TIME Amazon

Amazon on Hachette Fight: Feel Free to Shop Elsewhere

Amazon.com Illustrations Ahead Of Earnings
Bloomberg/Getty Images

Amazon joins Hachette in a war of words, offers to help pay authors for lost royalties.

Amazon has finally commented on its nasty falling out with Hachette, which has seen the retailer reduce its stocks of the publisher’s books and refuse to take pre-orders for upcoming releases.

The message? This is just business, and if you don’t like it, you can take your business elsewhere.

“When we negotiate with suppliers, we are doing so on behalf of customers,” Amazon wrote in a forum post. “Negotiating for acceptable terms is an essential business practice that is critical to keeping service and value high for customers in the medium and long term.”

Amazon didn’t get into details on the disagreement, which has to do with the price of e-books, but the retailer said it affects roughly 1.1 percent of orders. Amazon says that’s a “small percentage,” but it’s not so tiny when you consider the vast array of products that Amazon sells, from toys to furniture to clothing.

Still, if you’re displeased with Amazon’s decision to play hardball with Hachette, you do have a choice: “If you do need one of the affected titles quickly, we regret the inconvenience and encourage you to purchase a new or used version from one of our third-party sellers or from one of our competitors,” Amazon said.

And just to smooth things over with affected authors, Amazon says it will fund 50 percent of an “author pool” to help offset lost royalties if Hachette agrees to pay the other half.

TIME Kickstarter

Reading Rainbow Raising $1 Million to Return As Online Show

The ambitious Kickstarter campaign is loaded with LeVar Burton-related perks.

Actor Levar Burton and the creators of Reading Rainbow are hoping that $1 million worth of nostalgia can help resurrect the popular children’s program.

You may remember Reading Rainbow–and its impossible-to-forget theme song–from its days as PBS television series, which Burton hosted from the beginning. PBS cancelled the show in 2006 and stopped airing reruns in 2009, but the program lives on as an iPad and Kindle Fire app.

Now, Burton and crew are trying to raise money on Kickstarter to build a web version of the show, along with a classroom version with teaching guides, dashboards and other tools. If the project gets funded, Burton says they can put Reading Rainbow into more than 1,500 disadvantaged schools for free.

As you might expect, the Kickstarter campaign is loaded with Burton-related rewards, such as a personalized photo and autograph ($250), a five to 10 minute phone call ($600) and a private dinner with the actor ($3,500). Deep-pocketed Star Trek buffs can also pay $10,000 for a dinner with Burton and a chance to wear the actual visor Burton wore as Geordi LaForge on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

$1 million is a tall order for a Kickstarter campaign, but it’s still a fraction of what some of the most-funded campaigns have earned. At the time of this writing, Reading Rainbow has raised nearly $45,000 with 35 days to go.

TIME Innovation

This Smartphone Nose Sniffs Out Meat Spoilage

peres-smartphone-meat-sniffing-gadget-510px
PERES

Is that slightly outdated package of meat in your fridge still good? The average human nose might not be able to accurately predict its freshness by smell alone, but modern technology can. That’s the claim behind PERES, a handheld smartphone accessory for your kitchen that sniffs meat to detect spoilage.

Specifically, PERES measures four things: Temperature, humidity, ammonia, and volatile organic compounds VOCs. It uses this data to detect whether meat is fresh and safe to eat. The device connects to your Android or iOS smartphone via Bluetooth, and works with most common types of meat – beef, poultry, pork and fish.

PERES is being offered through crowd-funding site IndieGogo, where it has already surpassed its $50,000 goal. The device is scheduled to enter mass production in October 2014 with an expected retail price of $150.

You can learn more about PERES by watching the promotional video below or visiting its IndieGogo page. For more cool kitchen tech, visit the Techlicious Kitchen page.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Video Games

Bethesda’s BattleCry Sounds a Little like an MOBA, but It’s Not

Bethesda would like you to know it’s going to release a free-to-play online game sporting 32-player battles somewhere down the road, and that it’ll be showing it off at E3 in a few weeks. No, not Robotech: Battlecry, or Warlords Battlecry, just BattleCry, capital C, and no, it’s no relation to The Elder Scrolls: Battlespire.

It takes its name from its eponymous design studio, launched in 2012 under owner ZeniMax Media’s wing and helmed by a ex-Bioware-ite Rich Vogel (who’s also worked on Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, so he’s been around the MMO block).

Bethesda calls BattleCry a “multiplayer action combat game,” which you’ll note stands for MACG, not MOBA. It’s intended to be a team-based combat game in an alternate history version of the early 20th century without guns (or gunpowder, anyway) designed by Viktor Antonov (the guy behind Dishonored, and before that, the art director for Half-Life 2). Instead of messy world wars, you settle your grudges in “warzones” led by teams of warriors trained for the occasion (in other words, Hugo meets The Hunger Games).

That’s the official revelation trailer above, and here’s Bethesda on the gameplay:

Choose your faction and progress your warrior through the ranks. Each rank unlocks new abilities and effects allowing deep strategic builds for your warrior on every level. Risk life and limb as the powerful Royal Marines or the fearless Cossacks in imaginative WarZones each designed to combine positioning, spacing and verticality to redefine your core combat experience. Fight with transformative melee and ranged weapons that harness iron and energy and eviscerate your opponents with swords that transform into shields, bows that can punch an arrow straight through an armored skull or electrocute your foes with high powered blades crackling with electro-static energy.

TIME Apple

Report: Apple-Beats Still Happening, But for a Little Less Cash

The Apple logo hangs inside the glass entrance to the Apple Store on 5th Avenue in New York City,
The Apple logo hangs inside the glass entrance to the Apple Store on 5th Avenue in New York City, April 4, 2013. Mike Segar—Reuters

Apple’s rumored acquisition of Beats may finally become official this week, unnamed sources tell the New York Post.

But instead of paying $3.2 billion as first reported by the Financial Times, the Post says Apple will offer $3 billion. One source said Apple hadn’t even done its due diligence yet when news of the acquisition first leaked, and the relatively tiny number of Beats Music subscribers may have driven the price down over the last few weeks. According to one report, Beats’ streaming service has just 110,000 paid subscribers, compared to 10 million for competitor Spotify.

Even at $3 billion, the acquisition would be Apple’s largest ever. The prevailing theories about the Apple/Beats deal are that Apple is interested in Beats’ luxury (and highly profitable) headphone business, its cultural cachet and the talent of co-founders Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, who may have better luck negotiating music and video content deals on Apple’s behalf.

Although the Post reports that Apple could announce a deal this week, a reveal at next week’s Worldwide Developers Conference may be more appropriate. The Post says both Iovine and Dre will be in attendance.

TIME Reviews

Watch Dogs Review: City of Interest

Watch Dogs was supposed to be this grand genre-bending hacking game, but you'll do almost nothing of the sort. And that's a good thing, though what you do instead -- mostly shooting, sneaking and speeding around a fantasy version of Chicago -- dithers between inspired and imitative.

There’s the node I’m looking for. Swivel. The smartphone-controlled security camera sights my target across the industrial yard, but can’t quite home in. That target — a hackable security access panel — lies behind corrugated steel sprayed in graffiti, obstructing my view by inches. I’m stuck. But then I notice a security guard with a portable camera patrolling nearby. Lucky!

I aim, tap a button and leap through space, soaring over rusted containers, witchgrass, hunks of concrete, wood-slat pallets, through thrumming rain, nesting at last in the guard’s camera and pivoting to my new vantage — his vantage. He turns and walks a few steps in the direction I need him to. There we go. Swivel. The panel’s now an arm’s length away. Jackpot.

That’s Watch Dogs when it’s in the zone, when I was in the zone playing it, and where Ubisoft’s action-stealth game — starring you as the sort of MacGyver-ish antihero you’d get if you merged Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson’s characters in Person of Interest — starts to feel like it’s firing on balletic cyber-cylinders, delivering on its promise to make me the World’s Coolest Hacker. It does that for maybe two-thirds of its five-act story. And as the song goes, two out of three ain’t bad.

But then it heads in the other direction, the one you see overambitious games sometimes go, backpedaling on its promises and permutations, under-delivering on a story that sparks and fizzles toward its sequel-ready ending, and worse, sacrificing all those tactical gains to the gods of gameplay clichés. Hoo-boy, that ending. If you’re observant, you’ll see it coming a mile away, and I mean that both figuratively and literally.

I don’t want to sound too glum a note, because some of the online stuff’s a hoot, and Ubisoft’s world-building is second to none at a time when the bar’s been set pretty high. So let’s talk about the world-building.

Network-connected cameras glass every inch of this paranoid, scrupulously designed rendition of Chicago: the flat, skyscraper-lined lakeshore metropolis you know, as well as the one you don’t — the one surrounded by forests, cliffs, waterfalls and antigovernment militias. Ubisoft’s imaginary Chicago is the Windy City by way of Portland or Seattle, all its flat suburban sprawl swapped for hilly timberland perimeter — less simulation than homage, and the studio’s way of ensuring its playground’s full of stuff to look at or do, whether you’re rubbernecking the Willis Tower or screwing around miles from downtown.

That includes the city’s cybernetic thoroughfares, every byway, building and mobile device slaved to a single operating system you can hack and manipulate in real time as your skills grow. Sure, the notion’s more the wishful thinking of a Franken-CEO built from the egos of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg. But Watch Dogs isn’t concerned with being politically insightful, and the rare moments it tries feel more like anvils dropped on your head. We get that nothing’s impregnable, don’t we? That whatever we put in the cloud isn’t really secure? Turning control of your city’s infrastructure over to a monolithic operating system would be suicidal…or a necessary gameplay conceit, if you want to give players godlike powers without the pointy hat and staff.

Not that any of those powers resemble actual hacking. Whatever’s been made of Ubisoft working with security outfit Kaspersky to ensure the game’s story was plausible, hacking’s smoke and metaphor here. That’s not criticism. Real-world hacking — the sort companies like Sony, Facebook, Microsoft and most recently eBay have been subject to — is tedious and complex. It has no business being in an open-world action game. Hacks in Watch Dogs are like crossing the finish line without having to run the marathon. They’re just spells from a spell book.

Take hacking cameras, which you do by aiming and tapping a button. That’s all there is to it, which is so you can focus on what Watch Dogs is really about: sneaking around and spooking the bad guys. Cameras are insertion points for tactical tableaus, the contrivance being that you have to be able to see what you want to hack.

You’ll thus spend much of the game disembodied, hopping around the battlefield camera to camera like a cyber-poltergeist, triggering hazards or distractions — like cranking the volume in a guard’s headset to ear-splitting levels or pulling the virtual pin on someone’s belted grenade. It’s combat through a laboratory lens.

You can clear a battlefield without firing a shot, for instance, or prep a battlefield before initiating gunplay, or ignore the battlefield outright in some instances. What happens if you disrupt that guard? Distract another? Can you get two or three to walk under that droppable shipping container? Send the lot off to one side of the field so you can sneak down the other side? And failure’s never a penalty. It’s a reward, an opportunity to poke the beehive with a different stick. Battles — the ones that take place as walled-off tactical vignettes, anyway — are the best parts of Watch Dogs.

The hackable city-scape makes less of an impression. The idea here’s that you’re playing Grand Theft Auto, racing cars, trucks and motorbikes around the city, usually to get away from the cops or enemy fixers (the game’s slang for hackers), only you’re able to hack canal bridges, traffic lights, security gates, helicopters in pursuit, steam pipes, spike strips and “blockers” that erupt from the street like jail bars. It’s cool the first two or three times you confound a scrum of pursuers, but enemies in the game are dogged enough that hacks only slow them down a bit — even at lower notoriety levels, they’re incredibly hard to shake. And once you realize the A.I. can’t swim or do much over water, every chase becomes a beeline to the lake (someone forgot to give the police speedboats).

The rest feels pretty much like any other Ubisoft game, the world filled with optional activities — most of which you’ve seen before — when you’re not working through the story. The obligatory augmented reality and QR code games put in an appearance, the latter one of the Riddler’s line-of-sight matching puzzles lifted from the Batman Arkham series. There’s Assassin’s Creed‘s city tour mini-game as well as the same old towers you’ll have to breach to unlock regional content. You can follow side-investigations down their little rabbit holes, intercept convoys, thwart random crimes, infiltrate gang hideouts, play chess, and of course buy clothes and weapons and crafting supplies that’ll let you jury rig IEDs and grenades or scramble police scans.

But even there, the stuff that sounds cool is just technospeak for old school gameplay shenanigans. Take blackouts, which cut the power to parts of the city and give you a chance to get away from your opponents. Entire skyscrapers go dark when you do this, flickering to blackness for half a minute, which looks cool, but in the end it’s a getaway gimmick. You might as well be tossing a smoke pellet.

That leaves the game’s hybrid online modes, which let you invade other players’ game sessions and try to tail them for a period of time unobserved, or race against them, or play a timed game of hide-and-seek, or compete on teams to find a hidden object. You’ve seen most of that in games before, too, but it’s done unusually well and white-knuckled here, the game wisely forcing you to risk all or nothing: You either have online mode enabled, slowly accruing (or losing) notoriety points that unlock new skills while remaining vulnerable to invasion at any time, or you have it off, which zeroes out your notoriety point tally.

It’s just a shame that so much about Watch Dogs feels like Ubisoft playing catchup to Rockstar — like a cover band with one or two originals. City homage games might as well be their own genre now, but they’ll need more than car chases and gunplay and clothing stores and weapon shops and all their little lookalike diversions if we don’t want “open-world” to become another pejorative term we use to express our boredom with a genre, like “first-person shooter.”

3 out of 5

PlayStation 4

TIME Video Games

Valve’s Answer to Xbox and PlayStation Isn’t Happening This Year

Valve

Steam Machines get pushed back to 2015, and the controller takes the blame.

Valve has delayed its push into the game console business, saying the first Steam Machines won’t arrive until some time next year.

In a forum post spotted by Ars Technica, Valve’s Eric Hope explained that the company needs more time to complete its unique controller, which trades standard thumbsticks for touch sensitive pads. Valve is currently testing the controllers and gathering feedback, Hope wrote, but it’ll be a while before any improvements are in place. Although Valve had originally planned to ship Steam Machines and the controller in 2014, the company is realistically looking at a “release window of 2015,” Hope wrote.

“Obviously we’re just as eager as you are to get a Steam Machine in your hands,” he wrote. “But our number one priority is making sure that when you do, you’ll be getting the best gaming experience possible.”

Valve’s controller has already seen one big change since its announcement last fall: Instead of having a touch screen in-between the two touch pads, it’ll use a more typical a directional pad and four face buttons.

As announced in September, Steam Machines will be able to run games from Valve’s popular Steam PC gaming service, as long as they support Linux. For all other games, players can stream them from another PC elsewhere in the house.

TIME facebook

Facebook Seeks EU Approval of WhatsApp Deal to Avoid Antitrust Headaches

The $19 billion acquisition isn't done just yet, as Facebook still needs regulatory approval in Europe.

Facebook has asked the European Commission to perform an antitrust review of its $19 billion WhatsApp acquisition, the Wall Street Journal reports. Such approval could help Facebook avoid dealing with numerous antitrust probes from European countries.

By getting approval at the EU level, Facebook may be able to avoid probes by individual countries, where national telecom companies may lobby aggressively to break up the deal. WhatsApp, which lets users exchange unlimited messages for $1 per year, has been hugely disruptive to the traditional text messaging business, especially outside the U.S.

In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission approved the deal in April under the condition that Facebook and WhatsApp give notice and get permission to share information beyond their existing privacy settings.

TIME Technologizer

Square Banks on Cash Advances for Small Businesses

Bloomberg San Francisco
Square CEO Jack Dorsey demonstrating a Square reader at Square headquarters in San Francisco, June 14, 2013. Jeff Chiu—AP

The commerce startup aims to simplify a business with a not-so-great image

Among the various ways that a small business can get access to funds, the cash advance—borrowing against money which a company hasn’t yet made, then paying it back as a percentage of future sales—doesn’t have the best of reputations. Typically, it’s a last-ditch measure taken by a company which can’t convince a bank that it’s a good prospect for a loan, and the fees involved can be steep and complicated.

Depending on how you look at it, that makes it an odd business for Square to enter—as it’s doing with a new service called Square Capital—or a logical one. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s startup, after all, sees its purpose in life as bringing elegant simplicity to transactions which are usually neither simple nor elegant, as it did with its tiny credit-card swiper. And the whole idea of Square Capital is to make cash advances a more straightforward, respectable funding option.

Among the unusual things about Square Capital is the application process—or lack thereof. A company can’t seek an advance. Instead, Square reaches out to prospective businesses which it’s picked as good candidates based on the their statistics as revealed through the sales they’ve processed using Square.

“We send an offer to the seller based on our holistic understanding of their business,” says Gokul Rajaram, Square’s head of product.

Square is also aiming to make the math involved in an advance transparent. As an example, Rajaram says that Square might offer a small business a $10,000 advance. The total payback might be $11,000–making the cost of the advance $1,000–and Square might hold back 5 percent of the business’s sales through Square until it’s recouped the $11,000. A merchant who accepted this deal would receive the money as soon as the next day, and then would monitor it through the same dashboard used for other Square tasks.

All of those figures are hypothetical: Square says that the advances, fees and payback percentages will all vary from offer to offer. That makes it tough to make any sweeping generalizations about how costly an option Square Capital is compared to other sources of small-business funding, from banks to startups such as Dealstruck, Kabbage and OnDeck.

Unlike a loan with an interest rate and fixed payments, one of the advantages of a cash advance is that the pace of the repayment auto-adjusts itself to reflect cashflow, since it’s based on a percentage of sales. If a business boomed after receiving the advance, it might end up paying back the advance more quickly than it expected; if it went through a seasonal lull, or sales turned just plain lousy, the payments would be smaller and the process would take longer. Rajaram says that the goal is to offer amounts which typically will take around ten months to repay.

Square says that it’s already advanced tens of millions to small companies in Square Capital’s pilot phase, such as New York-based coffee chain Cafe Grumpy; San Francisco comic-book collectible shop ZeroFriends; and Follicle Hair Salon, another San Francisco business which used two advances to buy twelve new chairs, each of which can bring in an additional $5,000-$8,000 in sales per month. “It’s part of our broader mission of helping sellers grow,” Rajaram told me.

Among the growing companies which Square Capital might help is Square itself, which has lately been looking to sources of revenue beyond the 2.75 percent processing fee it collects on transactions handled with its card reader. Earlier this month, for instance, it announced Square Feedback, a service for collecting and addressing comments from customers.

The company acknowledges that it’s currently losing money–it’s still in a mode of investment and expansion rather than focusing on turning an immediate profit–and its own financial future is the subject of constant speculation, including rumors of everything from it getting ready to go public to shopping itself to potential acquirers. The more well-rounded its offerings, the brighter its future could end up being.

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