'To Live and Die in LA' shows how much Google knows about you

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In episode five, season one of the podcast Serial, Sarah Koenig navigates the strip malls and parks of Baltimore, attempting to fulfill a challenge set down by Adnan Syed — the convicted murderer whose case she’s investigating. Over a prison phone, Syed tells Koenig the state’s timeline of the murder is impossible, so she gathers reams of call logs and cell tower records, and pieces together the route he supposedly took the night he killed his girlfriend in 1999. Memories from witnesses have changed over the years, but the data points on the cell tower map tell the same story every time.

Still, it takes a lot of guesswork. Koenig drives between Woodlawn High School, Best Buy and Leakin Park, trying to match the stories of professed witnesses to the pings from Syed’s phone. The Serial map shows 10 cell towers covering a six-mile stretch of Baltimore, and as Koenig drives around the area, she notes the pings don’t match the story told by the state’s lead witness.

Serial cell tower map

It’s not enough to exonerate Syed. His lawyer apparently mentioned the discrepancy, vaguely, in Syed’s initial trial, but she seemed unprepared to discuss the technical details behind cell-tower location tracking. In the end, the ambiguity of a ping, which could stem from a phone miles away from the actual tower, wasn’t enough evidence for the jury. They trusted the witness and convicted Syed.

Serial aired in 2014 and it covered a case from 1999. The podcast To Live and Die in LA, meanwhile, began airing on February 28th, 2019, investigating the 2018 disappearance and murder of an aspiring actress. Its tenth episode, “Blood on the Script,” dropped on May 2nd, and it starts with an experiment in ping-based location tracking. The host, Neil Strauss, drives to an undisclosed location and his partner, a private investigator, contacts the service he uses to find people in real-time.

The result he gets is wildly inaccurate — 21 miles away from Strauss’ actual location, or one hour and 12 minutes in LA traffic. Strauss then reveals he has access to the suspected murderer’s Google account, location history and all. Strauss spends the next two episodes retracing his suspect’s steps on the likely night of the murder and over the following days, minute by minute and mile by mile.

To Live and Die in LA

In the dead of night, the suspected murderer wove a confusing path around a neighborhood he supposedly knew well, before driving down a small back road that led to the river where the victim’s body was eventually discovered. He drove to a Chevron station, and then to a Super8, and finally at 4:04AM, he stopped at a La Quinta Inn. The next day he visited two different car washes, went to his dad’s house, and hit a series of stores in a squalid town off the highway. The Google Location History data is so exact that Strauss can see whether the man got out of his truck at each stop.

Strauss follows the friendly blue line across the map, stopping where his suspect stopped and noting how long he spent in each location. He can see his suspect’s every move, as long as his phone was connected to Google services.

The gap between Serial and To Live and Die in LA is jarring. Koenig had to guess where her mark might have been within a 20-mile radius at any time, making it nearly impossible to corroborate or refute witness statements, while Strauss was able to see his suspect’s precise movements for days on end, complete with timestamps and cute icons.

A snapshot of Google Timeline
Jessica Conditt / Engadget

Google Location History is an investigator’s dream, and law enforcement is definitely taking notice. Federal and regional authorities around the United States have been tapping into Google’s location database since 2016, using “geofence” warrants to request information on every device that entered a specific location at a certain time. The data points are anonymized — at least until authorities have enough of a case to compel Google to share the personal information of likely culprits.

It’s not a perfect system. Geofence warrants have already led to wrongful arrests; after all, Google is tracking a device, not an actual person. If someone takes your phone on a bank heist and law enforcement throws down a geofence warrant, your data is heading into the war room.

Police and federal investigators are using geofence warrants with increasing regularity. In April, The New York Times reported Google received as many as 180 requests from law enforcement a week. And, if you’re interacting with modern society and technology, it’s tricky to avoid Google’s dragnet.

“We feel so privileged to be developing products for billions of users, and with that scale comes a deep sense of responsibility to create things that improve people’s lives,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said during his opening monologue at the I/O conference in April.

Google I/O 2019

Billions of people are tapped into the Google ecosystem, many of them relying on these services daily, or even hourly. While Google’s stated mission puts humanity first, its nature as a public entity means executives can’t value philanthropy over profit. And, of course, Google makes a lot of money through data-driven ad sales. Advertising alone brought in $30.7 billion for Google in the first quarter of 2019 (the company’s overall revenue for the period was $36.3 billion).

More than $10 billion a month is plenty of incentive for Google to collect as much data from its users as possible, consequences be damned. It’s the likely reason Google has locked its data-consent policies behind multi-step processes, or forced its apps onto Android phones, or engaged in abusive advertising practices, or offered ads targeted by hate speech. Futureproofing its data-collection abilities could explain why Google hid a microphone in the Nest Secure. All of these incidents were in service of, or a result of, Google’s vast internal datasets.

Google rolled out Location History in 2009, and since then, the company has been gathering information on Android and iPhone users alike, even when they’ve opted out of tracking. A 2018 investigation by the Associated Press revealed Google apps were storing a user’s time-stamped location data, even when that person turned off Location History. Google admitted to this practice, telling The Verge, “We make sure Location History users know that when they disable the product, we continue to use location to improve the Google experience.”

Google I/O 2019

At this year’s I/O, Google emphasized its commitment to privacy. The company has rolled out a handful of new security features, including the ability to auto-delete activity data and Location History on a rolling basis. It’s unclear how this feature addresses location tracking in the background of Google apps.

In Engadget’s coverage of geofence warrants, associate editor Jon Fingas made the following observation: “Location History’s existence isn’t a secret. It’s been available since 2009, and you have to grant permission before Google starts collecting data. However, people don’t necessarily realize that Google keeps the info for an indefinite period, or that the history is detailed enough to provide a picture of street-by-street movements to investigators.”

In the name of data-driven profit, that’s exactly how Google wants it.

It’s been 10 years since Google flipped the switch on Location History, and this sea of information has carved our current reality, where a podcast journalist can log into a Google account and trace the explicit movements of a stranger accused of murder in California, all from the comfort of his own cell phone. This is just a taste of the influence and insight that Google has over the lives of billions of people; it’s exhilarating and terrifying.

It also makes for a good podcast.

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Google shows Apple and Samsung how ‘lite’ flagships are done

In recent years, the price of flagship phones has skyrocketed. What used to cost about $700 now goes for $1,000, albeit with more advanced features packed in. At the time of this writing, the iPhone XS starts at $999, the Galaxy S10 is $900, and the Note 9 costs $1,000. The existing Pixel 3 might be a bit cheaper at $799, but the larger 3 XL starts at $899.

This trend in pricing was soon followed by the return of the “lite” flagship — watered down versions of the pricier phones that cost hundreds less. There’s last year’s iPhone XR, the Galaxy S10e and now, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL (side note: it’s nice that Google offers its affordable alternative in two sizes). Midrange phones and lower-cost flagships have been done before, but this burgeoning category is good news for us, something that the Pixel 3a makes especially clear.

These cheaper devices take on companies like OnePlus, Motorola and Xiaomi in the midrange market, but come with the prestige their famous brands provide. Apple, Samsung and Google want to expand their reach to people with shallower pockets, which is obviously a sensible strategy.

During Alphabet’s most recent earnings call, CFO Ruth Porat and Google CEO Sundar Pichai both called out “pressures in the premium smartphone industry” as reasons for a slowdown in Pixel sales this past quarter. But, according to Pixel product manager Soniya Jobanputra, these pressures weren’t what inspired the Pixel 3a.

Pixel 3a XL review

“We’ve been building this phone for many more quarters than that,” she said. “When we started pitching this, people were like ‘no one builds phones at that price anymore.'”

A thousand bucks is a lot to cough up for a premium phone, even if there are people who don’t care about price and just want the best tech around. “They want a phone with the latest and greatest of everything,” Jobanputra said. But not everyone can afford that, even with installment plans.

With their lite flagships, companies like Apple and Google like to talk about making their technology accessible to more people. “We were thinking that we have an amazing experience and we want to bring it to more users,” Jobanputra said. Similarly, Apple knew before it launched the iPhone X that it needed to bring that device’s advances in software and performance to people who didn’t want to shell out $1,000.

This approach has largely been successful for Apple — the iPhone XR quickly became the company’s best-selling phone. On the other hand, Samsung’s Galaxy S10e was the lowest-selling model of this year’s generation of Galaxy S phones.

Apple iPhone XR

Google will probably do better, and I base my prediction on a single factor: price. At $400, the Pixel 3a is the cheapest of the lite flagships and doesn’t compromise on specs too much. You’ll get (almost) the same class-leading camera that’s on the Pixel 3, a solid build and even a longer-lasting battery than the pricier flagship. Sure, you’ll be relegated to a slower Snapdragon 670 processor, but Google’s engineers have worked hard to make its software fly on that chipset. People who don’t need wireless charging, water resistance or a wide-angle selfie camera won’t miss much.

Jobanputra is confident her team has made a good product. “I think it’s going to do really well.”

It’s not like Google hasn’t done this before, either. The Nexus series often offered flagship features for hundreds of dollars less than the competition. And for a spell, those phones were well-received. But the company ditched that line for the more-premium Pixel lineup with the mission of making the best canvas with which to showcase its software. The Pixel 3a is not simply a watered-down Pixel 3; the work that Google’s engineers had to do to make Android perform at its best on lower-power hardware is further proof of the company’s software prowess.

Pixel 3a XL

The fact that Google, Apple and Samsung are edging into a slightly cheaper space means we can expect other companies in that strata to do better. Because the Pixel 3a offers so much for so little money, it could seriously up the ante. For just $400, you’re getting a capable phone with a flagship-level camera — an area where sacrifices are usually made to save money on your smartphone. That price also makes the Pixel 3a significantly cheaper than the Galaxy S10e and the iPhone XR, which both cost $750. If nothing else, Google is showing Apple and Samsung how to do the “lite” flagship right.

Catch up on all the latest news from Google IO 2019 here!

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Nintendo Game Boy at 30: As fun as it ever was

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Game Boy’s release in Japan. Three decades ago, the portable gaming landscape would change forever. Whether you owned a Game Boy or not, it’s likely something you’re familiar with. The legacy reaches far beyond a retro gaming handheld. Three Engadget editors share their personal favorite version, and why it matters to them.

James Trew

James Trew
Managing Editor

I remember like it was yesterday. It was 1991, and I had my nose pressed up against the glass outside a branch of Dixons, on Park Street in Bristol (England). I was staring at a revolutionary new handheld console that would change gaming as we know it: the Atari Lynx II. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. History would prove me wrong. So very, very wrong. 30 years ago, the real pioneer of gaming handhelds — Nintendo’s Game Boy, of course — was released in Japan. It had even been around in the UK a while before my uninformed beak was smudging up windows of big box electronics stores. (The Game Boy came to the UK in 1990.)

Despite choosing the Lynx, I almost instantly knew I’d made a mistake. All the other kids in my class, bar one, made the right choice (Dave Galloway, the other Lynx owner, and I soon became close friends). The playground soon changed from scrappy games of football to pockets of kids gathered around someone playing Tetris, or maybe two people playing Tetris against each other. Dave and I were elsewhere playing two-player California Games (which is amazing, FWIW).

I loved the Lynx, but it was hard not to envy the endless stream of new and exciting titles for the Game Boy. Or its impressive battery life and actual pocket-friendly size. Atari went after superlatives (first color portable! 16-bit graphics!) and tried to squeeze an (80s) arcade into a small box. Nintendo took a totally different approach, knowing that handhelds required boiling things down to the basics, and focusing on the gameplay. Atari’s portable had all the graphical power, on paper at least, but somehow, the worlds created on Nintendo’s green dot-matrix baby looked more inviting and skillfully drawn for the limited display. Not shoehorned down from an arcade machine.

Nintendo Game Boy

Thirty years later (for this story), I righted that wrong, and bought an original Game Boy on eBay. It cost me about $40, and came with Mortal Kombat. It’s in surprisingly good condition for something older than some of my colleagues here at Engadget. It works just fine, and the two-tone bootup chime still stirs a tinge of jealousy, even though this one belongs to me.

But nostalgia is always rosy. The moment Mortal Kombat loaded up, I was instantly reminded of the Game Boy’s Achilles heel: that small, fuzzy, squint-inducing display. Even in the middle of the day, I found myself struggling to focus on the gray-and-green image before me, occasionally finding myself focusing on my reflection and not the game. I thumbed for the contrast wheel, hoping that I could gently roll the image into clarity, but it basically seesaws between all black, all green and usable. How did we tolerate this? Because it was 1990, and nothing beat the satisfaction of slamming a much-needed “straight” into the perfect gap for a Tetris.

As much as I struggled with that display — hardly surprising after 30 years of LCD and OLED development — one thing remains true: the games are still pretty cracking. I wanted to enjoy the true Game Boy experience so I also shelled out for a copy of Super Mario Land (and Star Wars, for no reason other than it was a deal). Both of these games somehow seem to have more depth than their nearest rivals on the Lynx. Game Boy titles draw you in with simple graphics, clever gameplay and cute, creative worlds. The Lynx was more about high scores or button-mashing (not entirely, but given there are only about 70 games, there’s not a massive variety).

As much as I am enjoying the Game Boy, I realize (in hindsight) one clear benefit of the Lynx, at least if you’re a collector type like me. The small library is pretty easy to pick up, and there’s enough rare stuff to keep things interesting once you do. The Game Boy, with its vast library (and Japan-only releases) and cacophony of accessories and special editions would be maddening to collect. Of course, these are small consolations and a long time coming. For the last three decades, it’s always been the most fun to play overall, and that’s what really counts.

Nick Summers

Nick Summers
Senior Editor

Man, I loved my transparent Game Boy Pocket. Wave Race, Grand Theft Auto, James Bond 007 — I rammed each cartridge into my handheld and didn’t stop playing until the credits rolled. There was one title, though, that I could never quite beat: Metroid II: Return of Samus, a 2D action-adventure by R&D1, the fabled development team behind Donkey Kong and the original Mario Bros.

I remember the game feeling absolutely enormous. Samus’ quest took place in a subterranean labyrinth that was seemingly impossible to navigate without a notepad and pen. The scale was daunting, yet utterly mesmerizing. I could spend hours sprinting through its cavernous corridors, looking for items and ferocious Metroid monsters to blast. Before too long, I would get stuck and slowly backtrack towards the surface, looking hopelessly for weapons, bosses and areas I might have missed. If a friend didn’t have the solution, I would eventually give up and move onto something else.

I returned to Metroid II many times. If I couldn’t find a way forward, I simply restarted the game and played the opening few hours again. It was mildly therapeutic until, of course, I got stuck in the same part again.

Nintendo Game Boy Pocket

I never consulted a walkthrough and, therefore, have no idea how much progress I made. To be honest, I’m scared to look even now. I’m not sure what would be worse: to know that I was only a few hours from completion, or that I barely scratched the surface of a tricky but relatively straightforward adventure. Looking at a walkthrough now would also reveal the game’s outer limits and, by extension, shatter the sense of wonder and infinite possibilities that R&D1 crafted so perfectly in the ’90s.

That same fear stopped me from playing the official remake, Metroid: Samus Returns, on the Nintendo 3DS a couple of years back.

I still have my original Metroid II cartridge in a drawer somewhere, gathering dust. I’ll occasionally take it out and admire the tiny artwork, but I never, ever play it. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the battery inside the cartridge had died, taking the save file with it.) Deep down, I like that Metroid II ultimately conquered my brain. It adds to the mythos and unrealistic expectations I’ve built up around the game.

Metroid II is special to me, even if I barely made a dent in its campaign.

Aaron Souppouris

Aaron Souppouris
Features Editor

I got my Game Boy in 1990. As the youngest of four, there weren’t many things that were mine; there was my elder brothers’ NES, and later their Mega Drive and Saturn. But the Game Boy? That was mine, and I adored it, even if I only had Tetris at first.

Within a couple of years, I had a few more titles — Tennis, Super Mario Land and Gremlins 2 — but none of them captured my attention the way Link’s Awakening did. I was 8 at the time, and it was a truly formative experience. Anyone at Engadget present for Nintendo’s recent Direct presentation can confirm my excitement upon discovering it was coming to the Switch.

I stuck with the Game Boy for a very long time. I’ve been trying to remember what other games I played — Alien 3 was definitely a winner — but mostly just Tetris on the daily.

As time went by, my faithful Game Boy was superseded by all manner of consoles. Of course, I lusted after the Game Gear (4,096 colors!), and I distinctly remember pleading for a Game Boy Pocket when I was about to enter high school. But the one I wanted most was the Game Boy Light.

Game Boy Light

Released only in Japan in 1998, the Light fit somewhere between the original Game Boy and the Pocket in size, but had one thing no other Game Boy had: an electroluminescent display. It was the stuff of legend among kids at school, and for five months or so, I thought of nothing else. Then, the Game Boy Color came out, and I had a new object to lust after.

I picked up a Game Boy Color almost immediately, thanks to winning “letter of the month” in Computer and Video Games magazine in late ’98. But it never really captured my attention the way the original did. The Saturn and N64 were basically the only things I wanted to play, and I was already counting down the days until the Dreamcast would hit UK shores (October 14, 1999!). Tetris DX was a pretty sweet companion on the bus, though.

Honestly, until a few weeks ago, I’d forgotten about just how much I wanted the Light. Turns out, I now have a job and some manner of disposable income, and so I decided to have a look through eBay at some hugely overpriced secondhand models. Then, last week, I found it: a limited edition Pokemon Center Game Boy Light, with all of its original packaging. I had to have it. I’ve probably (okay, definitely), spent more than I should have for a console which I’m unlikely to ever play. But I owed it to the 13-year-old inside me, who I can confirm is ecstatic about the decision.

Image: WikiCommons (Game Boy flat), Marco Verch/Flickr (Game Boy Light)

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Console gaming is at a crossroads

Sony and Microsoft have been walking the same path for nearly 20 years, when it comes to gaming hardware. Instead of leaves, shiny silver game discs dangle from the trees, while black and white boxes of varying sizes line the underbrush, covered in decades of debris and Doritos dust. Both companies know this trail well — but it’s about to split in two.

Microsoft is taking the right fork. This one doesn’t have game discs at all: The latest Xbox, revealed just this week, is called the One S All-Digital Edition and it’s designed for online, download-centric gaming. It doesn’t have an optical drive.

Xbox One S All-Digital Edition

Sony, meanwhile, is staying the course. The path forward is clear and well-trod, but it’s also slightly brighter and more crisp than the road behind. The next PlayStation, known as the PlayStation 5 for now, is an upgraded version of its existing hardware, promising to run faster and smoother than the PlayStation 4 Pro, with support for 8K graphics and 3D audio. It has an optical disc drive.

Physically, the optical drive is a small feature, but it represents a gigantic shift in the video game ecosystem. Streaming video games are on their way, whether established broadband networks are ready or not, and the industry is moving toward a borderless, cross-platform, digital-focused marketplace.

Sales of physical media have been steadily declining for the past decade, according to Statista. In 2009, 80 percent of all game sales came from physical discs and cartridges, and just 20 percent was digital. By 2017, those figures had swapped, with 80 percent of the industry’s software sales stemming from digital transactions. Even Nintendo, a company that’s been historically reluctant to add online features to its games and consoles, has finally embraced modernity with the Switch, allowing cross-platform play, adding online features and building out its digital store.

Google at GDC 2019

And then there’s the new competition. Google recently revealed Stadia, a device-agnostic game-streaming service with aggressive goals, such as loading a game in under five seconds, from a link, in a Chrome browser on any device with a screen. Google promises streams at up to 4K and 60fps with HDR, with no lag and a slew of built-in social features. Stadia is due to roll out later this year.

This is the reality that Microsoft and Sony are contending with as they prepare to launch their next consoles. Microsoft, a company with cloud technology to rival Google, is happy to embrace the digital age. The Xbox One S All-Digital Edition is a console built specifically for this awkward transition period, with the ghost of physical media clinging to the industry’s shirtsleeves. There’s no graphics upgrade here — the All-Digital Edition is simply an Xbox One S, sans an optical drive. The benefit for consumers, Microsoft argues, is the price — the console runs $250 and it will always cost $50 less than the Xbox One S.

The All-Digital Edition is a vessel for Microsoft’s online subscription services, Xbox Live Gold and Game Pass. Xbox Live Gold unlocks online multiplayer capabilities in many games — a necessary feature for the top titles of the day, including Fortnite, Overwatch, PUBG, Rainbow Six Siege, Rocket League, Grand Theft Auto Online, Apex Legends and Minecraft. Gold costs $60 a year. Game Pass, meanwhile, grants access to a library of more than 100 games, all available to download and play as long as your subscription is active. Game Pass is $10 a month, or $120 a year.

Game Pass Ultimate

This week, Microsoft revealed Game Pass Ultimate, a bundle that combines Xbox Live Gold and Game Pass into a single subscription of $15 a month, or $180 a year. That’s the same price as buying Gold and Game Pass separately, by the way. It’s no coincidence this announcement was paired with the reveal of the All-Digital Edition, which is made for online-focused gaming.

Microsoft has its eyes on launching its own games-streaming service. Project xCloud is its version of Google Stadia, for all intents and purposes, and it’s set to enter beta this year.

This has all been a long time coming for Microsoft.

This has all been a long time coming for Microsoft. When it announced the Xbox One in 2013, it pitched the console as an “always-on” device that would be regularly connected to Microsoft servers, offering on-the-fly updates and digital downloads galore. But, players hated the idea of forced connectivity and after a few weeks of pushback, Microsoft reversed course and announced the Xbox One would function just like a traditional console, no online functions required.

At the time, Sony was soaking in schadenfreude and pitching the PlayStation 4 as something familiar but better, no internet connection required and no restrictions on game sharing. Sony trolled Microsoft with a skit demonstrating how easy it was to share used games, something that sounded complex in the Xbox One’s always-on, digital-focused biosphere. In the video, a Sony executive simply handed a game disc to another executive.

That video was uploaded to YouTube on June 10, 2013. According to Statista, 2013 is the first year that digital video game sales overtook physical, claiming 54 percent of the market.

It’s now 2019 and Sony is sticking to its traditional strategy, one that has bolstered the console industry for generations. Designed by legendary hardware architect Mark Cerny, the PlayStation 5 is a powerful machine built to rival most gaming PCs, with a third-generation, 8-core Ryzen CPU built on Sony’s 7nm Zen 2 microarchitecture. A custom GPU enables ray-tracing and 3D immersive audio, and the console will have an SSD that drastically reduces load times. It’ll also support graphics up to 8K, a goal that no game today comes close to hitting. All of this, plus the new console is backward compatible with PS4 games and the PlayStation VR headset.

Still, the most notable aspect of the PS5 is its optical drive. Sony is banking on the long tail of physical game sales and the collections of discs that players have accumulated over the years. While Microsoft and other companies are attempting to get ahead of what’s next, Sony is banking on familiarity.

This isn’t a bad bet. One of the (many) reasons Microsoft had such a hard time selling the Xbox One as an always-on console in 2013 was the fact that it was different. Change, while constant and often good, is inherently scary on a mass scale, and Microsoft did a poor job of assuaging these fears and presenting a clear future improved by its hardware. In comparison, the PS4 looked like a stable, desired upgrade and Sony seemed like a savvy company biding its time.

Xbox One S All-Digital Edition

Today, Microsoft doesn’t have to convince consumers that digital media is the future — because it’s the present. An all-digital Xbox One S makes perfect sense today, in a market dominated by downloaded games and online play, and it sets the stage for Microsoft’s true goal: getting players hooked on subscription services and, eventually, its own Netflix-style games-streaming system.

PlayStation Now still doesn’t work well enough.

Cloud gaming isn’t a foreign concept to Sony. It purchased a few streaming companies in the industry’s early days and launched PlayStation Now, a cloud-gaming subscription service, in January 2015. It worked, but not well — streamed titles tended to be littered with latency and gameplay issues, when they loaded at all. As of early 2019, PlayStation Now still doesn’t work well enough to be the proof-of-concept that game-streaming needs. Sony is keeping it alive, though, charging $20 a month or $100 a year.

It’s unclear how much the PS5 will cost, but considering the specs and based on historical pricing patterns, it’ll likely be much more than $250, the price of the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition. The PS5 is significantly more powerful than the All-Digital Edition. Plus, it has an optical drive (though that may not be worth much, after all).

As they approach the fork in the road, Sony and Microsoft are focused on different features. Sony’s head is down, studying the systems that work now and have worked for generations, improving on them in expected, yet still highly anticipated ways. Microsoft is looking ahead. It’s attempting to build a different future, and it’s taking a risk by removing its gaze from the beaten path. There’s a ton of momentum behind streaming and all-digital gaming right now, but these services could fail. Broadband and mobile networks may not be ready for low-latency, stutter-free cloud gaming, even in 2019. In fact, it’s probable they’re not. Microsoft is preparing for this future regardless, eyes up and more likely to trip — but that might be exactly why it saw the branching path in the first place.

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Netflix should certainly feel threatened by Disney+

From November, Disney’s streaming service will offer the best of its extensive library at a knock-down price. Disney+ will not only be the home of the studio’s blue-chip movies, but also host a number of exclusive TV series and pictures. For most households, the $7-per month will just about squeeze into the budget, but what does this mean for Netflix?

Disney+ will be the biggest competition Netflix has seen since Amazon Prime. Disney’s strategy seems fairly simple, though: Catch Netflix in a pincer maneuver. Disney+ will hosts family-friendly and educational content parents will love, while Hulu, like Buena Vista and Miramax before it, will become Disney’s repository for material it doesn’t want its name on. Disney is hoping to score around 90 million subscribers by 2024, a conservative target given that Netflix currently has 139 million.

Now, Netflix has some intrinsic brand value, and its name alone has become a euphemism for one way to spend an evening. But it’s not on the same level of Disney — a studio and institution that’s existed for most of the last century

Beyond the draw of the name, Disney has a number of beloved characters, from Mickey Mouse to Anna and Elsa, not to mention third-party studios, from Marvel to Lucasfilm, that have their own devoted, global fanbases.

Disney Losses

On top of that, Disney told investors this week that it is committed to losing money on Disney+ until 2024. Now, Netflix is profitable and made $133.9 million in the last quarter, but it does not have the financial muscle to fight Disney in a war of attrition.

Netflix is only profitable if you ignore the $10.4 billion of debt it has accrued to buy the glitzy TV shows and movies it shows off. When that debt is due, Netflix will need to get much bigger or wring more cash out of existing users.

At $21 billion, Disney’s debt pile is more than double that of Netflix’s, but the former is a super conglomerate. If Disney’s movies go through a rough patch, it can lean back on its theme parks, sports and merchandising arms to help it out. To put Disney’s financial might into perspective, its video game and merchandise division alone made more money ($1.7B) in 2017 than Netflix did in the whole of 2018 ($1.6B).

With all its purchases, Netflix’s tendency toward buying high-concept TV shows with little sustainability may wind up being a problem, too. Ampere Analysis found that the average show across all streaming services was killed off after just two seasons, compared to the six or seven on traditional networks. That said, Netflix is also showing how bold it can be compared to the sclerotic broadcast networks.

Maybe no-one will be too upset when Disney’s content is pulled from Netflix, given that Avengers: Infinity War won’t leave until 2020. And there are only 20 Disney-branded titles that are currently listed for removal from a catalog that contains years worth of content. Disney+, on the other hand, will contain all of its animated and live action movies that haven’t been erased from its history.

Will people sign up to yet another streaming platform without thinking twice about what they’re already paying for? Netflix is already a default streaming option for so many and people may feel like they can’t get rid of it. Sadly, the promise of cord-cutting has transformed into an endless pile-on of services all craving a chunk of your wallet.

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