length allows sustained eye-to-lens contacts that can engender an emotional connection. But a shallow array of initial content and too much confidence that creators would figure it out on their own deprived IGTV of emergent norms that other videographers could emulate to wet their feet.

Now IGTV feels haphazard, with trashy viral videos and miscropped ports amongst its Popular section alongside a few creators trying to produce made-for-IGTV talk shows and cooking tutorials. It’s yet to have its breakout “Chewbacca Mom” or “Rubberbanded Watermelon” blockbuster like Facebook Live. Even an interview with mega celeb Kylie Jenner only had 11,000 views.

Instagram wants to put the focus on the author, not the individual works of art. “Because we don’t have full text search and you can’t just search any random thing, it’s about the creators” Systrom explains. “I think that at its base level that it’s personality driven and creator driven means that you’re going to get really unique content that you won’t find anywhere else and that’s the goal.”

Yet being unique requires extra effort that creators might not invest if they’re unsure of the payoff in either reach or revenue. Michael Sayman, formerly Facebook’s youngest employee who was hired at age 17 to build apps for teens and who now works for Google, summed it up saying: “Many times in my own career, I’ve tried to make something with a unique spin or a special twist because I felt that’s the only way I could make my product stand out from the crowd, only to realize that it was those very twists and spins that made my products feel out of place and confusing to users. Sometimes, the best product is one that doesn’t create any new twists, but rather perfects and builds on top of what has been proven to already be extremely successful.”

A fraction of feed views

The one big surprise of the launch event was where IGTV would exist. Instagram announced it’d live in a standalone IGTV app, but also as a feature in the main app accessible from an orange button atop the home screen that would occasionally call out that new content was inside. It could have had its own carousel like Stories or been integrated into Explore until it was ready for primetime.

Instead, it was ignorable. IGTV didn’t get the benefit of the home screen spotlight like Instagram Stories. Blow past that one orange button and avoid downloading the separate app, and users could go right on tapping and scrolling through Instagram without coming across IGTV’s longer videos.

View counts of the launch partners reflect that. We looked at six launch partner creators, comparing their last six feed and IGTV videos older than a week and less than six months old, or fewer videos if that’s all they’d posted.

Only one of the six, BabyAriel, saw an obvious growth trend in her IGTV videos. Her candid IGTV monologues are performing the best of the six compared to feed. She’s earning an average of 243,000 views per IGTV video, about a third as many as she gets on her feed videos. “I’m really happy with my view counts because IGTV is just starting” BabyAriel tells me. She thinks the format will be good for behind-the-scenes clips that complement her longer YouTube videos and shorter Stories. “When I record anything, It’s vertical. When I turn my phone horizontal I think of an hour-long movie.”

Lele Pons, a Latin American comedy and music star who’s one of the most popular Instagram celebrities, gets about 5.7X more feed views than on her IGTV cooking show that averages 1.9 million hits. Instagram posted some IGTV highlights from the first month, but the most popular of now has 4.3 million views — less than half of what Pons gets on her average feed video.

Fitness guides from Katie Austin averaged just 3,600 views on IGTV while she gets 7.5X more in the feed. Lauren Godwin’s colorful comedy fared 5.2X better in the feed. Bryce Xavier saw the biggest differential, earning 15.9X more views for his dance and culture videos. And in the most direct comparison, K-Pop dancer Susie Shu sometimes posts cuts from the same performance to the two destinations, like one that got 273,000 views in feed but just 27,000 on IGTV, with similar clips fairing an average of 7.8X better.

Again, this isn’t to say IGTV is a lame horse. It just isn’t roaring out of the gates. Systrom remains optimistic about inventing a new format. “The question is can we pull that off and the early signs are really good,” he tells me. “We’ve been pretty blown away by the reception and the usage upfront,” though he declined to share any specific statistics. Instagram promised to provide more insight into traction in the future.

YouTube star Casey Neistat is less bullish. He doesn’t think IGTV is working and that engagement has been weak. If IGTV views were surpassing those of YouTube, creators would flock to it, but so far view counts are uninspiring and not worth diverting creative attention, Neistat says. “YouTube offers the best sit-back consumption, and Stories offers active consumption. Where does IGTV fit in? I’m not sure” he tells me. “Why create all of this unique content if it gets lower views, it’s not monetizable, and the viewers aren’t there?”

Susie Shu averages 7.8X more video views in the Instagram feed than on IGTV

For now, the combination of an unfamiliar format, the absence of direction for how to use it and the relatively buried placement has likely tempered IGTV’s traction. Two months in, Instagram Stories was proving itself an existential threat to Snapchat — which it’s in fact become. IGTV doesn’t pose the same danger to YouTube yet, and it will need a strategy to support a more slow-burn trajectory.

The chicken and the IG problem

The first step to becoming a real YouTube challenger is to build up some tent-pole content that gives people a reason to open IGTV. Until there’s something that captures attention, any cross-promotion traffic Instagram sends it will be like pouring water into a bucket with a giant hole in the bottom. Yet until there’s enough viewers, it’s tough to persuade creators to shoot for IGTV since it won’t do a ton to boost their fan base.

Fortnite champion Ninja shares a photo of IGTV launch partners gathered backstage at the press event

Meanwhile, Instagram hasn’t committed to a monetization or revenue-sharing strategy for IGTV. Systrom said at the launch that “There’s no ads in IGTV today,” but noted it’s “obviously a very reasonable place [for ads] to end up.” Without enough views, though, ads won’t earn enough for a revenue split to incentivize creators. Perhaps Instagram will heavily integrate its in-app shopping features and sponsored content partnerships, but even those rely on having more traffic. Vine withered at Twitter in part from creators bailing due to its omission of native monetization options.

So how does IGTV solve the chicken-and-egg problem? It may need to swallow its pride and pay early adopters directly for content until it racks up enough views to offer sustainable revenue sharing. Instagram has never publicly copped to paying for content before, unlike its parent Facebook, which offered stipends ranging into the millions of dollars for publishers to shoot Live broadcasts and long-form Watch shows. Neither have led to a booming viewership, but perhaps that’s because Facebook has lost its edge with the teens who love video.

Instagram could do better if it paid the right creators to weather IGTV’s initial slim pickings. Settling on ad strategy creators can count on earning money from in the future might also get them to hang tight. Those deals could mimic the 55 percent split of mid-roll ad breaks Facebook gives creators on some videos. But again, the views must come first.

Alternatively, or additionally, it could double down on the launch strategy of luring creators with the potential to become the big fish in IGTV’s small-for-now pond. Backroom deals to trade being highlighted in its IGTV algorithm in exchange for high-quality content could win the hearts of these stars and their managers. Instagram would be wise to pair these incentives with vertical long-form video content creation workshops. It could bring its community, product and analytics leaders together with partnered stars to suss out what works best in the format and help them shoot it.

The cross-promo spigot

Once there’s something worth watching on IGTV, the company could open the cross-promo traffic spigot. At first, Instagram would send notifications about top content or IGTV posts from people you follow, and call them out with a little orange text banner atop its main app. Now it seems to understand it will need to be more coercive.

Last month, TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong spotted Instagram showing promos for individual IGTV shows in the middle of the feed, hoping to redirect eyeballs there. And today, TechCrunch researcher Matt Navarra found Instagram getting more aggressive by putting a bigger call out featuring a relevant IGTV clip with preview image above your Stories tray on the home screen. It may need to boost the frequency of these cross-promotions and stick them in-between Stories and Explore sections as well to give IGTV the limelight. These could expose users to creators they don’t follow already but might enjoy.

It’s still early but I do think there’s a lot of potential when they figure out two things since the feature is so new,” says John Shahidi, who runs the Justin Bieber-backed Shots Studios, which produces and distributes content for Lele Pons, Rudy Mancuso and other Insta celebs. “1. Product. IGTV is not in your face so Instagram users aren’t changing behavior to consume. Timeline and Instagram Stories are in your face so those two are the most used features. 2. Discoverability. I want to see videos from people I don’t follow. Interesting stuff like cooking, product review, interesting content from brands but without following the accounts.” In the meantime, Shots Studios is launching a vertical-only channel on YouTube that Shahidi believes is the first of its kind.

Instagram will have to balance its strategic imperative to grow the long-form video hub and avoid spamming users until they hate the brand as a whole. Some think it’s already gone too far. “I think it’s super intrusive right now,” says Tiffany Zhong, once known as the world’s youngest venture capitalist who now runs Generation Z consulting firm Zebra Intelligence. “I personally find all the IGTV videos super boring and click out within seconds (and the only time I watch them are if I accidentally tapped on the icon when I tried to go to my DMs instead).” Desperately funneling traffic to the feature before there’s enough great content to power relevant recommendations for everyone could prematurely sour users on IGTV. 

Systrom remains optimistic he can iterate his way to success. “What I want to see over the next six to 12 months is a consistent drumbeat of new features that both consumers and creators are asking for, and to look at the retention curve and say ‘are people continuing to watch? Are people continuing to upload?,’” says Systrom. “So far we are seeing that all of those are healthy. But again trying to judge a very new kind of audacious format that’s never really been done before in the first months is going to be really hard.”

Differentiator or deterrent?

The biggest question remains whether IGTV will remain devout to the orthodoxy of vertical-only. Loosening up to accept landscape videos too might nullify a differentiator, but also pipe in a flood of content it could then algorithmically curate to bootstrap IGTV’s library. Reducing the friction by allowing people to easily port content to or from elsewhere might make it feel like less of a gamble for creators deciding where to put their production resources. Instagram itself expanded from square-only to portrait and landscape photos in the feed in 2015.

My advice would be to make the videos horizontal. We’ve all come to understand vertical as ‘short form’ and horizontal as ‘long form,’” says Sayman. “It’s in the act of rotating your phone to landscape that you indicate to yourself and to your mobile device that you will not be context switching for the next few minutes, but rather intend to focus on one piece of content for an extended period of time.” This would at least give users more to watch, even if they ended up viewing landscape videos with their phones in portrait orientation.

This might be best as a last-ditch effort if it can’t get enough content flowing in through other means. But at least Instagram should offer a cropping tool that lets users manually select what vertical slice of a landscape video they want to show as they watch, rather than just grabbing the center or picking one area on the side for the whole clip. This could let creators repurpose landscape videos without things getting awkwardly half cut out of frame.

Former Facebook employee and social investor Josh Elman, who now works at Robinhood, told me he’s confident the company will experiment as much as necessary. “I think Facebook is relentless. They know that a ton of consumers watch video online. And most discover videos through influencers or their friends. (Or Netflix). Even though Watch and IGTV haven’t taken the world by storm yet, I bet Facebook won’t stop until they find the right mix.”

There’s a goldmine waiting if it does. Unlike on Facebook, there’s no Regram feature, you can’t post links, and outside of Explore you just see who you already follow on Instagram. That’s made it great at delivering friendly video and clips from your favorite stars, but leaves a gaping hole where serendipitous viewing could be. IGTV fills that gap. The hours people spend on Facebook watching random videos and their accompanying commercials have lifted the company to over $13 billion in revenue per quarter. Giving a younger audience a bottomless pit of full-screen video could produce the same behavior and profits on Instagram without polluting the feed, which can remain the purest manifestation of visual feed culture. But that’s only if IGTV can get enough content uploaded.

Puffed up by the success of besting its foe Snapchat, Instagram assumed it could take the long-form video world by storm. But the grand entrance at its debutante ball didn’t draw enough attention. Now it needs to take a different tack. Tone down the cross-promo for the moment. Concentrate on teaching creators how to find what works on the format and incentivizing them with cash and traffic. Develop some must-see IGTV and stoke a viral blockbuster. Prove the gravity of extended, personality-driven vertical video. Only then should it redirect traffic there from the feed, Stories, and Explore.

YouTube’s library wasn’t built overnight, and neither will IGTV’s. Facebook’s deep pockets and the success of Instagram’s other features give it the runway necessary to let IGTV take off. With 1 billion monthly users, and 400 million daily Stories users gathered in just two years, there are plenty of eyeballs waiting to be seduced. Systrom concludes, “Everything that is great starts small.” IGTV’s destiny will depend on Instagram’s patience.

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Twitter company email addresses why it’s #BreakingMyTwitter

Posted by | Apps, Mobile, Opinion, Social, TC, Twitter | No Comments

It’s hard to be a fan of Twitter right now. The company is sticking up for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, when nearly all other platforms have given him the boot, it’s overrun with bots, and now it’s breaking users’ favorite third-party Twitter clients like Tweetbot and Twitterific by shutting off APIs these apps relied on. Worse still, is that Twitter isn’t taking full responsibility for its decisions.

In a company email it shared today, Twitter cited “technical and business constraints” that it can no longer ignore as being the reason behind the APIs’ shutdown.

It said the clients relied on “legacy technology” that was still in a “beta state” after more than 9 years, and had to be killed “out of operational necessity.”

This reads like passing the buck. Big time.

It’s not as if there’s some other mysterious force that maintains Twitter’s API platform, and now poor ol’ Twitter is forced to shut down old technology because there’s simply no other recourse. No.

Twitter, in fact, is the one responsible for its User Streams and Site Streams APIs – the APIs that serve the core functions of these now deprecated third-party Twitter clients. Twitter is the reason these APIs have been stuck in a beta state for nearly a decade. Twitter is the one that decided not to invest in supporting those legacy APIs, or shift them over to its new API platform.

And Twitter is the one that decided to give up on some of its oldest and most avid fans – the power users and the developer community that met their needs – in hopes of shifting everyone over to its own first-party clients instead.

The problem isn’t that the API is old and buggy (which it was), the problem is that the replacement API is unavailable.

— Paul Haddad (@tapbot_paul) August 16, 2018

The company even dismissed how important these users and developers have been to its community over the years, by citing the fact that the APIs it’s terminating – the ones that power Tweetbot, Twitterrific, Tweetings and Talon – are only used by “less than 1%” of Twitter developers. Burn! 

Way to kick a guy when he’s already down, Twitter.

But just because a community is small in numbers, does not mean its voice is not powerful or its influence is not felt.

Hence, the #BreakingMyTwitter hashtag, which Twitter claims to be watching “quite often.”

The one where users are reminding Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about that time he apologized to Twitter developers for not listening to them, and acknowledged the fact they made Twitter what it is today. The time when he promised to do better.

This is…not better:

When I built our push notification server, I added the ability to send a message to every device in case of emergency. Today is the first time I’ve used it. pic.twitter.com/edgkver2Nh

— Craig Hockenberry (@chockenberry) August 15, 2018

The company’s email also says it hopes to eventually learn “why people hire 3rd party clients over our own apps.”

Its own apps?

Oh, you mean like TweetDeck, the app Twitter acquired then shut down on Android, iPhone and Windows? The one it generally acted like it forgot it owned? Or maybe you mean Twitter for Mac (previously Tweetie, before its acquisition), the app it shut down this year, telling Mac users to just use the web instead? Or maybe you mean the nearly full slate of TV apps that Twitter decided no longer needed to exist?

And Twitter wonders why users don’t want to use its own clients?

Perhaps, users want a consistent experience – one that doesn’t involve a million inconsequential product changes like turning stars to hearts or changing the character counter to a circle. Maybe they appreciate the fact that the third parties seem to understand what Twitter is better than Twitter itself does: Twitter has always been about a real-time stream of information. It’s not meant to be another Facebook-style algorithmic News Feed. The third-party clients respect that. Twitter does not.

Yesterday, the makers of Twitterific spoke to the API changes, noting that its app would no longer be able to stream tweets, send native push notifications, or be able to update its Today view, and that new tweets and DMs will be delayed.

It recommended users download Twitter’s official mobile app for notifications going forward.

In other words, while Twitterific will hang around in its broken state, its customers will now have to run two Twitter apps on their device – the official one to get their notifications, and the other because they prefer the experience.

A guide to using Twitter’s app for notifications, from Iconfactory

“We understand why Twitter feels the need to update its API endpoints,” explains Iconfactory co-founder Ged Maheux, whose company makes Twitterrific. “The spread of bots, spam and trolls by bad actors that exploit their systems is bad for the entire Twitterverse, we just wish they had offered an affordable way forward for the developers of smaller, third party apps like ours.”

“Apps like the Iconfactory’s Twitterrific helped build Twitter’s brand, feature sets and even its terminology into what it is today. Our contributions were small to be sure, but real nonetheless. To be priced out of the future of Twitter after all of our history together is a tough pill to swallow for all of us,” he added.

The question many users are now facing is what to do next?

Continue to use now broken third-party apps? Move to an open platform like Mastodon? Switch to Twitter’s own clients, as it wants, where it plans to “experiment with showing alternative viewpoints” to pop people’s echo chambers…on a service that refuses to kick out people like Alex Jones?

Or maybe it’s time to admit the open forum for everything that Twitter – and social media, really – has promised is failing? Maybe it’s time to close the apps – third-party and otherwise. Maybe it’s time to go dark. Get off the feeds. Take a break. Move on.

The full email from Twitter is below:

Hi team,

Today, we’re publishing a blog post about our priorities for where we’re investing today in Twitter client experiences. I wanted to share some more with you about how we reached these decisions, and how we’re thinking about 3rd party clients specifically.

First, some history:

3rd party clients have had a notable impact on the Twitter service and the products we build. Independent developers built the first Twitter client for Mac and the first native app for iPhone. These clients pioneered product features we all know and love about Twitter, like mute, the pull-to-refresh gesture, and more.

We love that developers build experiences on our APIs to push our service, technology, and the public conversation forward. We deeply respect the time, energy, and passion they’ve put into building amazing things using Twitter.

But we haven’t always done a good job of being straightforward with developers about the decisions we make regarding 3rd party clients. In 2011, we told developers (in an email) not to build apps that mimic the core Twitter experience. In 2012, we announced changes to our developer policies intended to make these limitations clearer by capping the number of users allowed for a 3rd party client. And, in the years following those announcements, we’ve told developers repeatedly that our roadmap for our APIs does not prioritize client use cases — even as we’ve continued to maintain a couple specific APIs used heavily by these clients and quietly granted user cap exceptions to the clients that needed them.

It is now time to make the hard decision to end support for these legacy APIs — acknowledging that some aspects of these apps would be degraded as a result. Today, we are facing technical and business constraints we can’t ignore. The User Streams and Site Streams APIs that serve core functions of many of these clients have been in a “beta” state for more than 9 years, and are built on a technology stack we no longer support. We’re not changing our rules, or setting out to “kill” 3rd party clients; but we are killing, out of operational necessity, some of the legacy APIs that power some features of those clients. And it has not been a realistic option for us today to invest in building a totally new service to replace these APIs, which are used by less than 1% of Twitter developers.

We’ve heard the feedback from our customers about the pain this causes. We check out #BreakingMyTwitter quite often and have spoken with many of the developers of major 3rd party clients to understand their needs and concerns. We’re committed to understanding why people hire 3rd party clients over our own apps. And we’re going to try to do better with communicating these changes honestly and clearly to developers. We have a lot of work to do. This change is a hard, but important step, towards doing it. Thank you for working with us to get there.

Thanks,

Rob

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The greedy ways Apple got to $1 trillion

Posted by | Apple, Apps, Dongles, Earnings, eCommerce, Gadgets, hardware, Mobile, Opinion, TC | No Comments

For being the richest company ever with $243 billion in cash, Apple sure cuts corners in the stingiest ways. The hardware giant became the first trillion-dollar company this week. Yet it’s tough to reconcile Apple earning $11 billion in profit per quarter with it still screwing us over on cords and keyboards. The “it just works” philosophy has slipped through the cracks of the money-printing machine. It’s not that Apple couldn’t afford to fix the problems, it’s just ensnared in hubris such that it doesn’t see them as important.

We still turn to Apple because it makes the best core products. But the edges of the customer experience have frayed like the wires of a Lightning cable. The key to Apple’s fortune is obviously selling high margin iPhones, not these ways it nickels and dimes us. But the company has an opportunity to raise its standards after this milestone, and win back the faith that could push it to a $2 trillion market cap.

1. Frayed Charging Cables

Apple gives you that tingly feeling in the worst way. Can it not build Lightning cables and MacBook chargers a little sturdier? If you avoid losing one long enough to put in some serious use, it inevitably ends up splitting where the cord meets your iPhone or exits the laptop power supply. Whether it’s wrapping them in electrical tape or the spring of a retractable pen, people have come up with all sorts of Macgyver methods to make their Apple chargers last. It got so bad that Apple was sued into offering a MacBook charger replacement program, but that expired years ago. If these are what allow us to play with the fancy devices it invents, shouldn’t they get the same quality of industrial design?

Image via Sophia Cannon

2. Buried iTunes Subscriptions Cancellation

Want to cancel your Apple Music subscription or some other service you got roped into with a free trial? It’s SUPER easy. First, click the totally unlabeled and generic circle with a blotch in it that’s supposed to be a profile picture icon. You should see a “Manage Subscriptions” option…but you don’t. Instead, you’ll have to know to tap “View Apple ID”. Once you auth in with the same face or thumbprint that opened your phone in the first place you’ll find the option to cut them off. And as thank you for this convenience, you’ll get to pay 30 percent extra on some subscriptions if you pay through Apple. It’s clearly exploitative dark pattern design.

3. Keyboard Claptrap

The MacBook keyboard is the on-ramp to the information superhighway, yet a single grain of sand can cause a pile up. Renowned Apple pundit John Gruber called it “one of the biggest design screwups in Apple history”. The new butterfly key design Apple rolled out in 2016 can get jammed by dust, requiring a lengthy disassembly process often requiring a professional to fix. Suddenly your work grinds to a halt. Apple wouldn’t always cover this repair, even under warranty. It took a lawsuit and tons of public backlash for Apple to offer free fixes, and that still typically leaves you without a laptop for a few days. I’m typing this article on a cracked-screen 2013 MacBook Pro because I refuse to upgrade until they make the keyboard design more resilient.

4. Killing Affiliate Fees Blogs Rely On

Apple benefits from a legion of blogs obsessing over its hardware and software, hyping up everything it sells. Just this week it returned that favor by announcing it will cut off one of their core sources of revenue. Websites would previously earn a 7 percent commission from Apple in exchange for affiliate link clicks leading to purchases on the App Store. But over the past few years, Apple has begun to sell ads inside the App Store too, competing for advertisers with those external blogs. It’s also built up its own editorial team that curates what’s featured, and apparently doesn’t want competition in being a king-maker. So in October Apple is shutting down the affiliate program that app review sites like TouchArcade and AppShopper depend on, potentially spelling their doom.

5. Dongle Hell

What’s the opposite of “it just works”? Paying extra to lug around a slew of gangly cord connectors you need just to plug things into your laptop or phone. Dongles are the emblem of Apple’s abandonment of the user experience. A Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 dongle runs $50 while it will cost you $9 to plug in any pair of headphones from the past half-century once you’ve inevitably lost the Lightning dongle you’re allocated. Apple loves pushing us towards its vision of tomorrow, like Bluetooth headphones (that it sells) and USB-C fast-chargers (that it sells). But ditching headphone jacks and old school USB ports makes Apple’s latest devices incompatible with sanity. Even its own commercial shows musician Grimes struggling with her dongles. Sorry you can’t pass me the aux cord. I’m from the future.

Image via Notebookcheck

[Featured Image via Instructibles]

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Newly legal 3D-printed gun blueprints targeted by state lawsuits

Posted by | 3d printing, defcad, defense distributed, firearms, Gadgets, Government, gun control, guns, lawsuit, Opinion | No Comments

Hot on the heels of the effective legalization of 3D models used to print firearm components, 21 states have filed a joint lawsuit against the federal government, alleging not only that decision is dangerous but also that it’s illegal for a number of reasons. But the lawsuit may backfire via the so-called Streisand Effect, further entrenching the controversial technology.

Earlier this month brought the news that the U.S. government dropped its case against Cody Wilson and his companies dedicated to the proliferation of 3D models of firearm parts. There are still restrictions on how guns can be made and sold, but the files containing 3D data and allowing people to print components seem to have been determined not to fall under those rules.

This was unwelcome news for those in favor of stricter gun control laws, a group apparently including the attorneys general of 21 states. Bob Ferguson, AG for Washington, announced that his team would be leading a lawsuit intended to block the federal actions that legalized this particular form of data.

“These downloadable guns are unregistered and very difficult to detect, even with metal detectors, and will be available to anyone regardless of age, mental health or criminal history. If the Trump Administration won’t keep us safe, we will,” he said in a press release issued today.

They allege that the administration needs the Defense Department to sign off on the decision, and that Congress needed to be notified 30 days in advance. The decision is also held (owing to a lack of on-record citations or consultations) to be “arbitrary and capricious,” and thus illegal under the Administrative Procedure Act.

The Tenth Amendment also gives states the right to regulate firearms, and the filers say that the federal action deprives them of this right and is therefore unconstitutional.

That’s all well in order, but the danger posed by these files is overestimated, as is the ability of the government, state or federal, to curtail their distribution. If this lawsuit is successful, it will have little or no effect on 3D printed guns at all.

“The status quo – which currently ensures public safety and national security by prohibiting publication of firearm design files on the Internet – should be maintained,” reads a letter sent from a number of AGs to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and AG Jeff Sessions.

At the risk of dipping into an extremely charged debate and sensitive political topic (I’ve added the “Opinion” tag just in case), the status quo does no such thing. It must be said that if effective gun control is the goal, there are far more important steps to pursue. Loopholes abound in existing regulations, for instance gun show purchases of unregistered firearms and “80 percent lowers,” which are a quite legal method for creating them.

Furthermore, any attempt to remove something from the internet is doomed to failure, as we have seen again and again, often enough that the phenomenon has its own nickname, the Streisand Effect. Workarounds for illegal content are numerous and effective, and presumably the type of person interested in printing their own gun will not be shy about using a VPN or torrent site. If anything, a concerted effort to remove something from the internet usually causes that thing to be permanently maintained online as a sort of middle finger to the authorities. It’s not in the internet’s DNA to forget.

While it’s true that outlawing the 3D models would give prosecutors and investigators more to work with, the nefarious actors of the world haven’t been waiting with bated breath on the outcome of the previous lawsuit. Criminals, terrorists, foreign adversaries and so on in the first place don’t even need these files to obtain or create unregistered guns in the first place, nor would their being illegal deter them in the least.

The lawsuit may, it is true, tie up and possibly bankrupt Wilson and his supporters, but that’s not much of a victory and certainly doesn’t make anyone safer. Unfortunately this particular demon isn’t going back in the box.

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Why unskippable Stories ads could revive Facebook

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, Facebook, Facebook ads, Facebook Earnings Q2 2018, Facebook Stories, Instagram Stories, Media, Mobile, Opinion, Snapchat Ads, snapchat stories, Social, stories, TC | No Comments

Prepare for the invasion of the unskippables. If the Stories social media slideshow format is the future of mobile TV, it’s going to end up with commercials. Users won’t love them. And done wrong they could pester people away from spending so much time watching what friends do day-to-day. But there’s no way Facebook and its family of apps will keep letting us fast-forward past Stories ads just a split-second after they appear on our screens.

We’re on the cusp of the shift to Stories. Facebook estimates that across social media apps, sharing to Stories will surpass sharing through feeds some time in 2019. One big reason is they don’t take a ton of thought to create. Hold up your phone, shoot a photo or short video and you’ve instantly got immersive, eye-catching, full-screen content. And you never had to think.

Facebook CPO Chris Cox at F8 2018 charts the rise of Stories that will see the format surpass feed sharing in 2019

Unlike text, which requires pre-meditated reflection that can be daunting to some, Stories are point and shoot. They don’t even require a caption. Sure, if you’re witty or artistic you can embellish them with all sorts of commentary and creativity. They can be a way to project your inner monologue over the outside world. But the base level of effort necessary to make a Story is arguably less than sharing a status update. That’s helped Stories rocket to more than 1.3 billion daily users across Facebook’s apps and Snapchat.

The problem, at least for Facebook, is that monetizing the News Feed with status-style ads was a lot more straightforward. Those ads, which have fueled Facebook’s ascent to earning $13 billion in revenue and $5 billion in profit per quarter, were ostensibly old-school banners. Text, tiny photo and a link. Advertisers have grown accustomed to them over 20 years of practice. Even small businesses on a tight budget could make these ads. And it at least took users a second to scroll past them — just long enough to make them occasionally effective at implanting a brand or tempting a click.

Stories, and Stories ads, are fundamentally different. They require big, tantalizing photos at a minimum, or preferably stylish video that lasts five to 15 seconds. That’s a huge upward creative leap for advertisers to make, particularly small businesses that’ll have trouble shooting that polished content themselves. Rather than displaying a splayed out preview of a link, users typically have to swipe up or tap a smaller section of a Story ad to click through.

And Stories are inherently skippable. Users have learned to rapidly tap to progress slide by slide through friends’ Stories, especially when racing through those with too many posts or that come from more distant acquaintances. People are quick with the trigger finger the moment they’re bored, especially if it’s with an ad.

A new type of ad blindness has emerged. Instead of our eyes glazing over as we scroll past, we stare intensely searching for the slightest hint that something isn’t worth our time and should be skipped. A brand name, “sponsored” label, stilted product shot or anything that looks asocial leads us to instantly tap past.

This is why Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg scared the hell out of investors on the brutal earnings call when she admitted about Stories that, “The question is, will this monetize at the same rate as News Feed? And we honestly don’t know.” It’s a radically new format advertisers will need time to adopt and perfect. Facebook had spent the past year warning that revenue growth would decelerate as it ran out of News Feed ad inventory, but it’d never stressed the danger as what it was: Stories. That contributed to its record-breaking $120 billion share price drop.

The shift from News Feed ads to Stories ads will be a bigger transition than desktop ads to mobile ads for Facebook. Feed ads looked and worked identically, it was just the screen around them changing. Stories ads are an entirely new beast.

Stories ads are a bigger shift than web to mobile

There is one familiar format Stories ads are reminiscent of: television commercials. Before the age of TiVo and DVRs, you had to sit through the commercials to get your next hit of content. I believe the same will eventually be true for Stories, to the tune of billions in revenue for Facebook.

Snapchat is cornered by Facebook’s competition and desperate to avoid missing revenue estimates again. So this week, it rolled out unskippable vertical video ads it actually calls “Commercials” to 100 more advertisers, and they’ll soon be self-serve for buyers. Snap first debuted them in May, though the six-second promos are still only inserted into its longer-form multi-minute premium Shows, not user-generated Stories. A Snap spokesperson said they couldn’t comment on future plans. But I’d expect its stance will inevitably change. Friends’ Stories are interesting enough to compel people to watch through entire ads, so the platform could make us watch.

Snapchat is desperate, and that’s why it’s already working on unskippable ads. If Facebook’s apps like Instagram and WhatsApp were locked in heated battle with Snapchat, I think we’d see more brinkmanship here. Each would hope the other would show unskippable ads first so it could try to steal their pissed-off users.

But Facebook has largely vanquished Snapchat, which has seen user growth sink significantly. Snapchat has 191 million daily users, but Facebook Stories has 150 million, Messenger Stories has 70 million, Instagram Stories has 400 million and WhatsApp Stories (called Status) leads with 450 million. Most people’s friends around the world aren’t posting to Snapchat Stories, so Facebook doesn’t risk pushing users there with overly aggressive ads, except perhaps amongst U.S. teens.

Instagram’s three-slide Stories carousel ads

That’s why I expect we’ll quickly see Facebook start to test unskippable Stories ads. They’ll likely be heavily capped at first, to maybe one to three per day per user. Facebook took a similar approach to slowly rolling out auto-play video News Feed ads back in 2014. And Facebook’s apps will probably only show them after a friend’s story before your next pal’s, in-between rather than as dreaded pre-rolls. Instagram already offers carousel Stories ads with up to three slides instead of one, so users have to tap three times to blow past them.

An Instagram spokesperson told me they had “no plans to share right now” about unskippable ads, and a Facebook spokesperson said “We don’t have any plans to test unskippable stories ads on Facebook or Instagram.” But plans can change. A Snap spokesperson noted that unlike a full 30-second TV spot, Snapchat’s Commercials are up to six seconds, which matches an emerging industry trend for mobile video ads. Budweiser recently made some six-second online ads that it also ran on TV, showing the format’s reuseability that could speed up adoption. For brand advertisers not seeking an on-the-spot purchase, they need time to leave an impression.

By making some Stories ads unskippable, Facebook’s apps could charge more while making them more impactful for advertisers. It would also reduce the creative pressure on businesses because they won’t be forced to make that first split-second so flashy so people don’t fast-forward. Employing unskippable ads could also create an incentive for people to pay for a hypothetical ad-free Facebook Premium subscription in the future.

If Facebook makes the Stories ad format work, it has a bright future that contrasts with the doomsday vibes conjured by its share price plummet. Facebook has more than 5X more (duplicated) Stories users across its apps than its nearest competitor Snapchat. The social giant sees libraries full of Stories created each day waiting to be monetized.

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Gaming leans into diversity at E3, but not hard

Posted by | Diversity, e3 2018, Gaming, Opinion, TC | No Comments

To say the gaming community is not known for its friendliness to women and minority groups is something of an understatement. But we’re starting to see developers abandon the usual excuses of tradition, demographics and, the most absurd of all, “realism,” in favor of making gaming more inclusive. Kind of.

This has been an ongoing theme for years, of course. But it feels like this year it was a little less self-congratulatory and a little more self-motivated.

The fun started early, well ahead of E3, with the apparently devastatingly diverse front lines in Battlefield V, which takes place during World War II. The predictable objections as to “historical accuracy” appeared — unironic, despite the utter lack of historical accuracy in pretty much any of these games. The way the war was fought, the locations and situations, the weapons and vehicles have all been liberally massaged to turn the worst thing in history into a fun multiplayer game.

But it was EA’s chief creative officer, Patrick Soderlund, who made the headlines with a searing riposte in an interview with Gamasutra. Citing the historical record of women and people of color in the war, he called out the peanut gallery as both incorrect and irrelevant.

What’s the most unrealistic part about Battlefield V? It ain’t her.

“These are people who are uneducated,” he said. “They don’t understand that this is a plausible scenario, and listen: this is a game.”

A game, he added, intended to surface stories that have been hitherto relatively seldom told, including the roles of those groups.

“This is something that the development team pushed. And we don’t take any flak. We stand up for the cause, because I think those people who don’t understand it, well, you have two choices: either accept it or don’t buy the game. I’m fine with either or. It’s just not OK.”

Then E3 got started. As a pleasant early surprise, Gears of War 5 has you playing a female protagonist in what has long been a mainstay of grizzled space-marine mandom, and your companion is a black guy. Of course you have the new Tomb Raider, a solid franchise with an increasingly strong, well-written female lead.

In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Ubisoft went so far as to twist the lore of the series to accommodate the player’s choice of character: Alexios or Kassandra, between whom there are no real differences — including romance options, a quietly provocative decision.

The Last of Us Part Two has a badass young woman as its protagonist, defending herself with shocking brutality in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. (Yet you can be sure it’s the kiss shared with a girl on the dance floor that will generate more controversy.)

Nintendo offered a variety of customization in the new Smash Bros. for Switch, with male and female options for all kinds of characters, including Pikachu. Even Cuphead has a playable lady in it now.

Elsewhere we saw diversity on display in something as simple as having men and women of all races represented as pirate captains, commanders of futuristic forces, medieval knights (a nice Joan of Arc feel from For Honor’s trailer) and futuristic jet pilots. (My favorite outfit was in Control, by the way.)

What it felt like to me, though, was not that these companies were fulfilling some kind of diversity quota — that bogeyman so often invoked by critics — but rather the simple acknowledgement that the world of games should resemble the world of gamers.

Of course, when you pull back a little bit, it becomes extremely clear that the majority of games are still very much dominated by the garden variety grizzled white male protagonist. But that’s fine. We have a similar problem in film, TV and other fiction as well, right? Moving on from outdated ideas of race and gender in the world of media is an ongoing concern and it won’t happen all at once.

But at least at this E3 we’re seeing indications that developers and publishers are moving in the right direction.

As for the people playing — well, that’s a different story. Whatever the flexibility of your choices in the latest crop of AAA games, female gamers and people of color will still be ruthlessly harassed, abused and otherwise targeted. Developers can’t change the bigoted minds of toxic players — but they can ban them. Here’s hoping that side of things is getting equal attention.

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