TIME Ask the Expert

How to Stop Your Child From Spending a Fortune on Mobile Games

A few taps and swipes, and the costs can start to add up

Forget huge voice and texting bills. Kids these days are racking up massive charges on their parents’ phones without making a single call. Popular children’s games for devices like Apple’s iPhone and Amazon’s Kindle Fire are allowing kids to spend disconcerting sums buying in-game items, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The titles are often free to download, but the games then entice users to spend real dollars to purchase access to new levels and prizes.

Now the FTC is targeting Apple and Amazon, claiming the companies’ confusing billing systems have made it too easy for years for kids to make unauthorized purchases. (In one complaint, a consumer told the FTC her daughter spent $2,600 by repeatedly tapping on a single iOS game.) “There was a blurring of the line between real money and virtual money in these games,” says Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Parents were not given the information to oversee their kids and make sure this didn’t happen.”

Apple agreed to pay at least $32.5 million in refunds to consumers earlier this year for such charges, but Amazon has resisted FTC appeals for a settlement, arguing that its practices are not deceptive. “Our experience at launch was responsible, customer-focused and lawful,” Amazon wrote in a July letter to the FTC. The dispute will be settled by a federal court. Meanwhile, parents will need to monitor their kids more closely.

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TIME technology

Comcast, AT&T Say They’re Not Big Enough Yet

Comcast
The Comcast Corp. logo is seen as Brian Roberts, chairman and chief executive officer of Comcast Corp., right, speaks during a news conference at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) Cable Show in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

At a Senate hearing ahead of major merger melees

Two of the biggest players in the telecom industry faced off against a public interest group, a trade group and a satellite company at a Senate hearing Wednesday in a debate that will help set the stage for upcoming battles over the future of broadband, television and streaming video.

The hearing comes just as federal regulators are staffing up to review two mammoth mergers: One between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and another between AT&T and DirecTV. To some degree, the hearing was only ceremonial: Congress won’t have any direct say over whether federal regulators approve or deny the mergers. But political winds in Washington can affect regulators’ moods, and the back-and-forth gave members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation a chance to publicly speak their minds on the mergers.

While the discussion at the hearing was unflaggingly respectful, it touched, just below the surface, on what has become a fiercely ideological war with regard to the future of TV, with each side presenting a vision incompatible with the other’s.

Comcast and AT&T argued that massive consolidation in the telecom industry is good for consumers, good for innovation, and good for the free market. They warned that if the government does not allow the mergers to go through, incumbent telecom companies would no longer be able to invest in basic Internet infrastructure, leaving consumers to pay more for fewer Internet and TV options.

Representatives from advocacy group Public Knowledge, a TV writer’s guild, and satellite TV company Dish made the opposite case. They said that recent consolidation in the telecom industry has been terrible for consumers, driven up prices and driven down the quality of customer service. They also said the lack of competition has squashed innovation and investment in broadband infrastructure.

At the center of the discussion was Americans’ shifting TV-viewing habits. When Americans want to watch TV, they’re increasingly bypassing traditional set-top boxes, instead opting for their smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Online video consumption grew by 71% in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013, according to Nielsen.

That trend has been the driving force behind skyrocketing broadband subscriptions—a major cash cow for cable companies and for telecom companies that offer services faster than DSL. AT&T’s revenue from its U-Verse high-speed broadband business was up 29% from last year according to a recent quarterly report, for example. Comcast, which already has more than 21 million broadband subscribers, says the broadband business is one of its fastest-growing offerings.

That so many Americans are streaming more video online has also made online TV and video content companies, like Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo, fundamentally dependent on telecom companies’ pipes to reach customers. Public Knowledge’s Gene Kimmelman argued that no online video streaming company can exist without going through broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast, whose services are necessary to deliver streaming content to consumers. That sets up a potential problem, as Comcast could be incentivized not to carry Netflix or YouTube content as quickly as its own video offerings (Comcast owns NBCUniversal, a major content production company).

“Everyone who wants to make the online video system works needs to make a deal with Comcast,” he said.

Also addressed during the hearing was many Americans’ frustration at having to pay large bills for pay-TV—bills that have risen faster than inflation—to receive hundreds of channels. The non-profit consumers rights group, Consumers Union, has said that at least two-thirds of pay-TV customers [PDF] would prefer to pay less for a handful of programs that they actually watch. The disconnect between these two methods—known as “bundling” versus “a al carte”—is at the heart of the future of online video.

“The younger generation doesn’t want to spend $120 for 500 channels,” said Jeffrey Blum, a senior vice president of Dish, the second-largest satellite company in the country after DirecTV. But fixing the problem, he said, requires going up against incumbent telecom companies, like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, which rely on bundling to underwrite their pay TV services, and would lose out if most Americans simply cut their pay-TV bill and began streaming shows online. Popular networks like ESPN would also lose out; in the current system, the telecom companies pay them large fees to redistribute their content.

Still, Blum said, there is already “too much power in the hands of too few” in the broadband space. A combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable “will have the incentive and ability to stifle competition,” he said.

Both Cohen and AT&T’s senior executive VP John Stankey dismissed concerns about anticompetitive behavior. In previous testimony before Congress, Comcast’s executive VP David Cohen has said that the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable will not affect competition since the companies do not currently compete in any geographic region, and that Comcast has “only to gain” from more people streaming video online. The more demand there is for online video, “the more demand there is for our broadband service,” he said at a previous hearing.

In February, Comcast made a bid to buy Time Warner Cable for $45 billion; in May, AT&T’s bid for DirecTV was worth $48.5 billion. Neither deal has yet to pass regulatory muster.

Both Cohen and Stankey also reiterated their companies’ commitment to the Federal Communication Commission’s now-defunct rules on “net neutrality,” the notion that broadband providers treat all content that passes over their pipes equally. While both expressed their opposition to some public interest groups’ hopes that the telecom industry would be recategorized as a “Title II” industry, giving the FCC much more regulatory control over broadband, they said they supported the FCC’s newly proposed net neutrality rules.

Those rules have come under fire because they allow broadband companies to redirect some content to a “fast lane,” while relegating most content to a slower, regular lane. Cohen said that while he “didn’t understand” what “fast lanes and slow lanes” even were, he said it was a non-issue. “We don’t have any,” he said. “We don’t have any plans to develop any.”

TIME robotics

That Jibo Robot Does the Same Stuff as Your Phone, but People Are Freaking Out Anyway

jibo
Jibo

Jibo promises to be a lovable robot assistant, but it's unclear why you'd actually need one.

A crowdfunding campaign for a “family robot” called Jibo is picking up steam, blowing through its fundraising goals within the first day.

What is Jibo? It’s a little pod with a motorized swivel, equipped with cameras, microphones and a display. It recognizes faces and voices, and can act as a personal assistant by setting reminders, delivering messages and offering to take group photos. It also serves as a telepresence robot for video chat.

As of now, Jibo has raised more than $200,000 on IndieGogo–well beyond its $100,000 goal–and has racked up plenty of breathless coverage. Early bird pricing of $100 sold out long ago, but you can still claim a unit for $499, with an estimated December 2015 ship date.

Sorry to burst the hype bubble, but I’m not seeing how Jibo will more practical than a phone, a tablet or even a wearable device. Most of the things Jibo promises to do can be done better by the handset in your pocket–which, by the way, you don’t have to lug around from tabletop to tabletop.

To see what I mean, let’s deconstruct the scenario in Jibo’s pitch video, in which a man gets home from a long day at work. Jibo, perched on a nearby counter, turns on the lights, records an order for Chinese take-out, then starts reading back a voicemail from his girlfriend. The man then doubles the take-out order on the fly.

It’s the kind of demo that makes perfect sense unless you think about it too much. If home automation goes mainstream, a dedicated robot won’t be necessary, because our phones will do a better job of signaling when we’ve walked through the front door. The idea of having your messages read to you when you get home is a throwback to answering machines, which are obsolete now that we can check our messages from anywhere. As for the take-out order, you’ve got to be the dullest person in the world to order “the usual” every time you get home, and I’m not sure the man’s girlfriend will take kindly to having no input on what food she gets.

There is something to be said for a device that can persistently listen for your commands and act on them, but this is the same problem that wearable devices are trying to solve, and they’re better-suited to being wherever you are. While group photos and telepresence are potentially useful, now we’re getting into some very specific situations that don’t really justify a $500 purchase, regardless of how endearing Jibo tries to be. The only way Jibo makes sense as a robot is if it gains more physical capabilities, like a way to clean your windows or cook dinner, but it’s far too early to say whether that’s going to happen.

Maybe it’s unfair for me to judge at such an early stage, but that’s exactly what Jibo is trying to do through crowdfunding. The creators are asking people to throw money at something they’ve never seen, that has only been shown to the press in limited demos, and that won’t even ship until the tail end of next year. All we have to go on right now is a slick-looking pitch video and a whole bunch of promises. As talented as the folks behind Jibo seem to be, I’ve seen enough undercooked crowdfunded projects to know that some skepticism is in order.

TIME Video Games

This Former Dictator Is Suing the Call of Duty Makers

Manuel Noriega of Panama says the game used his image without permission

The former dictator of Panama is not happy with how he looks in the popular Call of Duty: Black Ops II video game.

Manuel Noriega filed suit Tuesday against video game developer Activision Blizzard, according to the New York Times. The 80-year-old former dictator, who is currently in jail in Panama for money laundering, claims the video game company used his image without his permission.

The suit was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court and alleges that Call of Duty wrongly depicted Noriega as a “kidnapper, murderer and enemy of the state,” according to the Times. Noriega is seeking lost profits and damages.

Noriega was the dictator of Panama from 1983 until 1989, when the U.S. invaded the country to overthrow him and bring him back to America for trial. He was convicted in Miami of turning his country into a hub for Colombian cocaine traffickers and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Noriega has also been convicted in Panama of embezzlement, corruption and ordering the murder of political prisoners.

An Activision spokesperson declined to comment on the suit. A lawyer for Noriega, Graham B. LippSmith, was not immediately available to comment.

[NYT]

TIME Companies

Apple Set to Pay Out $450 Million Over E-Book-Price-Fixing Scandal

Federal Judge Rules Against Apple In EBook Price Fixing Lawsuit
The Apple logo is seen through a fence in front of an Apple Store on July 10, 2013 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

However the settlement sum could drop to zero if Apple is acquitted in a separate lawsuit

Apple has agreed to pay $450 million to plaintiffs in 33 states, should it be found guilty of an e-book price fixing conspiracy — but that’s a big “if.”

Whether Apple pays that sum will depend on the outcome of a separate lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice, which also accuses Apple of conspiring to inflate e-book prices with several major publishers.

Should that case end in a guilty verdict, Apple will pay $450 million to avert a class-action lawsuit from customers in 33 states who claim they were overcharged by the company.

However, if the case is remanded to a lower court, then the settlement sum will drop to $70 million. If Apple is acquitted of any wrongdoing, the company will pay no settlement at all.

“This settlement potentially provides for exceptional consumer recovery and ensures an efficient use of judicial resources,” read a court document from the plaintiffs supporting the deal, first reported by the Hollywood Reporter.

Apple was found guilty of price-fixing by a Manhattan court last year, but the company has appealed the ruling and maintained that the government has attempted to “reverse engineer a conspiracy from a market effect.”

TIME technology

Silicon Valley’s Arrogance Is Out of Beta and Ready to Ship

The downtown San Francisco skyline and Bay Bridge are shown during a 30-minute ferry ride across to AT&T Park on July 10, 2013, in San Francisco.
The downtown San Francisco skyline and Bay Bridge are shown during a 30-minute ferry ride across to AT&T Park on July 10, 2013, in San Francisco. George Rose—Getty Images

Venture capitalist Tim Draper's proposal for a Silicon Valley state (and 5 others) is the apotheosis of tech hubris

Silicon Valley’s newest startup is not an app or a gadget. But it is, in the parlance of the hoodie-clad, disruptive. Wealthy venture capitalist Tim Draper, who funded products like Hotmail and Skype, wants to split California into six pieces, putting the state of Jefferson as well as North, Central, West and South California on the map. The sixth—the state of Silicon Valley—would stretch from the top of the San Francisco Bay ­Area down through San Jose, stopping just before the verdant vineyards of the Central Coast. The idea is that the new states would be more efficient and governable. On July 15, the consortium backing the plan announced that it had submitted enough signatures to put the issue in front of voters in 2016 as part of the state’s wildly democratic ballot initiative.

That the plan has little chance of becoming a reality—the Constitution requires the approval of the state assembly and Congress—hardly matters. A sovereign Silicon Valley, which would be the richest state in the U.S., with annual per capita income of $63,288, is the apotheosis of tech hubris, in beta for decades but now ready to ship.

Earlier this year, Draper told TIME:

The strongest argument for Six Californias is that we are not well-represented. The people down south are very concerned with things like immigration law and the people way up north are frustrated by taxation without representation. And the people in coastal California are frustrated because of water rights. And the people in Silicon Valley are frustrated because the government doesn’t keep up with technology. And in Los Angeles, their issues revolve around copyright law. Each region has its own interest, and I think California is ungovernable because they can’t balance all those interests. I’m looking at Six Californias as a way of giving California a refresh and allowing those states to both cooperate and compete with each other.

The idea is an ego trip of Randian proportions, a Galt’s Gulch kitted with Google Glass and $70,000 electric Teslas. It has its roots in the Valley’s libertarianism. This is a place, after all, where Facebook investor Peter Thiel is funding a floating utopia, venture capitalist Balaji Srinivasan has proposed a deregulated territory devoted to radical experimentation, and Elon Musk has toyed with the idea of a Martian colony. A place, in other words, that not only knows what it wants but thinks it knows what’s best for the rest.

Certainly, that arrogance is the twin of a more noble impulse in many technology innovators: a profound certainty that often yields wonderful results for the rest of us, from Gmail to gene therapy. The tradition holds that a good idea trumps convention or existing law. But the Silicon Valley that has created remarkable products (and wealth) is also prone to alienating detours like Bitcoin, the unregulated cryptocurrency, and Soylent, the trendy open-sourced food substitute. Or, a plan to create six new states, four of them awkwardly named some variation of California.

Then again, this wouldn’t be the first time California was shaped to serve powerful interests. At the turn of the 20th century, Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times and father of the Golden State’s most powerful political dynasty, used inside information and his newspaper to funnel resources from the agrarian Eden of the Owens Valley to the then fledgling city of Los Angeles. And why? As John Huston’s Otis-like character put it to Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown, “The future, Mr. Gittes. The future.

TIME Autos

Tesla’s New Models Will Be Around 50% Cheaper

CEO Elon Musk said the next generation of Teslas would retail for as little as $35,000, around half the price of existing models

+ READ ARTICLE

Tesla Motors founder and CEO Elon Musk revealed that the company’s next generation of vehicles would retail for as little as $35,000, or roughly half the price of existing models.

Musk unveiled the price as well as the name of the new electric vehicle, Tesla Model 3, in an interview with Auto Express.

The savings, he said, would come out of a thorough redesign of the vehicle that will cut the size down by 20% and install lighter, cheaper batteries from Tesla’s upcoming Gigafactory. It would also limit the range of the vehicle to roughly 200 miles, compared with a range of 265 miles for the Model S.

Tesla tapped British engineer Chris Poritt, formerly of Aston Martin, to oversee the design of the new vehicle, and most essentially its new battery technology, which could put electric cars in the same cost bracket as gas guzzlers.

Tesla expects the Model 3 to launch by 2017.

[Auto Express]

TIME

50 Smartest Celebrities on Twitter

Jimmy Kimmel, Samuel L. Jackson and Justin Bieber's mom are among the sharpest celebrities online, according to an analysis of their tweets.

When it comes to big brains and big followings online, Leonardo DiCaprio appears to best them all: the Wolf of Wall Street actor is the smartest celebrity on Twitter. DiCaprio scores higher than the rest when judged by a commonly used reading comprehension test. Here’s where the tweeting and famous rank, according to analysis of the reading levels of the tweets produced by the 500 most followed celebrities on the popular social network. Or test the reading level of any Twitter username.

RANKING NAME GRADE LEVEL
1
Followers
10,537,477
7.5
2
Followers
3,240,488
7.3
3
Followers
4,105,738
7
4
Followers
9,495,505
6.8
Followers
3,394,539
6.8
Followers
3,876,935
6.8
7
Followers
9,624,350
6.6
Followers
3,618,047
6.6
9
Followers
3,512,750
6.5
Followers
6,547,046
6.5
Followers
3,465,262
6.5
Followers
6,957,631
6.5
Followers
4,313,917
6.5
Followers
4,348,803
6.5
15
Followers
9,330,945
6.4
Followers
5,679,824
6.4
Followers
12,790,629
6.4
Followers
3,916,429
6.4
Followers
5,430,990
6.4
Followers
4,439,241
6.4
21
Followers
7,024,230
6.3
Followers
8,330,339
6.3
Followers
6,679,206
6.3
Followers
3,609,118
6.3
25
Followers
5,224,026
6.2
Followers
3,777,176
6.2
Followers
3,453,774
6.2
Followers
6,667,346
6.2
Followers
3,717,750
6.2
Followers
10,384,608
6.2
Followers
4,243,642
6.2
Followers
3,430,272
6.2
33
Followers
18,374,747
6.1
Followers
4,962,687
6.1
Followers
3,356,790
6.1
Followers
17,130,614
6.1
Followers
3,862,527
6.1
Followers
5,043,670
6.1
Followers
12,014,650
6.1
Followers
3,088,771
6.1
Followers
17,130,615
6.1
42
Followers
24,784,725
6
Followers
28,273,688
6
Followers
3,730,469
6
Followers
3,315,673
6
Followers
3,492,788
6
Followers
4,148,210
6
Followers
13,448,230
6
49
Followers
9,688,482
5.9
Followers
4,157,413
5.9

 

Methodology
The ranking above is based on a reading comprehension test known as Simple Measure of Gobbledygook (SMOG). The SMOG test measures the number of three syllable words used in a text to calculate the years of education required to understand it. An environmental activist, DiCaprio often tweets about “conservation” and global warming which may have helped him earn the top spot.

In a recent analysis of more than 1 million tweets, we found that messages on Twitter average a fourth-grade reading level. All of the celebrities above exceed that grade. To find Twitter’s smartest celebrities, we analyzed the last 20 tweets from the 500 highest followed celebrities (stripped of URLs and hashtags), then ran the results through the SMOG test to calculate reading level. SMOG is intended for processing English, so users tweeting in multiple languages were removed. Computer processing of natural language has its limitations. For example, the SMOG test can falsely read slang as multi-syllable words.

You can test your own Twitter grade level or anyone else’s here.

TIME Video Games

Survival Game The Long Dark Coming to Steam in September

You won't go gently into The Long Dark, but you can go early.

+ READ ARTICLE

You can finally lay hands on The Long Dark this September, Windows and Mac users. Developer Hinterlands just confirmed the game will be playable in prerelease form by way of Steam Early Access — a program whereby developers can sell unfinished versions of their projects in advance of final code. Buyers pay to be testers, though feedback isn’t required (some people just want a peek behind the curtain early, and this lets them have it for a price).

The game, Kickstarted last October to the tune of a quarter million bucks, was estimated to arrive in October 2014. The final release is currently set for “later in 2014.”

Hinterland

No, the game’s title has nothing to do with “The Long Dark,” a Babylon 5 episode about a phantom space creature that chows on cryonic explorers (I mention it only because that’s what comes up if you scan Wikipedia for the game). The Long Dark is rather a first-person survival simulation set somewhere in the “Northern wilderness” after a global disaster.

Speaking as a frequent visitor to said wilderness, how a post-apocalyptic version might differ from what it feels like to camp or hike through northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin or Michigan’s upper peninsula (or heck, any part of Canada) today, I have to wonder. Anyone who’s done so knows how disconnected parts of those places can seem right now, no need for a holocaust’s helping hand.

On the other hand, there’s something unmistakably romantic about being in the middle of cold, dead, godforsaken nowhere, the day fading to dusk and then blackness, the raw elements (and your hierarchy of human needs) scraping at the door. It’s part of what draws us to tabula rasa tales, that confluence of isolation, beauty, primitivism, terror and possibility. That’s the vein The Long Dark seems to be tapping, anyway.

Hinterland

As setups go, The Long Dark‘s is part of a storied tradition of survivalist fiction and films. If you’ve seen Revolution, the gist isn’t so different: a “geomagnetic event” comes along and knocks out the lights, the power, everything. Food and water are in short supply. And you’re not completely alone: there’s the wildlife to consider, and then you’ll wind up bumping into other survivors, resorting, one assumes, to the kinds of disquieting things survivors do.

The new trailer above is just a few panning long shots of the lovely-looking scenery — sunsets and starry, starry skies and an ocean of snow shrouding the world. The art team’s apparently going for a look somewhere between the austere geometric angularity of a game like Mirror’s Edge and the saturation-cranked colorific vibrance of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft.

Hinterland

The final version will incorporate two play modes: sandbox and story. Sandbox mode starts the clock ticking and drops you into a non-narrative resource management game (you have to manage body temperature, caloric intake, thirst, fatigue, windchill and so forth), while Story mode has you playing episodically as bush pilot Will Mackenzie after crashing into the wilderness (the crash is caused by the geomagnetic disaster), trying to figure out what happened and why. Sandbox mode is what you get if you sign up for Early Access, whereas Story mode won’t be available until launch to keep it from spoiling early.

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