Posts tagged could

4 Ways Apple’s New TV Service Could Beat Back The Competition

The world has waited four years to learn what Steve Jobs meant when he told biographer Walter Isaacson that he’d “cracked” the television conundrum. Anticipation ran high for new hardware, in particular an Apple-branded integrated TV set. Now it looks like the company has other plans in mind—namely, a revamp of its existing TV set-top box and a new online service that blends streaming live TV and on-demand online programming. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple aims to debut its new TV service this fall. If the report is true, the iPhone maker may have a competitive advantage. Only a few online services offer both live TV and a streaming catalog of shows and movies (for now, anyway).

Even fewer would-be competitors can boast a potential customer base as enormous as Apple TV—which has moved some 25 million units and is reportedly worth billions. And that’s to say nothing of the huge iOS-wielding user base.

See also: Cord-Cutting For Some: HBO Now Launches With A Limited Apple TV Exclusive

It might seem like this is Apple’s game to lose. But the company can’t cut corners. Expectations around television are different than for mobile gadgets. So if Apple wants its new TV offering to become more than just its latest “hobby,” it needs to cover some key bases.

Apple’s Fascination, And Challenge, With Television

The state of TV today “sucks,” as Apple senior vice president Eddy Cue said at last year’s Code Conference—which should have been a major clue that his company would aim to improve it. 

Apple has had television on its mind for years—long before it joined forces with HBO as its exclusive launch partner for HBO Now, the premium cable channel’s standalone streaming service. The recent WSJ report lines up with what Jobs told his biographer several years ago:

“I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,” he told me. “It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.” No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. “It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

The hardware reference to “television set” aside, Jobs’ overall theme was simplicity, which matches up nicely with the all-in-one approach Apple reportedly wants to launch later this year. With one box (the Apple TV) and one subscription (for streaming live television and on-demand titles), Apple could eliminate the need for cable or satellite TV.

Apple, of course, isn’t alone in trying to blend live TV and streaming. Dish’s Sling TV offering, launched in February, and Sony’s new PlayStation Vue (which just debuted Wednesday in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago) do exactly the same thing.

Older stalwarts like TiVo are also experimenting with streaming features and app integrations. The digital video recorder maker works with TV signals from antennas, cable or satellite providers, but that may change before long. TiVo already supports apps like Netflix and Hulu and the Opera TV app store—and it will have some new additions, courtesy of Aereo. The company got a green light from a U.S. bankruptcy court to scoop up assets from the defunct startup, which attempted to grab OTA (over-the-air) TV signals and stream them online.

See also: Would-Be TV Disrupter Aereo Files For Chapter 11 Reorganization

With the fight for the living room heating up, Apple’s new service will need to lock down a few essentials.

What Apple TV’s New Service Needs To Compete

According to BuzzFeed, the new Apple TV device will come with voice control and access to the App Store for the first time ever. That may drive product sales, but it won’t compel users to plunk down even more money on a subscription streaming service. 

To drive the new offering home and make it enticing, especially in the face of growing competition, Apple needs to:

Make the selection good

Reportedly, Apple has been talking to broadcast and cable partners to flesh out its offerings. ABC, CBS, Fox, ESPN, Disney and FX may be on deck, while the chances of NBC coming on board seem slim. Apple almost partnered with NBCUniversal parent company Comcast on another streaming television offering last year, but talks appear to have fizzled.

The WSJ’s sources say the company aims to offer around 25 channels. That would be far less than basic cable packages, as well as Sony Playstation Vue’s lineup, which ranges from 50 to more than 85 available channels. But at least it’s more than Sling TV’s 16 channels. 

For on-demand streaming, Apple TV currently hooks to iTunes, which offers plenty of movies and TV shows via á la carte purchases or rentals for films, TV seasons or episodes. However, Netflix has proven the market for all-you-can-stream service for a flat monthly subscription.

Although Apple TV won’t ditch Netflix—it’s too popular to overlook—Apple should rethink its iTunes strategy if it wants to start holding its own against its future rival. For starters, it should think about making at least some selection of videos available for a flat fee, similar to Amazon’s Prime Instant Watch.

Make the system work with other gadgets

Apple doesn’t play well with competing platforms. But it may need to, if it wants to give its online TV service its best chance at success.

What that could look like: Suppose Apple were to open up and give competing devices some basic remote-control functions—say, via an Android app? Likewise with allowing some iTunes streaming on Android or Windows devices. Sling TV, Playstation Vue, TiVo and others stream to mobile gadgets outside their own platforms.

The company should also think about casting support. Made popular by Google’s Chromecast TV stick, casting—that is, wirelessly flinging videos via mobile devices—is one of the hottest features in streaming TV products. Samsung smart TVs, TiVo set-top boxes, Nexus Players, Rokus and other devices support it from a variety of phones and tablets, using either the DIAL protocol or Google Cast technology. 

Apple TV supports something similar through AirPlay, but the feature is limited to Apple gadgets only. That rigid and stand-offish approach may work for mobile, but television is another matter. Unlike smartphones, which are designed for individuals, TVs are usually shared among household members—not all of whom may be Apple users. To get whole families on board, the company may have to loosen its grip.

Make it easy to use

Apple’s new service will test its mantra about simplicity. The experience will have to be as easy as navigating traditional television while managing more complexity, given all the ways people want to watch Internet TV—whether live programming, rentals or purchases, or other streaming options. If it’s too basic or overly complicated, users could wind up wanting to throw something at their TV instead of enjoying it. 

Adding Siri to the box will help, but only if it works flawlessly. Ideally, it will allow for both search and navigation, but even if it can only do one, it has to be reliable. But that’s only part of the equation. 

TiVo, Sling TV and Playstation Vue all allow for passive viewing. Playstation Vue offers a clean interface channel guide that makes it easy to find and play live shows, or save favorites. Sling TV brings channel-surfing to live streams, letting users easily fly through whatever’s on by pressing a button.

TiVo has built a loyal following based on the strength of its easy-to-use interfaces and remote controls. Since it relies on cable, satellite and broadcast pipes (for now), it’s very good at old-fashioned channel-surfing. But its primary function is recording shows, and as a DVR, it recently stepped up its approach. Now it offers a new OnePass feature, that can track and save your shows from live television or the Internet in one interface.

Make it cheap(er)

Apple will reportedly charge $30 to $40 a month for the service, which will work on the newly reduced Apple TV boxes, now $69 (from $99), and most certainly on whatever new model Apple has up its sleeve. It will reportedly work on iPhones and iPads as well. 

That’s not out of whack compared to the competition. TiVo service starts at $15 monthly, while Sony’s Playstation Vue goes for $50 per month to start. Sling TV charges $20 per month, and unlike the others, isn’t restricted to a single hardware line at all—it comes via an app you can download to Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox One, Android, iOS, and Mac and PC computers.

Apple’s service, limited to its Apple TV and iOS devices, is neither the least nor the most expensive. It comes in way under the cost of cable or satellite service, which can easily run two or three times what Apple will reportedly charge.

But there’s a rub: You need broadband Internet connectivity to make Apple’s service work, and the cable operators still control those strings. 

See also: Belatedly, TiVo Makes Its Play For Cord-Cutters

Unbundled, broadband access can cost $40 to $60. Add the Apple TV service subscription, and suddenly the savings don’t look so steep. If you have to hunt down missing channels or shows somewhere else, the cost only go up from there. 

That would put the company and its new service in a tough spot. Because as it stands, the Apple TV service’s selection and pricing are on the  mediocre side, and striking deals to reduce the cost could be an uphill battle. Apple successfully managed to muscle the music industry, thanks to the influence of iTunes. But it’s not at all clear whether the company has the same bargaining power in Hollywood. 

Lead photo by Robert S. Donovan; TV with streaming apps and Android device images by Shutterstock;  product images courtesy of Apple; Apple TV and box photo by ReadWrite

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The Apple Watch Could Sell In The Millions—And Yet Still Disappoint

Guest author Christian Cantrell is a developer, blogger and science fiction author

The Apple Watch looks like an excellent product likely to yield record sales. But no matter how good it is, the device seems destined to become the most unpopular product in Apple’s line-up—one that will top the charts for returns, resale and abandonment.

Compared to the company’s other gadgets, the Apple Watch faces a some formidable hurdles. Fundamental issues—like battery life, complexity and the primary dilemma of convincing people they need a wrist gadget in the first place—represent challenges for all smartwatch makers. But when it comes to Apple, which built its reputation on simplicity and ease of use, consumer expectations quite reasonably soar.

See also: Apple Watch Users: Do You Really Want Flipboard On Your Wrist?

Apple has always been extremely proud of its customer satisfaction scores, yet it’s entering a new product category that will make its usual standard almost impossible to maintain. That could be bad news for developers making long-term investments in the Apple Watch, and for a company accustomed to seemingly limitless success and growth. 

Too Smart For Their Own Good

The fact that watches have been on their way out for a while presents a particular quandary for smartwatch companies.

Technology early adopters tend to skew younger, but in the 16-to-34 year-old demographic, nearly 60% have eschewed watches for phones as their primary timepieces. Millennials and Generation Zs have never known a disconnected lifestyle, and some will likely have difficulty adapting to something weighing down their arms. Even those of us who grew up wearing traditional Japanese or Swiss timepieces may find some unexpected challenges with smartwatches. 

With regular wristwatches, people can check the time with a surreptitious glance. But the Apple Watch’s screen mostly remains off to conserve power—which, despite Apple’s assertions, cements the device as a smartwatch first and a timepiece second. To engage, users must lift their arms or press a button—gestures which may seem intuitive at first, but will lead to the distraction and irritation of errant activations. 

To be fair, others—like Android Wear devices—also suffer from this problem. (Pebble addressed it with an always-on e-paper display; its latest, Pebble Time, just added color to the screen.) But for many users, the Apple Watch will be the very first device they strap to their wrists, so these downsides (along with much higher expectations) will be a much bigger problem for it.

Another key issue: Apple lists an 18-hour battery. In the real world, that likely translates into about 14 hours—especially when the device is new and people want to show it off as much as possible.

That’s not just a very different proposition than the years-long battery life of traditional wristwatches. It’s also lackluster as far as smartwatches go. Typically, most get a day to a day-and-a-half—some even go as long as a week. At least Apple offers a “Power Reserve” mode, which keeps basic timekeeping for up to three days. That’s probably where many Apple Watches will spend a good portion of their time.

For Whom The Watch Ticks

The watch’s complexity will also challenge some early customers. 

Instead of the app grids and folders iOS users are accustomed to, early adopters will face clusters of tappable dots that are, at first, easy to miss with your finger. You can use the “digital crown” (i.e., the scroll wheel) to magnify them, but it’s not obvious, intuitive or convenient. Users also have to acclimate to new inputs and interactions, including long-look notifications, glances, apps, taps, force presses, and when to use the digital crown button versus the side button.  

Some users will deal with the learning curve, but others used to Apple’s typical simplicity will likely find the watch overly confusing. 

Fitness tracking, one of the watch’s featured selling points, may spur another collection of deserters. The Apple Watch offers sapphire-laden sensors for presumably more accurate tracking, but that can’t change one immutable fact: Fitness just doesn’t appeal to everyone.

Even if it did, it has problems retaining users in the long-term. According to a study by Endeavor Partners, as many as one third of the participants who bought a fitness tracker lost interest within six months, and “more than half of U.S. consumers who have owned a modern activity tracker no longer use it.”

Notifications, another marquee smartwatch feature, also present more problems than solutions.   

Personally, I’ve reached “peak notification.” I keep my phone in “do not disturb” mode the majority of the time. Instead of allowing in constant distractions, I pull my phone out when it’s convenient—like when I’m waiting in line or in between tasks. I’m likely not alone. 

See also: Why Phone Notifications Don’t Belong On Your Wrist

Consider it a mental health safeguard: As time goes on, we better understand the detrimental effects of constant disruption on our productivity, and how bright screens affect our sleep. Given that, expect more people to look for ways to reduce the barrage of notifications, rather than make them more accessible. 

Personal, But Not Essential

Apple’s new wearable may be the company’s most “personal” device, as CEO Tim Cook puts it, but it’s not essential. That may be its biggest challenge. At a $350 starting price, it’s a costly item that nobody really needs, but which demands time and energy to maintain.

Unlike necessary tools like smartphones and laptops, the watch’s appeal might have to subsist on novelty for a while, making it more of an extravagance. In that way, it’s similar to the iPad, another Apple device that skeptics call redundant. But the tablet has one advantage that the watch doesn’t: You can use it casually and intermittently. 

I know several people who longer pick up their iPads regularly, but who still use them occasionally at home or for watching movies while traveling. This justifies their continued ownership, although not the purchase of new models. (These are the very people whose behavior resulted in declining iPad sales.)

Prospects for the Apple Watch prospects may be worse. There is no way to just casually use this or any other smartwatch. You are either all in—wearing it every day and charging it every night—or it will end up in your drawer, back at the Apple Store or for sale on eBay. 

That’s not to say Apple didn’t design an excellent smartwatch, one that might actually be the best one around. The build quality alone earns high marks, with options in aluminum, stainless steel and gold. Most will choose between the first two, with prices between $350 to $600. 

But even the lower end of this range still exceeds what most competing smartwatches cost. If someone doesn’t get continued use out of their Apple Watch, that financial investment may loom even larger and discourage future upgrades. 

See also: The Apple Watch Makes Its Play For The One Percent

I still plan on pre-ordering an Apple Watch along with millions of other people. But I can’t be at all sure how long I’ll stick with it.

Photos and product images courtesy of Apple

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How Asm.js Could Transfigure PC Gaming

Where do you spend most of your time on the computer? Chances are it’s probably the browser window. That’s where you check email and update social media, and where you watch videos and conduct research. You’re probably using it right now to read this article.

Developers know this to be the case, and that’s what led to the creation of asm.js, a Mozilla-developed subset of JavaScript designed to let users to launch everything from the browser window—even computationally intensive applications like games.

See also: HTML5’s “Dirty Little Secret”: It’s Already Everywhere, Even In Mobile

Asm.js—pronounced Azz-im jay es by Mozilla developers—is a highly optimized subset of Javascript designed to provide near-native application performance in a browser. Like all JavaScript, it runs in browsers without the need for any plugins.

And it’s starting to catch on. Early on, it only worked in Firefox; now Chrome has joined the bandwagon, and even Internet Explorer will do likewise soon. Microsoft said asm.js support was one of developers’ top 10 requests for Windows 10.

“Asm.js is well suited for any computationally intensive task on the Web,” said Dave Herman, Mozilla’s director of strategy for research. “Mozilla is seeing uptake of asm.js at places like Khan Academy, AutoDesk’s new tool, and photo editing solutions like Polarr.”

What Game Developers Want

Among those clamoring for asm.js, however, the voices of game developers are the loudest. At the forefront of the movement is Humble Bundle, the pay-what-you-want digital distributor that teamed up with Mozilla last fall to provide a number of games you can play in the browser.

That offering caught on with users, too. In two weeks, the bundle closed at more than half a million dollars in sales with more than 89,000 bundles sold. Now the company is gearing up for a second Humble Mozilla Bundle in 2015, bringing twice as many games to the browser.

“We ask ourselves at Humble Bundle, ‘why shouldn’t playing a game be as easy as watching a YouTube video?’” said cofounder John Graham. “These days, most computer users live in the browser. They should be able to play games in the browser, too.”

How It Works

Normally, if you want to play a video game on your computer, you can’t just click and go. You might run a DVD version of the game, or download a copy of the software from Steam or a similar service.

“Right now, you have to download an extension or an app manager,” said Graham. “Really, the browser could be handling all that for you. In general, I’m worried about the direction of app stores. Their deeper and deeper integration is turning the PC into more of an iPhone.”

With asm.js, Humble Bundle has been able to release a collection of games you can play by simply clicking a link in your browser. Asm.js has made it possible to compile the C/C++ code in which most computer games are developed into asm’s version of JavaScript, which browsers can then interpret natively, using the Emscripten compiler.

It’s no instant process, says Humble Bundle software developer Anthony Vaughn, but it’s no more difficult than porting a game written in C/C++ to Linux.

“If you think about the browser as another platform, you used to have to target Mac or Windows or Linux—now you just target asm.js,” said Vaughn. “Asm.js isn’t meant to be poked at by a human. It’s meant to be this layer you target. When you’re in C++ land building your own engine, you can deal with what you’re accustomed to and then have the Emscripten compiler produce your asm.js code. You don’t have to handpick or edit the JavaScript.”

What’s The Catch?

There’s no doubt that asm.js has the potential to revolutionize the way gamers play on the computer. But it’s not quite there yet.

For one thing, asm.js isn’t an improvement on JavaScript, but a subset of the language. It can only do what modern JavaScript can. So while it’s possible to load the Unreal Engine in your browser window, it still might take a while. This also means that you can’t expect the latest and greatest games in the browser using asm.js.

Plus, there are the technical difficulties some users have been experiencing with the Humble Bundle’s asm.js games as recently as November 2014. Vaughn said that the difficulty of porting a game to the Web with asm.js depends significantly on the way the game has been designed.

“Many games are made to update synchronously where most of their work is done such that every task that a game wants to do can’t start until the task before it has completed,” he said. “However, if you design a game for asm.js, you can have multiple tasks going on at once. So the game might be running a level, and while that’s happening, you can have it streaming audio, video, and pulling up another level in the background.”

Or to put it more simply, the game needs to have the ability to buffer.

“It’s like watching a YouTube video before the entire video is loaded,” Graham said. “If you can let if buffer while you watch, you get a smooth, continuous experience.”

Humble Bundle said the most difficult part of the process is where middleware is involved. Many game developers use middleware solutions to shortcut audio playback, UI rendering, and physics calculations. In his recent post on Gamasutra, Vaughn encouraged game developers to ask their favorite middleware options to come over to asm.js. Otherwise, these solutions need to be restructured in order to bring games to the browser.

These difficulties are a major reason why you’re not seeing more games in your browser right this minute. It’s up to pioneers like Humble Bundle to work out the kinks. According to Graham, it’s worth the effort.

“In one sense, asm.js is the most cross platform language there is.The browser is the most cross-compatible platform there is, and accessibility is very much part of the ethos of Humble Bundle,” he said.

Screenshot of the asm.js game “AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome” via Humble Bundle

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Google Now’s Open API Plans Could Spell Trouble for Siri And Cortana

Google personal digital assistant is about to get a whole lot more powerful. Google Now—which recommends websites, keeps track of reminders and appointments and acts as every Android-user’s personal digital butler—will soon provide developers with an open API, product director Aparna Chennapragada told an audience at SXSW on Saturday.

Just about every kind of app would be able to communicate with Google Now to provide even more tailored notifications and recommendations to users. As a result, Google might leave competitors from Apple and Microsoft choking on its digital dust.

User Activity To Guide Recommendations

Chennapragada explained that Google Now’s predictive abilities have gotten much smarter since the service first launched in 2012. At first, the Google Now team simply guessed what notifications and apps would be most useful. But after extensively polling users and their activity, the team has refined Now’s recommendations.

When Google offers the open API, however, there will be even more apps and notifications vying for Google Now’s affections. It’ll determine each user’s most pertinent notifications based on their app usage patterns.

Examples of how Google Now already works with over 30 third-party apps.

That sounds smart enough, though how it’ll work in practice remains to be seen. I still swipe away notifications on my Android Wear watch that I’ve told Google Now I don’t need. I’d put my Google Now success rate somewhere between 65 and 75 percent on a daily basis. Bringing even more competing apps to the party may make it even more difficult for users to cut through the noise to find their most important signals.

Siri And Cortana Then—But Google Now

Still, Chennapragada says that Google will be working on rolling out the open API between the next six to twelve months. That’s plenty of time for the team to work out the kinks as they continue to experiment with the 30-plus third-party apps that already communicate with Google Now.

Microsoft’s Cortana in action.

If there’s one area in which Google excels, it’s handling lots of data and giving users the best results. As Microsoft pursues plans to launch Cortana on other platforms, one of its biggest hurdles will be playing catch-up to Google Now’s huge head start. Forget Microsoft providing developers with an open API—Cortana actually needs to end up on people’s devices before the company can start providing the same depth of functionality.

Siri, meanwhile, isn’t leaving Apple’s iOS devices at all. Apple hasn’t done much to open Siri up to other apps, either. With Google Now also available on iOS, the forthcoming open API could give the service a huge edge on Apple’s platform, to say nothing of the millions of happy Android users getting more out of Google Now than ever before.

Images courtesy of Google; Cortana image courtesy of Microsoft

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How Virtual Reality Could Revolutionize Journalism

The man in the car next to me is on the phone with the police. Just beyond him on the grass, a teenager in a hoodie is moving erratically. He takes off and the man chases after him, despite the police urging him to sit tight.

It is, of course, the story of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. In the three years since Martin’s death, the #blacklivesmatter movement that sprung up in its wake has gone international and come to encompass many more unjust killings. It’s a story with which Americans have become sadly familiar.

But it was still jarring to be there at the moment of Martin’s death. Inside a Samsung Gear virtual reality headset at the River VR startup accelerator SXSW expo, I watched grainy security camera footage of Martin buying Skittles and juice at a 7-Eleven. Then my perspective jumped to an animated recreation of  Martin and Zimmerman’s first encounter. After the two figures ran out of view, I was transported into the apartments of witnesses as real 911 audio played. I jumped at the sound of the gunshot.

Immersive Journalism

The story is the work of Emblematic Group, a Los Angeles-based startup founded by veteran journalist Nonny de la Peña and game designer Michael Licht. de la Peña said they threw the Martin film together in just a few weeks to show what kind of national story Emblematic can do on a headset like Gear, which requires you to be stationary within VR.

“I felt that the story was representative of a larger issue that’s being reflected on in America right now,” de la Peña said. “I’ve been thinking about building it since it happened. I have a strong enough team now that we can just make stuff.”

She waved me into a back room, where the floor had been cleared for the startup’s demonstration. I donned Emblematic’s custom-made VR headset. Movement-tracking sensors jutted out of its top like a telephone pole. 

Emblematic’s custom-made virtual reality headset.

Emblematic, which has been around since 2007, built its custom headset back when there weren’t any options for interactive virtual reality. Being able to walk around a room just wasn’t possible with publicly available headsets. 

That’s changing. Both the HTC Vive, which was made in partnership with gaming company Valve, and Sony’s Project Morpheus headset allow the wearer to take steps and interact with the virtual world. de la Peña said Emblematic isn’t ruling out any platform. She agreed that Vive, which is the first option that opens up a whole room for movement, is particularly exciting.

A Rocket Strike In Syria

Inside the headset, I paced around an animated recreation of a city street in Syria. A young girl sang until a rocket hit, leveling the people and objects around me. The view then cut to a refugee camp.

de la Peña said the medium has brought her some controversy. At a recent filmmaker breakfast, her table was split on if virtual reality was a good fit or an impossible one for journalism. But de la Peña said that as soon as people try it, they’re converted.

My personal unease with the medium came from some of the storytelling techniques. I felt real horror at the sound of the bomb and gunshot. I felt sad as ghostly people began to fill the refugee camp around me, and my heart hurt for Martin when Zimmerman took off after him. But I didn’t come away with a deeper understanding of why.

Part of the reason Emblematic chose Martin’s story is because it has strong audio. There were many, many calls to the police that day, including Zimmerman’s chilling dialogue. Emblematic simply presented exactly what happened from the viewpoint of the witnesses narrating the shooting to 911. That’s journalism.

Becoming A Witness To Events

de la Peña said editorializing may be essential for some types of stories. Virtual reality has the potential to drop the viewer into any scene, or even put them in someone’s shoes. When the storyteller is free to help us see the world through Martin, or even Zimmerman’s, eyes, that’s when virtual reality gets taken to an entirely new level.

Emblematic has been working with a very small budget up until this point. With funding, it will be able to construct animated recreations that are more lifelike. It will diversify the types of stories it documents and look into shooting live action video. It will be able to build longer pieces that capitalize on the medium’s true potential: empathy. I want to understand Martin and Zimmerman, and Emblematic is close to delivering on that.

“I couldn’t do anything else with my life once I got involved with this field. It’s just so visceral and emotional and intense,” de la Peña said. “When you make stories, whether it’s journalistic or fiction, you’re really trying to take something that’s inside you and give people the experience you’re having in your mind. VR gets me closer to that than anything else.”

Screenshots courtesy of Emblematic; photo by Signe Brewster for ReadWrite

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Whisper Says It Doesn’t Track Your Exact Location—But It Still Could

Concerns over just how anonymous the secret-sharing app Whisper is are back in the news, and the company is once again suggesting that there’s no way it could track its users’ exact location. There’s just one problem: That’s almost certainly not true.

To be clear: Whisper emphatically denies that it tracks users that precisely. But that’s not the same thing as saying it can’t.

See also: Whisper’s Users May Not Be That Anonymous After All

Last October, the Guardian ignited a privacy firestorm with a series of report that claimed Whisper monitors the whereabouts of users—even those who had specifically opted out of location sharing—and could track their position within a 500-meter radius. Much of the furor surrounds the fact that Whisper knows and stores its users’ “IP addresses“—a numerical label that identifies a computer or smartphone to the Internet.

At the time, Whisper acknowledged that it has access to and stores user IP addresses, but disputed the Guardian’s specific claims that it used them to pinpoint user locations. Then on Wednesday, the Guardian issued a clarification of its original reports that, well, failed to clarify much of anything. It states, in part:

We reported that IP addresses can only provide an approximate indication of a person’s whereabouts, not usually more accurate than their country, state or city. We are happy to clarify that this data (which all Internet companies receive) is a very rough and unreliable indicator of location.

On Wednesday, Whisper thanked the Guardian for “issuing corrections and setting the record straight.” The company went on to insist that its service “is and always has been totally committed to the privacy of everyone who uses our product.”

From A Whisper To A Scream

The Guardian’s clarification, however, is itself inaccurate: It’s not all that difficult to precisely locate many individuals by IP address. And Whisper’s own previous statements make clear that the service collects all the data it would need to pinpoint the location of many users.

It’s just that Whisper is choosing not to do so—and is now apparently hiding behind the Guardian’s own inaccurate clarification to further obscure the issue.

“IP addresses can provide an exact location of a person’s whereabouts,” says Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s digital civil liberties team. That’s because while some IP addresses are in fact only loosely connected to specific geographic locations, many others—particularly those associated with Wi-Fi hotspots—are much easier to geolocate.

For instance, commercial outfits such as Skyhook Wireless can provide very specific location data based on hotspot IP addresses. Such companies have amassed large databases that correlate hotspot locations with the IP addresses they—and, by extension, anyone connected to the Wi-Fi network—use, via a combination of direct hotspot scanning and the cooperation of app “partners” who pass along hotspot IP data from users as they connect.

In other words, if you connect to Whisper over Wi-Fi, Whisper could turn to a service such as Skyhook to determine your specific address and even the floor you are on when using the app. By contrast, connecting to the app using your carrier’s network would deliver only your general location—typically the city, state and country you’re in. (That appears to be what the Guardian was clumsily getting at in its clarification.)

“Whisper currently does not and has never subscribed to a service like Skyhook,” a company spokesperson told me in an email. That, of course, wouldn’t preclude Whisper from doing so in the future.

A Low Whisper

When I asked Whisper for further clarification, the spokesperson declined to comment beyond the statements noted above and a reference to an October 2014 Medium post by Whisper founder and CEO Michael Heyward.

In that post, Heyward acknowledged that Whisper collects user IP addresses, although he said it deletes them after seven days. He implied that IP addresses could only be used to “infer your city, state and country,” adding that “[w]e do not actively track users.”

At roughly the same time, Whisper CTO Chad DePue similarly argued in a Hacker News post that the company uses an old “geoip database” to assign locations to IP addresses that is “so inaccurate as to be laughable.” DePue added that the company further randomizes location information before it saves it to its database.

DePue’s post drew this sardonic response from security research Moxie Marlinspike:

There’s a huge difference between “can’t” track and “won’t” track. Right now you’re claiming “can’t,” but it sounds like you’re squarely in the “won’t” category of having your servers “avert their eyes.” I think this understandably makes people uneasy, particularly given the data mining direction it sounds like the company is headed.

Users can prevent apps and websites from tracking their IP-address location data by using a VPN. But Whisper could also respect the wishes of users who opt out of providing their location to the app—which it has failed to do, according to the Guardian.

The EFF’s Cardozo argues it this way:

If a consumer tells an app not to collect the consumer’s location data, the app should respect that decision. If the app doesn’t respect that decision, especially if it gives the user a choice, I think that’s unfair.

Whisper says that even for someone who turns off location services, they’re doing rough location. That’s what their privacy policy says. I don’t think that’s appropriate. They don’t need to do geolocation on IP addresses. Frankly they don’t need to log IP addresses. There’s no technical reason they need to do that.

Lead image by Calsidyrose

View full post on ReadWrite

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