Here’s what should excite you about the new iPhone 6S

Apple has released some new iPhones. They come with the company’s new operating system, are available with a new aluminum finish, and boast a bunch of the incremental upgrades that accompany every new product under the sun.
In these ways, the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus would be easy to dismiss as the same off-year product updates Apple popularized with the iPhone 4s or 5s. But these new iPhones also have features that will change how people take photos, interact with their phones, and view the concept of ownership in this new age.
Apple iPhone 6s

Cosmetic changes & improved specs

First the easy stuff. These new iPhones are available with a new Rose Gold finish, and Apple claims that it has developed new forms of aluminum and glass to make the devices more durable than their predecessors. They have updated processors, ship with iOS 9, and boast improved front-and rear-facing cameras.
iPhone 6s Live Photo

GIFs & Live Photos

Then comes the more interesting things, starting with Live Photos. These are basically animated GIFs that the new iPhones make whenever someone takes a picture. They have sound, are about three seconds long, and can be viewed by making a long press on any photo captured with these devices’ new cameras.
Automatically generating these GIFs is a nice nod to the forms dominance on the Internet. Who wants to watch a video or see a still image when an animated GIF is available? I suspect these Live Photos will be very popular — and that their popularity will be increased by the fact that services like Facebook will support them within the year, thus helping them attract all kinds of attention.
It’s hard to overstate how having Live Photos available on something like Facebook could help sell the new iPhones to many consumers. There’s nothing like good ol’ fashioned jealousy, especially where social media is concerned, to make a bunch of people want something they might have otherwise dismissed.
The interaction that allows people to view Live Photos — a long press — is part of a much larger change Apple is making to how people interact with the sheets of metal and glass that serve as windows into much of their lives. Apple is calling the upgrade 3D Touch, and horrible name aside, it’s kind of a big deal.

A screenshot showing the iPhone 6s' 3D Touch capabilities in action.

A screenshot showing the iPhone 6s’ 3D Touch capabilities in action.

3D Touch – Awful name, big addition

3D Touch is essentially bringing the concept of a right-click to the iPhone. Instead of restricting people to interacting with content shown on the screen, 3D Touch allows iPhone owners to view pertinent information or perform common tasks with little more than a long, forceful press or simple gesture.
This means things that previously required a few taps, like responding to an email or viewing flight information from a text message thread, can now be found a little more easily. It might seem like a small change, but this could make the day-to-day experience of using an iPhone less painful than before.
Features like 3D Touch and Live Photos aren’t going to make anyone want a smartphone. Hell, both of them probably sound like gobbledygook to people who aren’t already sold on animated GIFs or using smartphones every day. Instead, the features are supposed to appeal to people who already own a smartphone, whether it’s an iPhone or some Android device or another.
Apple iPhone Upgrade Program

iPhone upgrade program

That’s where the iPhone Upgrade Program comes in. Apple wants to make it easier for people to get a new iPhone every year. To do that, it’s offering unlocked devices for a monthly fee starting at $32, effectively allowing people to rent the latest-and-greatest iPhones for the 12 months between releases. Once that new device is available, consumers will be expected to turn in their old one.
It does sound tempting. But, then again, I’m also a foolish consumer who has been willing to do obscene things with his Verizon account just to get new phones whenever an old one starts showing any kind of problem, or a new one is announced with enough new features to warrant even a little excitement.
And it’s hard not to think of this as an iPhone-as-a-service play. Instead of having something you own forever, Apple is basically asking people to pay for their phones the same way they pay for their Netflix subscription. Why buy a movie when you can rent all of them? Why get an iPhone you’ll eventually replace? It’s so much more convenient to just rent one out for a little while.
That could have questionable consequences for the concept of ownership. Do we really need to rent everything we use? Wouldn’t it be nice to own some things outright instead of having everything depend on monthly payments? Those are just a few of the concerns I have about this new upgrade program.
Still, I have to hand it to Apple: the company picked the right time to introduce this new, potentially lucrative pricing structure. These new iPhones aren’t just incremental upgrades; they’re poised to change the way people use their phones or share moments from their lives. I’d pay a few bucks each month for that.

Apple reportedly wants to get rid of free on-demand music

Love free stuff? Then you won’t like Apple’s new music subscription service, which the company is expected to launch later this year. Apple is planning to launch the service without a free tier, and instead plans to charge every user after a limited free trial, according to a Recode report.

That’s similar to Beats Music, which Apple got its hands on as part of the $3 billion Beats acquisition last year. But it’s very different from Spotify, the current industry leader. Spotify has 15 million paying users worldwide, and at least 45 million additional users tune into the service’s free, ad-supported tier.

Spotify’s ad-supported tier has been so successful that competing services have started to embrace free music as well. Rdio, for example, long resisted giving music away for free, but the company now has a free radio service that aims to pull in users, with the goal of eventually converting them into paying subscribers.

However, Recode reports that label executives are increasingly growing frustrated with those free tiers, with some blaming them for the decline in music downloads. Apple wants to counter that trend with a $8 service, which is expected to be closely tied into iTunes and iOS.

Some in the industry would also question that notion, and instead argue that there are simply different price points for different types of users. Rhapsody has been trying to win over budget-conscious users with a $5 radio tier that is essentially like a Pandora without ands, and Deezer has started to charge audiophiles as much as $15 per month for lossless FLAC streams.

Deezer North America CEO Tyler Goldman told me at CES this year that he doesn’t believe in just one package and price for every type of user. Tyler Goldman “That silver bullet strategy doesn’t work,” he said.

You can now store 50,000 songs online with Google Play Music

Google just made its Play Music service a bit more appealing, even if you don’t use a Google Android phone. You can now upload 50,000 songs to your Google Play Music account at no charge; the previous limit was 20,000.

play music 50k downloads

[company]Google[/company] announced the storage boost in a blog post on Wednesday, pointing out that once your tunes are uploaded, you can stream or download them on Android devices, an [company]Apple[/company] iPad or iPhone, a Chromebook or from a computer via the browser. Music tracks can also be streamed through Google’s Chromecast device.

The increased storage is a noticeable jump over what Apple offers with its iTunes Match service. There you get 25,000 track uploads but you have to pay $24.99 a year to get them. And you can’t get at those tunes from anything other than iTunes or an Apple TV, so Android device owners need not apply.

Google Play Music Android Wear main

For a while, I was a fan of iTunes Radio, which is ad-free with an iTunes Match account, but later opted to use Google Play Music. The main reason? The portability. I have one foot firmly in both camps — that is, iOS and Android — and I prefer cross-platform services that work regardless of the device I’m using; including a smartwatch. It helps that Google recently made its Play Music app for iOS universal so that it has a true iPad interface now.

That’s just personal preference on my part though, and [company]Amazon[/company]’s own music storage is a worthy contender in this space too. Which of these (or other) cloud music services are you using to store your albums and why? Maybe you’ll convince me to reconsider my approach.

Apple must pay patent troll $532M, Texas jury rules

Apple must pay a shell company $532.9 million because iTunes infringes upon three patents related to online patents, a jury in East Texas ruled on Tuesday.

The company in question, named Smartflash LLC, is also based in Texas and doesn’t make or do anything besides file patent lawsuits, as an Apple spokesperson pointed out.

“Smartflash makes no products, has no employees, creates no jobs, has no U.S. presence, and is exploiting our patent system to seek royalties for technology Apple invented,” said Apple’s Kristin Huguet to Bloomberg, which reported the verdict, shown here in a screenshot:

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 7.38.37 AM

Court records show that Smartflash is also suing [company]Google[/company], Samsung and [company]Amazon[/company] with the same patents.

The patents themselves have a priority date of 1999, and describe a method for “downloading and paying for data such as audio and video data, text, software, games and other types of data.”

The broad-based nature of the patents, which appear to cover basic internet-based payment transactions, could expose a variety of companies, including app makers, to royalty demands. Bloomberg noted that the complaint cited apps like Game Circus LLC’s “Coin Dozer” and “4 Pics 1 Movie” as the basis of infringement.

The huge damage figure against Apple may draw renewed attention to the role played by the District of East Texas in America’s troubled patent system, which Congress is attempting to reform for the third time in five years.

For years, patent trolls like Smartflash have chosen East Texas towns like Tyler, the site of this week’s jury verdict, where local judges and lawyers have built a cottage industry on patent litigation, drawing a stream of visiting lawyers to the town’s hotels and restaurants.

In the Apple case, Smartflash was represented before the jury by John Ward, a former East Texas judge who left the federal bench to join his son T. John “Johnny” Ward Jr., a prominent patent lawyer at a local law firm.

Apple said it will appeal the ruling.

“We refused to pay off this company for the ideas our employees spent years innovating and unfortunately we have been left with no choice but to take this fight up through the court system,” the Apple spokesperson also told Bloomberg.

Here’s the verdict, which shows the jury found Apple’s conduct to be willful — meaning Smartflash can ask the judge to triple the damages:

Smartflash Verdict

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Robots vs. pop stars: Who is better at curating your music?

The Apple rumor mill is getting its groove on these days as new details appear about a revamped streaming service slated to be launched in the coming months. 9to5Mac reported last week that Apple is working on a new music service that uses some of Beats Music’s technology, but is going to be deeply integrated into iTunes and iOS.

Business Insider followed up with another report Monday, suggesting that the project will feature curated streams from well-known musicians. [company]Apple[/company] also recently hired BBC Radio DJ Zane Lowe, and is looking for music journalists who could be writing copy for the new service. All of this suggests that the company is looking to keep Beats Music’s focus on human curation and build a more radio-like experience, possibly with help from many music celebrities.

The question is: Do music fans really want this? Do musicians make for good DJs, and do well-known names help to unlock the 30-plus million song catalog of a music streaming service?

Or would algorithms simply do a better job?

Musicologists and trillions of data points

The debate over human versus automated curation is almost as old as online music itself. [company]Pandora[/company] was one of the first services to embrace the idea of human curation in a personalized streaming environment when it built its Music Genome Project back in 1999.

The idea at the time was to not simply play songs because algorithms deemed them as a logical choice based on the behavior of other users, but actually figure out how each song sounds, which instruments it features and which tempo it uses. Pandora hired dozens of curators to catalog more than one million songs based on up to 450 musical criteria, and its website describes these curators like this:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]“The typical music analyst working on the Music Genome Project has a four-year degree in music theory, composition or performance, has passed through a selective screening process and has completed intensive training in the Music Genome’s rigorous and precise methodology. To qualify for the work, analysts must have a firm grounding in music theory, including familiarity with a wide range of styles and sounds.”[/blockquote]

Today, Pandora still relies on the Music Genome Project, but it is also using algorithms and data to make its playlists work.

Others took a different approach and ditched the human expert altogether, instead relying on the wisdom of the crowds and big data analysis to generate that perfect playlist. [company]The Echo Nest[/company], for example, which was acquired by Spotify a year ago, is using close to 1.2 trillion data points on more than 36 million songs to automatically generate playlists for Spotify and other services. The Echo Nest co-founder Brian Whitman will be at our Structure Data conference in New York next month to tell us how he wants to use all that data to reinvent the music industry.

Park rangers, not gatekeepers

Lately, the pendulum has swung back to human curation, with Beats putting a heavy emphasis on its expert curators, and Slacker building a radio-like experience around YouTube stars and other personalities. The reports about Apple’s plans now seem to suggest that the company wants to go further down that road, embracing stars to become both brand ambassadors and actual curators of your music.

However, not everyone is convinced that this is a good idea. Online music industry veteran Tim Quirk, who used to head music programming for pioneering streaming service Rhapsody and then did the same thing for Google Play Music, took to Twitter today to object to the idea that musicians make good curators. Here are some highlights of his arguments:

[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”917022″]Will the future of music look like Sirius XM or like Netflix?[/pullquote]

Of course, many will argue that there is value to expertise, and point to great radio DJs, so of which even are musicians. That’s why I asked Quirk what it takes to bring this kind of personality-driven curation to streaming services. His answer:

“Subtract the personalities. Seriously. They need curation that doesn’t brag about itself.”

In the end, this may all come down to the question what music services want to be, and how they plan to appeal to millions of consumers who have thus far shied away from music subscriptions. Do they want to be more like traditional radio and guide listeners through a catalog of millions of songs? Or do they want to be the celestial jukebox that brings millions of songs to your fingertips, ready for you to go on your own adventure?

In other words: Will the future of music look like Sirius XM or like Netflix? The first company to find a compelling answer to that question may be able to really take music subscriptions mainstream — with or without celebrity DJs.

Apple reportedly integrating Beats streaming into iOS and iTunes

After Beats was purchased in 2014, and even before then, one main question facing Apple is when the company plans to come out with a streaming music service. According to a new report from ace Apple reporter Mark Gurman at 9to5Mac, the company has been working to integrate Beats Music streaming into iOS, iTunes, and Apple TV, ahead of a launch that was planned for March, but now looks more likely to be June.

According to Gurman, Apple has decided to largely ditch the existing Beats Music brand on iPhone and iPad, instead choosing to integrate streaming features into the pre-installed Music app, which plays locally stored music and is still surprisingly popular.

One key feature for the service sounds a lot like an expansion of iTunes Match: Users will be able to upload current Beats or iTunes music libraries with the new service, which will merge those songs with iTunes in the Cloud, and users will be able to choose specific tracks or artists to download onto their iPhone or iPad’s local storage.

Although the new apps will reportedly ditch the black-and-red Beats color scheme, Apple appears poised to continue the Beats focus on human-curated playlists. Gurman also indicated that Apple may continue to try to build a music-focused social network in the Music app — remember that Apple tried and failed to do that before, with its Ping service.

Another surprise: Apple could be building a Beats Music app for Android in-house. There’s an existing Beats Music Android app, but Gurman reported that “Apple engineers are currently working on an Android app for the new Apple-branded service.” Apparently, there’s been a bit of discord stemming from the integration of Beats engineers and Apple engineers and Beats integration has been “not going so well.”

9to5Mac said a source warned them that there could be several employee departures from Apple’s services division in the near future. Remember that Apple’s core cloud infrastructure experts are distributed among teams, rather than in a single division, and pre-installing and promoting a streaming music service on up to 74.5 million iPhones a quarter would appear to require strong cloud infrastructure on the server side.

Apple has a long history in digital music going back to the introduction of iTunes. While only Apple’s board knows if Apple spent $3.2 billion on Beats for its profitable headphones business or its nascent music streaming service, this report appears to indicate that much of the software developed by Beats while it was independent has been ditched for code written by Apple. Beats headphones fit in very well with Apple’s main product lines — they’re complimentary high-margin luxury goods, whereas the Beats Music service might not have anything that Apple couldn’t have done itself, except for playlists curated by Dr. Dre’s friends.

As for pricing the service, Gurman’s report is less certain, but believes that the service could cost $7.99 a month, which would undercut the $9.99 price charge by Spotify, Google Play Music, and Rdio.

 

 

After raising $10 million, Plex gets ready to take on iTunes

Media center app Plex is up to big things: The company quietly raised $10 million from Kleiner Perkins last year, and now it’s getting ready to put that money to use and take on iTunes.

Plex showed off a bunch of new music features at CES in las Vegas this week, where Plex Chief Product Officer Scott Olechowski told me that these new music features represented a big step forward for the company. “People expect their stuff to look like Netflix,” he said, adding that Plex has done a good job in the past to deliver on this expectation in the video space. For example, last year, the company added online movie trailers and recommendations to its app, allowing users to browse and explore local movie and TV show files just like they would when browsing an online video service.

In the coming weeks, Plex is now going to bring a similar experience to the music space. The company has teamed up with Gracenote to add recognition and tagging of files and help people organize their music library. Plex also uses Gracenote’s data to automatically recommend music from a user’s personal library, and even generate playlists that kind of work like Pandora stations.

Plex 3

And to add some eye-candy for everyone who is using Plex on the big screen, it also shows related music videos from Vevo, which can be watched completely without ads. “This will get music to the place where people don’t need iTunes anymore,” Olechowski said. He added that Plex is even considering to eventually add paid music downloads, or team up with a music subscription service, to give users a chance to grow their music library.

Plex is getting Vevo’s videos through a partnership with the music video service, which costs the company some real money. That’s why the videos will only be available to paying Plex Pass subscribers. Plex first introduced this paid tier two years ago, initially just providing paying users with early access to new features. But with music videos and trailers, Plex is looking to turn Plex Pass more into a true premium experience, and get even more people to convert. Olechowski told me that the company already gets about 80 percent of its revenue from Plex Pass subscribers.

Plex 1

Plex currently employs 42 people all around the world, and most of them have been working to bring Plex to a large number of devices, including most recently the launch on the PS3 and PS4. This year, the company also wants to improve the channel experience for integrating third-party online content in Plex, and give users better tools for their personal photos and videos.

User-generated content is “a deceptively hard problem,” said Olechowski, adding that most people are likely to have a mix of cloud-based and local media that is hard to manage. Plex wants to solve that problem by integrating more cloud storage systems over time, and help users to explore and rediscover their personal videos.

ces-2015-3

Thom Yorke made as much as $20M from his BitTorrent experiment

As part of its mission to convince the music industry that it isn’t just for copyright infringers, BitTorrent launched a new product in 2013 called “Bundles,” which allow musicians and other artists to combine free downloads with paid products. One of the most high-profile figures to experiment with this feature last year was Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, who used it for his new album — and not only did he become the most legally-downloaded BitTorrent artist in 2014, but he may have made as much as $20 million.

What makes those kinds of numbers even more impressive is that Yorke didn’t launch his album bundle, called Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, until the end of September. By October — according to a comment on Twitter from an editor with Billboard magazine — the bundle had already been downloaded over 4 million times, and a year-end retrospective from BitTorrent says that the total number of downloads was 4.4 million.

When he released the album, Yorke said in a statement that he hoped the bundle would become an alternative to traditional music releases for more artists, saying it could prove to be “an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work [and] bypassing the self elected gate-keepers.”

Thom Yorke BitTorrent bundle

The paid portion of the bundle, which included seven songs, cost $6 to download — meaning the total amount of revenue generated by the project could be as high as $26 million. Since BitTorrent gives 90 percent of the income from its bundles to the artist, that means Yorke could have made almost $24 million from the album. That’s far more than he likely would have made releasing it using almost any other traditional method.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple, as a number of music-industry watchers have pointed out: the $26-million revenue figure assumes that everyone who downloaded the bundle paid for it. But bundles also include free downloads — in Yorke’s case, a song and a video. And BitTorrent allows the artist to decide whether to release the exact breakdown of free vs. paid, something that Yorke has chosen not to do, according to BitTorrent’s head of content strategy Straith Schreder.

Whatever the actual breakdown of paid vs. free is, however, more than 4 million downloads is still a big number, and if even half of those who downloaded it paid $6 for the bundle then Yorke still made a substantial amount of revenue with very little overhead. It certainly makes BitTorrent’s bundle program look pretty good compared with other distribution methods such as iTunes, which takes a 30-percent cut of the proceeds.

Update: Glenn Peoples of Billboard magazine estimates that Yorke probably made between $1 million and $6 million on his album, based on the likely number of people who paid for it rather than just getting the free track. The low number is based on the proportion of users who pay for Pandora.