TIME Courts

Supreme Court Cloudy on Aereo Streaming TV Case

Chet Kanojia, founder and CEO of Aereo, Inc., stands next to a server array of antennas in New York, Dec. 20, 2012.
Chet Kanojia, founder and CEO of Aereo, Inc., stands next to a server array of antennas in New York, Dec. 20, 2012. Bebeto Matthews—AP

The justices considered arguments around a tech startup that is capturing free over-the-air broadcast signals and selling them to consumers on the cheap, without paying networks the hefty retransmission fees they get from cable companies

There was a lot of talk Tuesday at the Supreme Court about the future of television—how we will watch it, how we will pay for it, and whether, crucially, the old broadcast model will be blown up for good. While such rhetoric is usually overwrought, in this particular case—American Broadcasting Companies vs. Aereo—it’s actually justified. If the court decides in favor of Aereo, a small, Brooklyn-based TV-streaming tech startup, it could have the effect of destroying traditional broadcasters’ business model, and fundamentally reshaping the way the TV industry operates.

Aereo captures free, over-the-air TV signals with thousands of small antennas that are rented to individual users, and it transmits that content to customers online for a small monthly fee—without paying broadcasters the so-called retransmission fees cable companies pay them to provide their channels to cable customers. While Aereo founder Chet Kanojia has publicly tussled with the big broadcasters over whether such a disruption is good for consumers—Kanojia says it will free viewers from pricey cable bills but the big broadcasters disagree—the Supreme Court on Tuesday homed in on another question entirely. Namely, this one: If it’s legal for someone to put bunny ear antennae on his roof and watch TV for free, and it’s legal for him to record that free TV onto a DVR (or an old school Sony Betamax VCR, for that matter) so he can watch it again later with friends, then does it matter, from a legal perspective, whether he actually owns that antennae, or that he is in possession of a physical DVR?

The antennae farm across town and a “DVR” based in the cloud, Aereo argues, are legally no different from the old antenna and VCR.

ABC, backed by CBS, NBC, FOX, and the U.S. Justice Department, says: not so fast. They argue that by capturing copyrighted television programming and then transmitting it back to thousands, or tens of thousands, of users, Aereo is acting exactly like a cable company and should pay retransmission fees.

The justices didn’t offer much in the way of clues as to how they might rule during hour-long oral arguments Tuesday. A ruling is expected in the summer.

Aereo’s lawyer David C. Frederick insisted repeatedly Tuesday that the company does not “perform” anything; it is nothing more than an “equipment provider.” ABC’s lawyer, Paul D. Clement, scoffed at the idea. Of course Aereo is “performing,” he said; to suggest otherwise “is just crazy.” Clement argued that Aereo—by essentially plucking copyrighted material out of the sky, selling access to that copyrighted material back to subscribers, and refusing to pay copyright royalties—is attempting to “get something for nothing. … It’s like magic.”

The justices’ questioning returned repeatedly to the implications that any decision on this case will have for cloud computing as a whole. If an individual downloads a video onto the cloud using a popular application, like Dropbox or iCloud, and then accesses it later and watches it on his computer, then does that also amount to, as Justice Elena Kagan asked, “public performance?” Both Aereo and ABC appeared to agree that an individual user of the cloud should not be required to pay royalties when he watches, say, an episode of The Sopranos that he has already purchased.

Clement urged the justices not to try not to “solve the problem of the cloud once and for all” in this one case. He instead attempted to steer the discussion toward what he characterized as a common sense interpretation of copyright law.

Frederick, by contrast, relished the cloud debate, warning the justices that if they decide in favor of the big broadcasters, they run the risk of fundamentally undermining the business model of the cloud. “If you turn every playback into a ‘public performance,’” he said, that will have “huge implications” for cloud-based businesses.

“The court’s decision today will have significant consequences for cloud computing,” Frederick said in a statement following oral arguments. “We’re confident, cautiously optimistic, based on the way the hearing went today that the Court understood that a person watching over-the-air broadcast television in his or her home is engaging in a private performance and not a public performance that would implicate the Copyright Act.”

TIME Technologizer

WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum on the Company’s Latest Milestone: 500 Million Active Users

Jan Koum
WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum shows off his personal phone at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 24, 2014 Angel Navarette / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Not yet part of Facebook, which is still in the process of buying it, or a household name in the U.S., the messaging app is continuing to grow, and grow and grow, adding around 25 million new active users every month

When Facebook announced its stunning agreement to acquire messaging app WhatApp last February for $19 billion in stock, cash and restricted stock units, Mark Zuckerberg said that the startup was on track to reach a billion users. That pretty much explained his interest: It’s a figure that doesn’t come up often when discussing networked services other than…well, Facebook.

As of today, it’s official: WhatsApp is halfway there.

In a blog post today, it’s announcing that the app has 500 million users–not just people who registered, but ones who are active participants. I recently sat down with CEO and cofounder Jan Koum at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. to talk about the news.

Judging from its periodic statements over the past year, WhatsApp has been adding around 25 million new active users every month, a pace that isn’t slowing. The 500 million people now on board send tens of billions of text messages a day, along with 700 million photos and 100 million videos.

“On one hand, we were kind of expecting it,” Koum says of reaching the half-billion mark. “We got to 200 million users, 300 million users, 400 million users. It was going to happen sooner or later. But we think it’s an exciting number to share with the world and a good milestone to acknowledge what’s all been organic growth.”

In the U.S., WhatsApp is still probably best known as that company Facebook is in the process of buying. (The FTC signed off on the sale earlier this month–while emphasizing that WhatsApp must continue to abide by privacy promises it made to users–but other regulatory approvals are still pending internationally.) In much of the world, though, it’s already the app all your friends and relatives are using instead of carrier-provided text messaging.

Koum says that the app’s torrid growth tracks with the boom of smartphones–especially Android models. As people in a country join the smartphone era, some of them get WhatsApp. And then their friends and family members do, too, and the service explodes.

WhatsApp’s Android version WhatsApp

Right now, “the four big countries are Brazil, Mexico, India and Russia,” he says. “People who never used computers, never used laptops, never used the Internet are signing up.”

Rather than going after any particular country, Koum says, WhatsApp has always obsessed about the overall usage number. “We’re pretty confident that eventually we will a reach tipping point in the U.S. as well. Russia only tipped in the last six months. A switch flipped, and we took off.”

Though WhatsApp’s customer base may skew towards young people who like to share lots of quick messages and lots of photos, Koum says that it’s a mistake to assume that it’s just kids who are keeping the app growing. “We hear lots of stories where grandparents go to a store and buy a smartphone so they can keep in touch with kids and grandkids,” he says. That dynamic is helped by the app’s ridiculously easy setup–you don’t even have to create a user name or password–and features such as the ability to adjust the font size for easy readability.

The growth in smartphones isn’t enough to keep WhatsApp growing, however. There may be roughly two billion smartphones in the world, Koum notes, but between 500 million and one billion of them may be used without a data plan. In most cases, that’s because of cost, but the availability of Internet access isn’t a given everywhere.

“We take [connectivity] for granted in Silicon Valley, where you turn on your phone and see twenty different Wi-Fi networks,” he says. He told me how moved he’d been by a National Geographic photo showing people in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa standing on a beach with their phones in outstretched arms, trying to catch a stray wireless signal from neighboring Somalia, and says that he’s passionate about efforts such as Internet.org, a partnership between Facebook and mobile technology companies to bring Internet access to everybody, everywhere.

“We have no plans to change anything about how we execute.”Even in developed countries, “not everybody is on a data plan, which is unfortunate,” he says. So for the past two and a half years, WhatsApp has been busy partnering with wireless carriers around the world to offer affordable access to its service.

“We’ve done some really cool deals, and they’re not all cookie-cutter,” Koum explains. In India, you can sign up to get unlimited WhatsApp for 30 cents a month. In Hong Kong, you can buy a WhatsApp roaming pass. In Germany, there are WhatsApp-branded SIM cards, with unlimited WhatsApp service and starter credits for voice and data.

Rather than carriers looking at WhatsApp solely as a scary, disruptive force killing their ability to make money off text messaging, such offerings turn the service into a “win-win-win,” Koum says. “Users get unlimited WhatsApp. We get happy users who don’t have to worry about data. Carriers get people willing to sign up for data plans.”

The Future–and Oh Yeah, Facebook

For all of its growth, WhatsApp remains a famously lean operation: It got those 500 million active users with a team that only recently reached 60 staffers, for a ratio of over eight million users per employee. Koum says that the company doesn’t need to grow huge to serve even more folks. But “we do need more people–we’re actively hiring,” he says.

In particular, it’s beefing up its ability to provide customer support in more languages, including Portuguese, German, Ukranian, Polish and Romanian. “If anyone reading this article speaks multiple languages, they should apply,” he jokes.

When news of the Facebook acquisition broke, it inspired many people to worry about what it meant for the future of WhatsApp, whose business model has had a decidedly un-Facebookian slant in the past. The company makes money from customers–who pay 99 cents a year for service after the first year–and has been staunchly anti-advertising.

Both companies said at the time that WhatsApp would continue to be run independently and according to its existing principles, a point Koum stressed when I asked him about it.

“What makes our product work is the way we’re tightly focused on messaging and being an SMS replacement,” he says. The company plans to stick with that approach as it looks to “continuing to get to a billion users, and then two billion users. I think Facebook understands that, and Mark [Zuckerberg] understands that quite well. We have no plans to change anything about how we execute.”

As for competition from other messaging apps–and boy, is there a lot of it–Koum told me that some of WhatsApp’s rivals, such as Japan’s Line and China’s WeChat, are getting distracted from their core missions. People use WhatsApp, he says, to “keep in touch with each other, not movie stars or sports stars or random people you meet on the Internet. That’s why we’re succeeding internationally.”

“We want to do one thing and do it really well. For us, that’s communications between people who are friends and relatives.”

TIME video

30-Second Tech Trick: Delete Accounts You Don’t Use Anymore

Here's how to search your email to find a list of accounts you've opened so you can close the ones you don't use.

TIME Smartphones

Older Americans Are Buying Smartphones

Grandma is no longer cell phone illiterate, according to a new poll

America’s elders are getting in on the smartphone craze.

Fifty-one percent of American mobile subscribers age 55 and older own a smartphone, according to a new poll. That’s a 10% increase from early 2013 and marks the first time that a majority of all age groups with mobile phones have owned smartphones, according to the the Nielsen survey.

Seven out of 10 now own smartphones, and 85% opt for them when shopping for a new phone.

Apple continues to reign as the largest smartphone manufacturer, with 42% of smartphone owners opting for Apple products, according to the survey. Most smartphones in the U.S. run on Google’s Android operating system (which works across devices made by a variety of manufacturers), and 19% are made by Samsung. BlackBerry devices are continuing to fall out of favor, and Windows Phone handsets only make up 3% of all American smartphones.

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TIME Rumors

Tilt Interface for Amazon’s Rumored 3D Phone Sounds Neat, and Hopefully Not Aggravating

Using a combination of cameras, sensors and software, Amazon might solve the biggest problem with oversized smartphones.

One thing that’s never been clear about Amazon’s rumored 3D head-tracking smartphone is how it would rise above cheap gimmickry and actually prove useful.

Now, Boy Genius Report has a possible explanation:

By tilting the handset in different directions while the device is in use, Amazon’s interface will display additional information on the screen without the user having to touch or tap anything. This will not only be a point of differentiation for the company’s phone lineup, but also a way for larger devices such as Amazon’s upcoming 4.7-inch flagship phone to be operated more comfortably with one hand.

BGR’s “trusted sources” provide some examples of how the Amazon phone could work: You might be able to tilt the phone in the Kindle app to bring up Amazon’s X-Ray feature, which provides supplemental information about what you’re reading. You could potentially tilt in the messaging app to bring up a panel of camera options, or tilt in the maps app to see Yelp ratings atop your search results. Even the phone’s menu system could be tilt-based, letting users slide a panel of options onto the screen by twisting the phone.

The immediate concern here is that all the tilt detection would become an aggravation. You wouldn’t want a bunch of menus to pop out of nowhere just because you shifted your weight.

But I very much like the idea of tilting a big phone to bring far-flung elements within reach. Larger smartphone screens are wonderful for many reasons, but do require some contortion of the hands and thumbs for one-handed use. Being able to tilt a distant button into thumb range could be just the solution that no one’s thought of yet–as long as it actually works.

TIME Video Games

Let’s Hope Dragon Age: Inquisition Finally Has Dragon Age Figured Out

With any luck, BioWare's third-in-series action roleplaying game will remedy the last installment's over-simplistic combat and drab, recycled locations.

I’ve liked none of the Dragon Age games. Not even the first. But I’d have to say I enjoyed the first immeasurably more than its lazy sequel, which conjured feelings of loathing by the time I was ticking off the game’s last few achievements and rolling through its embarrassingly recycled cityscapes for the umpteenth time to experience all of its tedious alternative denouements.

In October 2009, when I spoke with Dragon Age: Origins‘ lead designer, Mike Laidlaw, I asked him about something he’d said elsewhere: He wanted the game to be the HBO of RPGs (he also referenced George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” books, which hadn’t transitioned to television yet, but everyone already thought of as exemplary):

Specifically, we wanted to remove the sense that the fantastic is casual, and to present the fantastic as something that for the common man, for the everyman is still very much fantastic. Almost terrifying, in fact. One of the key tropes we’re trying to upend is that lightweight lack of consequences feel that can happen in fantasy. It’s like “Oh, he’s dead… But it’s okay! Because we resurrected him!” No one ever talks about the near death experience or the tunnel of light or like in real life, the survivors going “Oh my god!” You know, we’re talking an inconceivably intense experience.

But when I finally played the game, it felt nothing like the HBO of anything, mistaking mere blood splatter for maturity, and foisted-upon-you consequences for meaningful ones, and overwrought, cliched fantasy banter (by writer David Gaider) about mature topics for artful storytelling. (Fair warning, I’m a literary snob: I’m looking for Cormac McCarthy and Gene Wolfe and Jorges Luis Borges and Alan Moore and China Mieville all the time, and why should games get a pass?)

I want to think the best of Dragon Age: Inquisition, though Laidlaw returns as lead designer and Gaider as lead writer. It doesn’t feel like a Dragon Age game in the trailer above, though it’s obviously trotting out the horse-beaten amnesiac hero shtick about random-person-you surviving a calamity and having no memory of why. If the gameplay turns out to be intriguing, of course, all bets are off, because I can play the heck out of a Final Fantasy VII or X or XIII (or Fallout 3, or Diablo III, or Baldur’s Gate II) and just let the first-rate game systems override the unimaginative storytelling.

In any case, the other pullout you’ll be interested to note here: the trailer confirms Dragon Age: Inquisition will ship on October 7 (for Windows, PS4, Xbox One, PS3 and Xbox 360).

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Internet

This Is AT&T’s Plan to Smother Google Fiber

A view shows the AT&T store sign in Broomfield, Colorado
Rick Wilking / REUTERS

AT&T says it wants to explore ways to offer gigabit broadband service to 21 U.S. cities -- in a direct challenge to Google Fiber -- but some skeptics aren't buying it

AT&T’s plan to examine ways to deliver gigabit Internet service to 21 U.S. cities was greeted with skepticism on Monday, as some prominent critics accused the broadband giant of misleading consumers.

AT&T’s initiative is the latest evidence that Google’s Fiber project is spurring major broadband providers to at least pay lip service to gigabit speeds, which are 100 times faster than regular U.S. Internet connections.

AT&T’s announcement, which did not actually contain a pledge to build out gigabit service anywhere, comes two weeks after the company said it wants to offer super-fast Internet service to six North Carolina cities, and two months after Google said that it was considering expanding its gigabit initiative to the North Carolina communities of Charlotte, Chapel Hill and Raleigh-Durham.

“Communities that have suitable network facilities, and show the strongest investment cases based on anticipated demand and the most receptive policies will influence these future selections and coverage maps within selected areas,” AT&T said in a press release.

Not everyone is convinced. Shortly after AT&T’s announcement, three veteran tech policy journalists, Stacey Higginbotham at Gigaom, Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica, and Karl Bode at DSL Reports, urged skepticism about the broadband giant’s plans. Each reporter used some variant of the phrase “before you get too excited” to emphasize that AT&T hasn’t actually promised to build anything.

“Hey AT&T, enough with the gigawashing!” Higginbotham wrote. She pointed out that in her home market of Austin, Texas, AT&T isn’t even delivering on the gigabit promises it’s already made. Given that fact, “Ma Bell should have some explaining to do before these 21 cities get too excited about their hoped-for gigabit service,” Higginbotham wrote.

Brodkin, at Ars Technica, pointed out that AT&T — by its own admission — says that the “expanded fiber build is not expected to impact AT&T’s capital investment plans for 2014.” That seems odd, because laying fiber lines — or buying them from existing dark fiber owners — is very capital-intensive. It also raises the question of why AT&T hasn’t moved to boost broadband speeds earlier, if the necessary investment is so trivial.

Bode, at DSL Reports, was even harsher, calling AT&T’s announcement a “big fat bluff” that constitutes another example of what he calls “fiber to the press release.” In other words, AT&T is using the groundswell of national interest in gigabit broadband speeds to promote its existing service, despite the fact that the broadband giant has yet to deliver what it previously promised.

“We’re in the heart of the age of ‘fiber to the press release’ and 1 Gbps mania, where all you need to do is simply mention 1 Gbps and you get a ticker-tape parade and a statue in the town square without having to deliver a single byte,” Bode wrote. “AT&T’s certainly counting on that reaction from the press and public.”

For years, major broadband companies have insisted that consumers neither need nor want gigabit Internet speeds. Now that Google has demonstrated that there is intense demand for super-fast broadband service, AT&T is singing a different tune. But until AT&T actually delivers on its existing gigabit promises, it’s worth taking the company’s announcements with a dose of skepticism.

TIME Gadgets

LG’s Android Smartwatch Promises an ‘Always-On’ Display

LG

LG has some kind of answer to the smartwatch battery problem.

LG has put up a teaser page for the G Watch, revealing that the Android Wear-based smartwatch will have an “always-on” display.

That’s a big difference from Samsung’s slew of Galaxy Gear watches, which keep the screen turned off until you flick your wrist upwards.

LG doesn’t explain what technology it’s using for its always-on screen, but a couple possibilities come to mind: It could be a “transflective” LCD screen, like the one on Sony’s SmartWatch 2. The SmartWatch 2’s color display can last for days on a charge, but it does go into grayscale mode to save power when it’s not actively in use. Another potential option would be Qualcomm’s Mirasol display technology, which can stay on for days in full color. We’ve yet to see Mirasol in a mass market product, but Qualcomm sells an experimental Mirasol-based watch, called Toq, for $250.

LG also said the watch will be water and dust resistant, and will come in both black with a black wrist strap and “champagne gold” with a white strap.

Power efficiency is one of the big issues facing current smartwatches, as size constraints leave little room for a decent-sized battery. In lieu of long-lasting, full color, inexpensive display technology, watch makers have had to make hard choices about screen quality versus battery life.

The first Android Wear watch makers seem to be aware of these problems, though they’ve been cagey about their solutions. Motorola has suggested that it solved the battery dilemma with some kind of power management technology in its upcoming Moto G, allowing the company to use a very small battery. But again, the details are unclear.

We’ll get some concrete answers in the next two or three months, when LG and Motorola are expected to launch their smartwatches. In the meantime, read all about why Android Wear seems pretty clever.

TIME Web

Reddit Demotes Technology Section to Punish Lazy Moderators

reddit
Carlos Osorio -- Toronto Star / Getty Images

The r/technology subreddit that's typically promoted on the homepage of the site, which is committed to unfettered dialogue, has been downgraded amid claims its moderators were using automatic filters to censor topics ranging from "Comcast" to "NSA" to "Snowden"

Imagine, in whatever business, the president of the company demoting an entire department — something major like marketing or risk management or supply, for underperforming or simply screwing up. Not firing and replacing the department head, or laying off a bunch of meddling middle-managers, but downgrading the whole caboodle (and, weirdly, leaving its management intact). One minute the entire department has a seat at the president’s table, the next it’s skulking in a corner somewhere, otherwise un-messed-with, but warned to sort itself out on its own terms before returning to its default position.

That’s essentially what just happened to Reddit’s entire technology community, known on Reddit as r/technology, a subreddit normally promoted on Reddit’s home page, now formally downgraded and bumped from its hallowed spot in the limelight. Because, writes the BBC, Reddit’s top yea-or-naysayers decided to demote it after reports emerged earlier this month claiming r/technology’s moderators were censoring several dozen words, among them “Anonymous,” “Bitcoin,” “Comcast,” “net neutrality,” “NSA” and “Snowden.”

Pretty serious charges for a site that prides itself on its commitment to candor and unfettered dialogue, which is why Reddit’s taking the issue so seriously. Reddit’s director of communications, Victoria Taylor, explained to the BBC that the site “decided to remove /r/technology from the default list because the moderation team lost focus of what they were there to do: moderate effectively,” adding, “We’re giving them time to see if we feel they can work together to resolve the issue.” Taylor says Reddit “might consider” putting r/technology back if the subreddit’s moderators can prove to Reddit and the r/technology community that they’ve rectified the problem (though that sounds like a catch-22 — the BBC says the community’s instead calling for the remaining moderators to go).

On the other hand, Reddit’s response sounds a little babies-out-with-the-bathwater. Imagine Google demoting the technology section of Google News, maybe hiding it under “science,” or folding it into “world,” or doing any number of things to obscure the section’s prominence as a linchpin of cultural interest and exchange. You wind up punishing the already-punished — the community itself — in other words (though how punished they are in the grand scheme, I’m not sure, since I don’t know how many visit Reddit through its front page, and other means of accessing r/technology, including Google search, are unaffected by the demotion).

As Wikipedia is to the encyclopedia, so Reddit is to the public forum: It’s what you get when you promote organized anarchy (or anarchy with a hierarchical veneer). It’ll thus be interesting to see how this plays out, since it’s all sort of undiscovered country. We’ll see whether the remaining moderators can rally the community or end up having to step aside. And depending how quickly this comes to a head, we’ll see whether Reddit’s decision to throw all of r/technology under the bus to discipline a few winds up being a more effective, efficient and counterintuitively fair solution than might have occurred had the site’s leadership simply removed the offending moderators.

TIME movies

Leonardo DiCaprio In Talks to Star in Steve Jobs Biopic

Leonardo DiCaprio arrives at the 86th Annual Academy Awards on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood.
Leonardo DiCaprio arrives at the 86th Annual Academy Awards on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood. Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The Gatsby star is reportedly in discussions with film honchos for a role in Danny Boyle's movie adaptation of Walter Isaacson's biography, which Sony acquired the rights to after Jobs' death in 2011

When David Fincher passed on directing Sony Pictures’s Aaron Sorkin-penned Steve Jobs biopic, the dream of a reunion of The Social Network team died. But according to The Hollywood Reporter, the move may have paved the way for reunion of 2000’s The Beach director/star duo, as the studio is now reportedly eyeing Danny Boyle and Leonardo DiCaprio for the project.

The film will be based on Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs, which Sony acquired the rights to after the Apple mogul’s 2011 death. According to THR, Sony has already initiated talks with Boyle, who won the Academy Award for Best Director in 2008 for Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle is said to have already approached his first choice star DiCaprio about playing Jobs.

Though the baby-faced DiCaprio might seem like a surprise choice to play Jobs, the actor is known for tackling well-known figures in past biopics, like Howard Hughes in 2004’s The Aviator and J. Edgar Hoover in 2011’s J. Edgar. However, though no deals are finalized yet, something tells us that even if Leo signs on, the Jobs role won’t be the key to his own long-awaited Oscar moment.

[The Hollywood Reporter]

 

 

 

 

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