Amazon gunning for Netflix with planned streaming service, insiders say

Amazon, riding high on the holiday success of its Kindle Fire, is mulling going head to head with Netflix, according to the New York Post. Sources tapped for the story said the online retailer would spin off its existing video-streaming service, Amazon Instant Video, into a standalone, subscription-based service.

Amazon Instant Video, launched last February, offers over 100,000 movies and TV shows, thousands of which are free for Prime members (after their $79/year dues have been collected, of course). The balance of the content, and anything accessed by non-members, is available on a pay-per-title basis – a model Amazon would presumably change to mimic Netflix’s pay-up-front policy.

Paul Verna, a senior analyst at eMarketer, had this to say about Amazon’s plans:

Amazon is aggressively pursuing the same content strategy as Netflix and is spending a lot upfront to try to secure exclusivity. They won’t always get it, but they need to differentiate themselves.

If July’s $100 million payment to CBS for thousands of hours of the network’s shows is any indication, not to mention renewed deals with Fox, Disney, and NBCUniversal, Amazon’s new service could materialize sooner rather than later.

The iOS interface concept

I posted this video on YouTube recently. It’s a set of UI ideas for iOS. Some of them are more likely to happen than others, but I thought it would be nice to share the ideas.

I started to think about possible iOS improvements after reading this post on MacStories. I’ve always liked the iOS concept videos by Jan-Michael Cart, so when I came up with some ideas of my own, I thought making a video from them was the next logical step. Here I describe the ideas…

 

Notification Center

This one is a no-brainer. As you can see in the current multitask bar and in the folders on the home screen, the linen pattern is always hidden behind the home screen. The Notification Center in Mountain Lion is the same, so I expect Apple to come out with this for iOS 6, too.

ios interface concept 1 The iOS interface concept

 

Mission Control

It was fun to come up with something like this. I think the gesture works (I noticed webOS used a similar gesture), and I think most people would agree this would be a very welcome improvement. After making some sketches, I mocked it up in Photoshop. I think this is better because the browsing through the app history would be more intuitive and visual.

Notice that that when you open Mission Control from the home screen, the bottom of the home screen still sticks out a little bit to get the user back home. When opening Mission Control from an app, the home screen isn’t visible (you could always use the home button).

ios interface concept 2 The iOS interface concept

I didn’t put a scroll bar in because I don’t think it’s relevant when it comes to app history. I didn’t come up with a solution for where to put the music-control buttons, though.

The idea for the Safari pages came while I was Photoshopping the mockups. I’ve always loved stacks, and this would be a very fast way to switch to a particular website. This view could also be triggered with a double tap so that you could go straight to the last opened page when you single tap. It also could be done for third-party apps with multiple pages.

ios interface concept 3 The iOS interface concept

 

Safari

The look of this is based on the mockups on The Verge. I really think they make sense and iOS 6 probably will put an end to the blue chrome.

I think the double tap to zoom in and trigger fullscreen would work. When I zoom in I usually try to focus on a particular part of a website, and the chrome certainly doesn’t help with that. It would be really cool if I could try this out once.

 

Dynamic badges

I never like it when I have a badge count on my icons when I don’t know what it’s for. It requires me to open the app to check it. The dynamic badge doesn’t automatically mark items as read, but it would link the badge count to notifications. I realize that this would change the way badge counts are done, because they’re not necessarily linked to the Notification Center.

The icons would be “pulled” by dragging them down. This releases a bubble with the notifications (the same style as the current iOS banner). Every icon with a badge would be able to be pulled down this way.

The gesture for this is pretty simple and easy to remember, and the user can do it just with their thumb. Believe it or not, I actually went through a lot of gestures before I came up with this one.

ios interface concept 4 The iOS interface concept

 

Flipcons

This is actually inspired by the dynamic icons concept by Jan-Michael Cart. I really like that concept, but I don’t think it would work because it requires a double tap between icons or a pinch gesture on the home screen (it would require two hands). Just like the dynamic badges, this one can be done with just a thumb.

ios interface concept 5 The iOS interface concept

⇧ Some sketches I made of the Flipcons (with dog ear), and a sketch of the transition.

The Flipcons are similar to Quick Look in Finder, where you can get a preview of the content without opening anything. This would work very well in apps with “softer updates” like news and social, where you don’t want to see a badge count for every update. When there is an update to an app, the icon would get a small dog ear. In that case you can pull it down to make it flip. The “flipped site” of the icon would display the updates.

I’m not sure if this would work in real life, but I wanted to share the idea with others.

ios interface concept 6 The iOS interface concept

I would like to thank Christophe Tauziet and Marc Edwards for giving me the extensive feedback on my ideas before I made a video from it. They took the time to study the concept and to give me some new ideas. Also thanks to Lukas Hermann for bringing the concept to the attention of MacStories!

Nokia Lumia 900 “Ace” coming to AT&T

The New York Times is reporting that AT&T plans on dropping the highly rumored Nokia Lumia 900 “Ace” at the CES show on Monday.

Nokia, which has seen its marketshare drop significantly in the past 3 years, is looking to revive its company by partnering and using Microsofts mobile software dubbed “Mango.” Although there are other Windows Phone 7 manufactures, Nokia is unique in that they are the only company that is not also developing Android phones.

Various leaks and renders show the smartphone to look nearly identical to the Nokia Lumia 800, just bigger in size. Specifications of the phone have not been made official, but rumors suggest that the phone will house a 4.3-inch WVGA display, 512MB of RAM, and 8-megapixel camera.

Windows Phone 7 has had difficulty getting traction in the U.S. with the likes of Android and iOS continuing to dominate and grow each quarter. Both Microsoft and Nokia have partnered together in hopes that building a quality piece of hardware, combined with Microsoft’s Mango software will help change that.

We’ll keep you updated for the “official” announcement.

Update: Microsoft had just announced the official word that the Lumia 900 is coming to the AT&T network “in the next few months.”

Apple ‘education event’ hints at the company’s next scheme for world domination

Today tight-lipped Apple announced it will hold an event in New York on January 19th centered around an enigmatic “education announcement.”

Since the vague announcement, I, like many others, have guessed at what they might cover as this event, and what it’ll mean for Apple. Well, dare I say, I think I know.

If you look back at Apple’s history in computing, much of their early success came from the classroom. My first encounter with a computer was an Apple II, followed by the Macintosh, and then came the dominance of Windows in the 1990s.

But Apple’s time is far from over. If you’ve been paying attention recently, the post-PC revolution is taking place before our very eyes. Desktop dinosaurs are more and more being replaced by tablets — often the iPad. And while Apple’s tablet has only been out for a couple years, the iPad’s already managed to infiltrate many classrooms.

Judging by the look of Apple’s invitation for the event, that’s a market they’d like to further tap.

But why the classroom? You needn’t look any further than Walter Issacson’s revealing biography of Steve Jobs, where Jobs uncharacteristically tipped his hand and told Issacson that the textbook business was the one he wanted to revolutionize next. Jobs’s idea, according to Isaacson, was to hire textbook writers to create digital versions of their books for the iPad.

According to Issacson, Jobs went beyond the brainstorming phase, even holding meetings with major publishers where he’d talk to them about possibly partnering with Apple. Once they were under his wing, he told them, textbooks could be given away for free on iPads, which would spare the publishers pesky (and costly) state certifications.

“We can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money,” Jobs said.

His plan wasn’t entirely altruistic, though. Obviously Apple would stand to sell millions more devices in such a scenario.

Jobs also believed states were due for weak(er) economies that could last as long as a decade, and he saw their impending misfortune as an opportunity to make his move.

And what a move it would be. Getting back into the classroom, into millions of them, would be a boon for Apple, and one that would deliver steady returns in an uncertain climate.

If Apple can convince book-obsessed schools and publishers that tablets, specifically its market-dominating iPad, are the way to go — admittedly, no small feat — it could set itself up for a Windows-like ubiquity that would pay off for the foreseeable future.

The iPad-over-PC argument is an easier case to make. Tablets have already put a dent in PC sales, a trend not even Apple’s Mac is immune from — although Apple CEO Tim Cook was quick to note that while “some customers chose to purchase an iPad instead of a Mac… even more decided to buy an iPad over a Windows PC.”

“There are a lot more Windows PCs to cannibalize than Macs,” Cook noted.

And given the infancy of tablets, the underway PC migration will likely pick up steam as new and more powerful iPads come out.

But I doubt Apple’s putting all its eggs in that basket. They don’t just want to be the tablet of choice among consumers — they want to be the tablet of choice among hospitals, businesses, and, critically, education.

Nobody knows for sure what Apple will show off next Thursday, but my gut tells me they’re looking to build on the iPad’s momentum with a long-term plan that could skyrocket the fortunes of a company that’s already looking down at its competition.

Google to track users across its sites, whether they like it or not

Tuesday, Google announced its intention to keep tabs on users that frequent its popular sites, including YouTube, Gmail, and, of course, its industry-leading search engine. And alarmingly, users won’t be able to opt out of the changes, which are scheduled to take effect March 1st.

Alma Whitten, Google’s director of privacy for product and engineering, explained:

Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.

Google said the move will allow them personalize ads more effectively. If someone watches Coldplay clips on YouTube and lives near a major venue, for instance, Google could advertise tickets in that person’s Gmail account when the band comes to town.

Common Sense Media Chief Executive James Steyer had a more cynical take:

Google’s new privacy announcement is frustrating and a little frightening…Even if the company believes that tracking users across all platforms improves their services, consumers should still have the option to opt out — especially the kids and teens who are avid users of YouTube, Gmail and Google Search.

Steyer hit the nail on the head. Tracking users against their will, no matter how innocent the company’s intentions, is a slippery slope, and one sure to stir up a backlash.

Of course, there’s one opt-out option Google’s powerless to stop: Don’t use their services. But that’s easier said than done.

Source: Techmeme

Google launches Public Alerts, shows local disaster information in Maps

Google, why has the tide suddenly receded? And why am I all alone on a sunny beach? Starting today with the rollout of Public Alerts, not only will Google tell you that you’re the last to learn of an impending tsunami, it’ll show you just how thoroughly fucked you’re about to be, too.

Public Alerts, you see, pumps relevant disaster information into Google Maps, where it’s spit out as helpful text and an image of the affected, or soon-to-be-affected area. All you have to do is call up Maps and input your current location along with a keyword, like “disaster�? or “tidal wave,�? before your phone’s waterlogged and washed out to sea.

Google gave a rundown of the new service in blog post today, probably timed to distract from the new privacy policy that’s got the company running for cover.

If a major weather event is headed for your area, you might go online to search for the information you need: What’s happening? Where and when will it strike? How severe will it be? What resources are available to help?

The Google Crisis Response team works on providing critical emergency information during crises. Our goal is to surface emergency information through the online tools you use everyday [sic], when that information is relevant and useful.

Public Alerts on Google Maps pools need-to-know weather, public safety, and earthquake alerts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service, and U.S. Geological Survey.

Source: Techmeme

Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace join forces to challenge Google Search’s favoritism

A few weeks ago, Google’s “Search, plus your world” initiative began prioritizing Google+ search results over rival social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The move didn’t go unnoticed, and Twitter was quick to criticize. One member of the Twitter team even called the self-promotional move a “bad day for the Internet.” But today some engineers over at Facebook decided to take matters into their own hands with a bookmarklet they’re calling “Focus on the User.” The newly created bookmarklet gives users access to Google’s popular search algorithms and, significantly, calls up the most popular social results, regardless of their source. That means the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace won’t get lost in the shuffle.

As MG Siegler puts it, “In other words, it makes the new Google behave more like the old Google.”

How much better would social search be if Google surfaced results from all across the web?”…“The results speak for themselves. We created a tool that uses Google’s own relevance measure—the ranking of their organic search results—to determine what social content should appear in the areas where Google+ results are currently hardcoded.

Google’s motivation is hardly a mystery, and it rhymes with “elfishness.” Clearly they want their search engine to be better than the competition, and to drive search engine traffic toward their own social platform, Google+. But it’s unacceptable, not to mention hypocritical, to censor results. Moral objections aside, such a move could pose serious anti-trust problems for Google, which thoroughly dominates the search market.

In the meantime, if you’d like to pull the blinders off your Google search experience, this bookmarklet should help

Android and the F-word

No, I’m not referring to the obscenity, although I may as well be, as far as some die-hard Android fans are concerned. The word I’m referring to is “fragmentation” — the buzzword at the crux of many criticisms leveled against the Android OS. In my view, not only do these criticisms misuse this term, but they underestimate the values of flexibility and personalization as well.

At a basic level, fragmentation refers to a larger object being broken into smaller pieces, or fragments. That word, “fragment,” indicates an incomplete object that can’t function on its own. If a glass vase breaks into hundreds of pieces, for instance, those pieces can be called fragments because those pieces, individually, are worthless. Another, more tech-related example would be a standard hard drive. Data on the platters are stored in clusters/fragments. Individually, those clusters do not provide anything useful to the user. Only when all of the fragments of that one file are put together does the user get something that makes sense. Again, the fragments refer to pieces of data that are useless in the fragmented state. In the Android context, these fragments are supposedly the skins that manufacturers are putting on top of the Android foundation to customize it and add their own twists – a process critics allege compromises the user’s experience and renders the customized operating system unrecognizable. However, these so-called fragments continue to function on their own. They’re neither broken like the shards from a vase, nor are they incomplete like the bits of data on a hard drive. So why is it that the term “fragmentation,” a word that implies brokenness, is used to describe Android? I’d say that a narrow view of the topic has a lot to do with it.

Are some of the skins problematic? Yep.

Do the skins complicate OS-wide updates? Definitely.

But is all of this Android’s fault? Nope.

If a DJ takes a good song and makes a bad remix of it, that doesn’t make the original song bad. It’s the DJ’s rendition that’s bad, so why should the original song be held accountable? Well, that’s exactly what’s happened to Google’s Android, which is unjustly bad-mouthed for the flaws and issues caused by OEMs that decided to put their own spin on the underlying operating system. Just like the DJ’s take on the song should be evaluated separately from the original, so too should the re-skinned versions of Android be judged separately from their Google origins.

Not only is Google not to blame for manufacturers’ ham fists, but it ought to be applauded for the so-called fragmentation, for offering choices and enabling customization. Android’s chameleon character can cater to the needs of so many more people, but it’s much more than that. A short while ago, Jerry Hildenbrand over at Android Central said it best in a great article that likened Android to Linux. Specifically, Hildenbrand drew parallels between Android’s malleable platform and Linux, whose open architecture gave rise to the many operating systems that use the Linux Kernel. Check it out if you can. It’s well worth the read.

The point to take away from Hildenbrand’s article is that, at the base level, both Linux and Android offer a platform on which anyone with the necessary skill can build – or improve. And the spinoffs should be evaluated on their individual merits. Take, for example, two popular but greatly different interpretations of Linux: Red Hat and Ubuntu. While Red Hat is generally more popular for servers and enterprise settings, Ubuntu is more popular for home computers. Each calls Linux “Dad,” but they cater to completely different audiences. A home user would find Red Hat confusing and irrelevant, and an IT professional in charge of a corporate network would no doubt consider many of Ubuntu’s features to be superfluous, detrimental to performance, even. And those unflattering opinions would likely shake out in any reviews, but it would be wrong to use them as ammo against Linux.

Of course, Android’s a slightly different case because unlike Linux, which acts as a kernel, Android is a self-contained operating system. But just as Red Hat and Ubuntu build on the Linux kernel and go in different directions, so too do Android skins like Samsung’s TouchWiz and Motorola’s MotoBlur (a name that Motorola is now trying to do away with). Each of those acts as an individual OS and interface. Each of them caters to different people. Each of those comes with its own issues, complexities and benefits — characteristics that are specific to each one of them separately. Android is simply a platform that allows customization and encourages variety.

So, no, Android isn’t broken, and it’s not fragmented, strictly speaking. It’s a healthy ecosystem sustained by the diversity of its potential permutations — one that needs to be evaluated and critiqued from a broader, more open-minded perspective.

Is console gaming on its way out?

Yesterday IGN reported that the next-generation Xbox will debut in October or early November of 2013 with six times the processing power of the current system. While that sounds lovely, I’m stuck on the question of appetite: Will consumers line up for an expensive console in an era of extreme mobility? My colleagues and I have gone back and forth on this on our weekly podcast, and I can’t shake the idea that console gaming will fizzle as mobile devices like the iPhone, iPad, and Galaxy Nexus become more powerful and more capable.

Lest you think I’m anti-console gaming, I was crazy about the stuff not too long ago. I’m probably dating myself, but I loved going to arcades, and I spent countless hours in front of my Nintendo, Sega, Xbox, and Playstation. But as devices like the iPhone and iPad emerged and enabled me to get my gaming fix on the go, I found myself straying from consoles more and more. And I suspect I’m not alone here. In fact, anecdotal evidence supports my suspiscion: Friends with young children — once console gaming’s core audience — tell me their kids play games on iPod Touchs or iPads, not Wiis or Playstations .

That said, Microsoft’s Xbox has something over the competition, something I can’t deny or write off — it’s the best console out there, and it claims that top spot for an ironic reason: It’s not just a gaming machine. It’s a multi-purpose entertainment hub. In addition to rendering the latest games, it plays Netflix, HBO GO, Hulu, and a variety of other media. It also has Kinect, which opens the door to all sorts of interactive possibilities.

Still, I think immobility is the limiting factor — not to mention pricier titles. And a recent decline in retail game sales bears that out. Last week, marketing research firm NDP released a report that pegged the downturn at 8 percent in 2011. In December alone, game sales were down roughly 21 percent. Yasir, our resident gaming nut, was quick to point out that existing consoles are in their retirement phase, so it’s only natural that sales of their software and accessories would slowly dry up. I don’t dispute that, but I think the price of admission, for the consoles and their games, is just as responsible for making gamers think twice.

But I don’t think consoles will suddenly disappear from the gaming landscape, either. They’ll linger for years because, dwindling or not, they have a passionate fanbase that appreciates the graphics and controls that mobile devices haven’t yet mastered. But just as arcades took a back seat to consoles decades ago, and desktops have taken a back seat to laptops, I strongly suspect consoles will increasingly play second fiddle to mobile devices like iPhones and iPads.

Photo Credit: Great Beyond