Xbox Live is down for many

If you were trying to sneak in a quick game on Xbox Live during your Friday afternoon lunch break and found that you can’t get online: don’t worry, you’re not alone.

While Microsoft’s Xbox Live Status page still says all things are good to go (Update: Microsoft’s status page has now caught up with the outage, and says that it’s impacting sign-ins, account creations, and searches), reports are pouring in of an outage keeping many users from logging in.

Microsoft acknowledged the problem on Twitter, saying that they’re “looking into it now”

Story developing…

Spotify aims to turn podcast fans into podcast creators with ‘Create podcast’ test

Spotify is testing a new ‘Create podcast’ feature that shows up atop a user’s list of their subscribed podcasts in the app interface, as first uncovered by Jane Manchung Wong (@wongmjane) (via Engadget). The button then provides a takeover promotion directing users to download Anchor, the podcast creation app that Spotify acquired in February.

This is yet another example of the investment that Spotify is making in podcasts – both their consumption and their creation. The subscription streaming company also unveiled a new analytics dashboard for podcasts earlier this year, and released it to all creators earlier in August. Because the company is also primarily a music streaming service, these insights include showing podcast creators what artists their listeners primarily gravitate towards.

Spotify has also launched a personalized playlist that mixes music with podcasts, opened up its podcast submission tool to all creators, and redesigned its navigation in-app to put podcasts on more equal footing with music, all in 2019 alone. The company is clearly doubling down on podcasts as a key element of its overall platform, building on a number of acquisitions on both the content and creation side.

Podcasts represent a way for Spotify to both diversify its revenue and open up a new line of business wherein it can own more of the upside, since its current licensing relationships with music labels mean it gets very little of the money paid from subscribers to its service based on their streams of songs. Especially via selling ads to creators and advertisers, Spotify stands to be able to make more from podcasts in terms of profit if it can continue to increase usage among listeners.

Earbuds lets audiences stream the playlists of athletes, entertainers and each other

Earbuds, a new startup from Austin founded by former Detroit Lions lineman Jason Fox, wants to bring the power of social media to your eardrums.

The company is one of a growing number of startups trying to rejuvenate the music streaming market by combining it with social networking so that audiences can listen to the playlists of their favorite athletes and entertainers… and their friends.

For Fox, the idea for Earbuds sprung from his experiences in the NFL, watching how other players interacted with crowds and hearing about the things fans wanted to know about their favorite players’ routines.

“We were playing Caroline in the first game of the season and Cam Newton was warming up right next to me,” Fox recalled. “He was jamming. Getting the crowd into it. And I was thinking there’re 85,000 people here and millions of more people watching at home…  And I thought… how many people would love to be in his headphones right now?”

Jason Fox TC

Earbuds founder Jason Fox

It wasn’t just Cam Newton who received attention. Fox said at every press conference one or two questions would be about what songs teammates played before games. On social media, players would take screenshots of their playlists and post them to platforms like Twitter or Instagram, Fox said.

The company has been out in the market in a beta version since February and has focused on lining up potential Earbuds devotees from among Fox’s friends in the NFL and entertainers from music and media.

“We made a decision to tweak something and make it very very heavily around influencers because that’s what’s really driving traffic for us,” Fox says. 

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Image courtesy of Earbuds

At its core, the app is just about making music more social, according to Fox. “There’s a social platform for everything, but in the days of terrestrial media distribution music has remain isolated,” he says. 

Logging on is easy. Users can create a login for the app or use their Google or Facebook accounts. One more step to link the Earbuds app with Spotify or Apple Music (the company offers one month free of the premium versions of either service to new users) and then a user can look for friends or browse popular playlists.

A leaderboard indicates which users on the app have streamed the most music and users can create their own streams by adding songs from their libraries to build in-app playlists.

Earbuds isn’t the first company to take a shot at socializing the music listening experience. The olds may remember services like Turntable.fm, which took a stab at making music social but shut down back in 2013. Newer services, like Playlist, are also combining social networking features with music streaming. That site focuses on connecting people with similar musical tastes.

Fox thinks that the ability to attract entertainers like Nelly (who’s on the app) and athletes could be transformative for listeners. Basically these artists and athletes can become their own online radio station, he says.

Fox spent nearly a year meeting with streaming services, music labels, athletes, artists and college students (the app’s initial target market) before even working with developers on a single line of code. The initial work was done out of Los Angeles, but after a year Fox moved the company down to Austin and rebuilt the app from the ground up to focus more on the user experience.

Early partnerships with Burton on an activation had snowboarders streaming their music as they rode a halfpipe proved that there was an audience, Fox said. Now the company is working on integrations across different sports and even esports.

Fox raised a small friends and family round of $630,000 before putting together a $1.5 million seed to get the app out into the market. Now the company is looking for $3 million to scale even more as it looks to integrations with sports teams and other streaming services like Twitch (to capture the gaming audience).

The company currently has seven employees.

Earbuds is available on iOS.

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Apple reportedly planning to fund creation of exclusive original podcasts

Apple is said to be planning to bankroll the creation of original podcasts from third-parties that it will offer exclusively on its own streaming services, Bloomberg reports. The report says that Apple’s plans to land podcast exclusives will help the company compete with similar offerings from streaming rivals including Spotify and Sticher, both of which are funding exclusive podcast content, and in some cases, wholly original shows to run on their own streaming audio offerings.

The report says that Apple execs have been reaching out to media companies that produce audio content to talk about the possibility of buying exclusive rights to some podcasts, albeit in a “preliminary” way, which suggests that this plan may be in the very early stages. It seems unlikely, then, that we would see any kind of Apple exclusive original podcast content ahead of other media efforts soon to launch from the company, including its Apple TV+ subscription video service coming this fall.

Apple has recently made a number of improvements to its podcast product offerings, both on the consumer and the creator side, including more detailed analytics for podcasters, and a full-fledged standalone Podcasts app for its macOS computers, which is launching alongside macOS Catalina this fall. Still, it’s largely been hands-off when it comes to content, aside from informally meeting with podcasters on occasion and sharing best practices.

Meanwhile, Spotify in particular has been especially aggressive about acquiring its own podcast media companies, including Gimlet, which makes popular podcast ‘Reply All”; Anchor, which creates podcast making tools for publishing and monetization; and Parcast, another podcast creation network with a deep library of true-life and other content.

Apple still enjoys a strong majority of audience when it comes to overall podcast listenership by all accounts, but Spotify is definitely chipping away by focusing effort and investment both on the product and on the content side. Apple considering funding content of its own definitely makes sense given its tactics in video, and the changed landscape of the podcast business.

Microsoft’s $399 Azure Kinect AI camera is now shipping in the U.S. and China

Earlier this year, at MWC, Microsoft announced the return of its Kinect sensor in the form of an AI developer kit. The $399 Azure Kinect DK camera system includes a 1MP depth camera, 360-degree microphone, 12MP RGB camera and an orientation sensor, all in a relatively small package. The kit has been available for pre-order for a few months now, but as the company announced today, it’s now generally available and shipping to pre-order customers in the U.S. and China.

Unlike the original Kinect, which launched as an Xbox gaming accessory that never quite caught on, the Azure Kinect is all business. It’s meant to give developers a platform to experiment with AI tools and plug into Azure’s ecosystem of machine learning services (though using Azure is not mandatory).

To help developers get started, the company already launched a number of SDKs, including a preview of a body-tracking SDK that is close to what you may remember from the Kinect’s Xbox days.

kinect developers

The core of the camera has more to do with Microsoft’s HoloLens than the original Kinect. As the company notes in its press materials, the Azure Kinect DK users the same time-of-flight sensor the company developed for the second generation of its HoloLens AR visor. And while the focus here is clearly on using the camera, Microsoft also notes that the microphone array also allows developers to build sophisticated speech solutions.

The company is positioning the device as an easy gateway for its users in health and life sciences, retail, logistics and robotics to start experimenting with using depth sensing and machine learning. We’ve seen somewhat similar dev kits from others, including Microsoft partner Qualcomm, though these devices don’t usually have the depth camera that makes the Kinect DK a Kinect.

Spotify Lite for Android gets an official launch in 36 countries

Spotify’s Lite app is now official. The app has been in beta since last year, and now Spotify is officially releasing it in 36 countries worldwide.

The app is designed to work on patchy or weak internet connections and, at just 10MB, it is small enough to cater to lower-end devices that have limited storage or older phones. Spotify Lite is limited to Android devices running version 4.3 or newer, and it is open to both paying and non-paying users. For those worried about maxing out their data plan, the app comes with an optional limit that can tell you when you are close to hitting that buffer.

Spotify claims that 90 percent of the features of the main app are available in Lite, in particular areas around multiple — including video and cover artist — are omitted as they are not critical to the core experience.

A spokesperson told TechCrunch that, as of now, there are no plans to bring the Lite experience to iOS. That makes sense as the majority of people who would benefit from the stripped-down experience would be Android owners.

India is likely to be a key focus. Spotify introduced Lite in India in June, months after the full service went live in the country in February.

The overall goal here is to expand Spotify’s reach beyond the current user base by focusing on emerging markets or older users. The company currently claims 217 million users, of which 100 million are paying customers. For comparison, Apple Music passed 60 million users in June.

spotify

Cecilia Qvist, Global Head of Markets, Spotify (left) announced the release of Spotify Lite on stage at Rise in Hong Kong (Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

According to Google Play Store data, Spotify Lite has been downloaded more than one million times. Expect that numbers to rocket as the company goes to town promoting Lite as an alternative entry point for its service.

Lite apps have been popularized by services such as Facebook, Messenger and YouTube which have tapped demand, particularly in emerging markets where data speeds tend to be inconsistent and lower-end devices are more prevalent.

Microsoft will offer console streaming for free to Xbox One owners

Microsoft’s Sunday E3 pressure was all about the games. In fact, while the company did offer some information about hardware and services, the information all arrived fast and furious at the end of the conference. While it’s probably unsurprising that the company had very little to offer in the way of information about its upcoming 8K console, Project Scarlett, most of us expected Project xCloud to get a lot more face time on stage.

The company powered through a whole lot of information about its upcoming streaming offering like it was going out of style (or, perhaps, like the lights were going out at its own theater). The speed and brevity of it all left a number of audience members confused on the specifics — and caused some to speculate that the service night not be as far along as Microsoft had hoped.

We caught up with a few Microsoft reps on our final day at the show to answer some questions. The company is unsurprisingly still mum on a number of key details around the offering. A couple of key things are worth clarifying, though. For starters console stream is not considered a part of Project xCloud. Rather, the ability to play games on one’s own Xbox One remotely is a separate feature that will be coming to users via a software update.

Asked what advantages console streaming has over the parallel xCloud offering, Microsoft’s answer was simple: it’s free. Fair enough. This serves a two-fold purpose. First, it helps differentiate Microsoft’s streaming offerings from Stadia and second, it provides another value proposition for the console itself. As to how performance is expected to differ between console streaming and XCloud, it wouldn’t comment.

As I wrote earlier today, the company does see the potential of a large scale move to the cloud, but anticipates that such a shift is a long ways off. After all, if it didn’t, it likely wouldn’t have announced a new console this week at E3.

We won’t be listening to music in a decade according to Vinod Khosla

Depending on who you ask, the advantage of technology based on artificial or machine intelligence could be a topsy-turvy funhouse mirror world – even in some very fundamental ways.

“I actually think 10 years from now, you won’t be listening to music,” is a thing venture capitalist Vinod Khosla said on stage today during a fireside chat at Creative Destruction Lab’s second annual Super Session event.

Instead, he believes we’ll be listening to custom song equivalents that are automatically designed specifically for each individual, and tailored to their brain, their listening preferences and their particular needs.

Khosla noted that AI-created music is already making big strides – and it’s true that it’s come a long way in the past couple of years, as noted recently by journalist Stuart Dredge writing on Medium.

As Dredge points out, one recent trend is the rise of mood or activity based playlists on Spotify and channels on YouTube. There are plenty of these types of things where the artist, album and song name are not at all important, or even really surfaced. Not to mention that there’s a big financial incentive for an entity like Spotify to prefer machine-made alternatives, since it could help alleviate or eliminate the licensing costs that severely limit their ability to make margin on their primary business of serving up music to customers.

AI-generated chart toppers and general mood music is one thing, but a custom soundtrack specific to every individual is another. It definitely sidesteps the question of what happens to the communal aspect of music when everyone’s music-replacing auditory experience is unique to the person. Guess we’ll find out in ten years.

What do subscription services and streaming mean for the future of gaming?

The future of gaming is streaming. If that wasn’t painfully obvious to you a week ago, it certainly ought to be now. Google got ahead of E3 late last week by finally shedding light on Stadia, a streaming service that promises a hardware agnostic gaming future.

It’s still very early days, of course. We got a demo of the platform right around the time of its original announcement. But it was a controlled one — about all we can hope for at the moment. There are still plenty of moving parts to contend with here, including, perhaps most consequentially, broadband caps.

But this much is certainly clear: Google’s not the only company committed to the idea of remote game streaming. Microsoft didn’t devote a lot of time to Project xCloud on stage the other day — on fact, the pass with which the company blew threw that announcement was almost news in and of itself.

It did, however, promise an October arrival for the service — beating out Stadia by a full month. The other big piece of the announcement was the ability for Xbox One owners to use their console as a streaming source for their own remote game play. Though how that works and what, precisely, the advantage remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Microsoft is hanging its hat on the Xbox as a point of distinction from Google’s offering.

It’s clear too, of course, that Microsoft is still invested in console hardware as a key driver of its gaming future. Just after rushing through all of that Project xCloud noise, it took the wraps off of Project Scarlett, its next-gen console. We know it will feature 8K content, some crazy fast frame rates and a new Halo title. Oh, and there’s an optical drive, too, because Microsoft’s not quite ready to give up on physical media just yet.

What do subscription services and streaming mean for the future of gaming?

The future of gaming is streaming. If that wasn’t painfully obvious to you a week ago, it certainly ought to be now. Google got ahead of E3 late last week by finally shedding light on Stadia, a streaming service that promises a hardware agnostic gaming future.

It’s still very early days, of course. We got a demo of the platform right around the time of its original announcement. But it was a controlled one — about all we can hope for at the moment. There are still plenty of moving parts to contend with here, including, perhaps most consequentially, broadband caps.

But this much is certainly clear: Google’s not the only company committed to the idea of remote game streaming. Microsoft didn’t devote a lot of time to Project xCloud on stage the other day — on fact, the pass with which the company blew threw that announcement was almost news in and of itself.

It did, however, promise an October arrival for the service — beating out Stadia by a full month. The other big piece of the announcement was the ability for Xbox One owners to use their console as a streaming source for their own remote game play. Though how that works and what, precisely, the advantage remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Microsoft is hanging its hat on the Xbox as a point of distinction from Google’s offering.

It’s clear too, of course, that Microsoft is still invested in console hardware as a key driver of its gaming future. Just after rushing through all of that Project xCloud noise, it took the wraps off of Project Scarlett, its next-gen console. We know it will feature 8K content, some crazy fast frame rates and a new Halo title. Oh, and there’s an optical drive, too, because Microsoft’s not quite ready to give up on physical media just yet.