What E3 told me about the future of gaming

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What E3 told me about the future of gaming

Scott Stein/CNET
The E3 show is done, and, like many of these events, there's a lot more that was shown than anyone could ever take in on their own. And a lot of it, honestly, felt the same. Big action games, big shooters, jaw-dropping graphics in room-filling trailers, big explosions...from booth to booth to booth.
But in the corners, amid the big consoles, there were some interesting lessons I learned at my first E3 in two years.

PlayStation TV, one of many platforms showing off indie games. Scott Stein/CNET

Indies are the future -- and present -- of gaming, and the glue of the whole industry.

I got bored with the endless sword, gun, and car games shown off at E3. Every poster was full of grizzled warriors, blood-zombies, or epic space soldiers. And then there were the indie games: bright colors, wild designs, unpredictable abstract experimentation. Indie games stole the show at both Microsoft and Sony's press conferences via titles in the ID@Xbox program, and curated games on Sony's consoles like Entwined or No Man's Sky; both companies have created whole pipelines for indies to publish games on their systems. Indie games huddled at the show in a gathering of tables representing Indiecade, but were also scattered among bigger booths, like Sony's. The indie games might not have had the booming thunder-cannon trailers of Call of Duty or Destiny, but they were running on the PlayStation TV, on the Vita, on PS4, on the Xbox One, on Oculus Rift, on PCs, and on countless iPhones and iPads. The indies were the most cross-platform games at E3. And their presence at the show represented a surge of the next wave of gaming, one that didn't feel marginal at all.

Josh Miller/CNET

VR is on its way sooner than most people think.

I played both Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus, and they both feel ready to go. Would I prefer higher-res displays? Of course. Would I like to not have cables running out of the VR helmets? Yes, that, too. But these VR rigs really work -- they're playing interesting games, and they're amazing to experience. It also seems like game developers are having a fine time developing for them, based on the surge in VR games seen around the show floor if you kept your eyes open.

Josh Miller/CNET

Nintendo isn't going away, and that's a great thing.

In the middle of zombies, superheroes, and epic space warfare, Nintendo's booth was once again a candy-hued festival of cuteness. And it worked. Nintendo clearly understands its strengths and has created a lineup of games at this year's show that take advantage of its best qualities. And the crowds around Super Smash Bros. told a clear tale: Nintendo can be cool. And what I loved about Nintendo at this year's show was how its games seemed so much more colored, bright, and downright kid-friendly than anyone else's. Can it take advantage and go the next step to reclaim some momentum in the console hardware race? I don't know, but Nintendo offers balance to the gaming world that's sorely needed.

Scott Stein/CNET

Apple is extremely well positioned to enter and dominate the "console" gaming world.

Why bring Apple into this discussion? Well, I didn't do it; Apple did. By announcing new game development tools the week before at its developer conference, Apple ended up showing how much better mobile gaming can get. There were also tons of developers showing iPad and iPhone games, or games that had additional iPhone-friendly modes or even control schemes. Most major and minor third-party developers at E3 are working on games that live on the App Store. Apple's gaming presence is not an experiment: it's a dominating force in the landscape. The mobile landscape. But all it would take is a small box and connected controllers, and Apple would have a viable console. Sony's little PlayStation TV proves there's a growing interest in smaller, cheaper platforms. But, despite Sony's dominance, the rest of the gaming industry doesn't seem to have a runaway platform leader: games matter more than the system they're being played on. This fall would be an excellent time to enter the race.

iPhone buying interest continues to drop, says survey

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Apple's iPhone 5S. CNET
The number of people looking to buy an iPhone over the next few months has dipped yet again, according to a new survey from Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster.
Polling 1,016 consumers in the US last week about their intended smartphone purchases over the next three months, Munster's team found that 34 percent expect to buy an iPhone. That number is down from 39 percent in February, 44 percent last December, and 50 percent just after the launch of the iPhone 5S last September.
The dip in percentage is par for the course this time of year, however. Interest in buying the current model iPhone typically wanes as buzz about an upcoming new generation pops up. This time around, iPhone buyers are likely holding off purchases in anticipation of a larger-screened model.
Recent reports say Apple will bump up the display size for the iPhone 6 to 4.7 or 4.8 inches from the current 4 inches. Though these reports are still mere rumors, it seems a safe bet Apple will increase the screen size of the iPhone as consumer demand rises for big-screen phones. Other reports suggest Apple will also launch a 5.5-inch iPhablet.Munster said he expects the unveiling of the iPhone 6 will boost buying interest to 50 percent or even higher given the anticipated new form factor.
Apple is set to kick off its Worldwide Developers Conference on June 2, where it will likely take the wraps off iOS 8, giving us a hint of what products to expect later in the year. The new version of iOS could offer improvements to Siri and Apple Maps, according to the analyst, as well as an Apple fitness app. Such an app could be a "significant sign pointing to an Apple watch" in the second half of 2014, Munster said

New Apple hardware possible at WWDC

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Apple's keynote speech at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference is set for 10 a.m. PT June 2 at San Francisco's Moscone Center -- and it could kick off with a big reveal.
The generally reliable Mark Gurman at 9to5Mac reports that new hardware will be part of this year's WWDC. And the opening keynote would be a likely scenario for an unveiling.
Cycling through recent rumors to make an educated guess, a smartwatch seems about right. Reports of Apple's sapphire glass efforts and the mounting market pressure to deliver a really cool wearable lead me to believe they've cracked the code on a stellar smartwatch -- or at least want to compete with Android Wear.
Of course, it could also be the long-rumored Apple HDTV -- something that ties in to rumors of Beats headphones acquisition -- an early release for the iPhone 6, or maybe even just a Retina display for MacBook Air.
I have contacted Apple for comment and will update this post when I hear back

Apple snuffs out popular pot-dealing app

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Apple snuffs out popular pot-dealing app

After smoking the top of the charts on iTunes this week, Weed Firm has been kicked out of Apple's App Store.
Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET
A game that followed the adventures of marijuana dealer Ted Growing will have to find a new place to grow.
Following a brief rise to stardom, Weed Firm has been given its walking papers from Apple. On Monday, the free app made it all the way to the top of the charts on iTunes after earning generally happy reviews from its users.
But as of Wednesday, the game is no longer available in the App Store, a move that Weed Firm developer Manitoba Games described as "entirely Apple's decision, not ours." And just why did Apple yank the app?
"We guess the problem was that the game was just too good and got to number one in All Categories, since there are certainly a great number of weed based apps still available, as well as games promoting other so-called 'illegal activities' such as shooting people, crashing cars, and throwing birds at buildings," Manitoba Games suggested.
More likely, the app ran afoul of Apple's strict guidelines. Though Apple obviously had to approve the app in the first place, the coverage of Weed Firm's moment in the sun may have prompted the company to re-evaluate its decision.
Manitoba described Weed Firm's tale as such: "Follow the story of an expelled botany sophomore Ted Growing as he inherits a growing operation and expands it. Learn to grow weed, plant new varieties to increase your yields, expand your customer base, and interact with the characters to become the biggest weed dealer in town."
Over the course of the game, Ted also had to grapple with dangerous gangsters and crooked cops. And in a more adult-oriented twist, a stripper promises to do a lap dance if you can cough up the right amount of cash.
Android users are also out of luck as the app is no longer available at Google Play. But Manitoba blamed the app's ouster there on its publisher. Whatever the reason, the developer vows that the app will return.
"The Apple version might need to be censored a bit to comply with Apple's strictest requirement since they are going to be looking very attentively at what we submit from now on," Manitoba said. "Google never had a problem with the application itself. The problem was with our publisher and we are expecting to return to the Play Store once we find a suitable publisher."
Manitoba also defended the controversial pot-dealing app:
"As for the other platforms, we will endeavor to make it as censorship free as possible while assigning the highest maturity rating to the game. We do not want kids playing Weed Firm, but we firmly believe that adults should have a choice to do whatever the hell they want as long as they are not hurting anybody in the process.
"If we let hypocrites determine what content is suitable for us we will soon all be watching 'Teletubbies' instead of 'Breaking Bad' and playing...oh I don't know...nothing good comes to mind, without some form of 'illegal activity' or other really."

Apple's best iWatch strategy: Reinvent the iPod

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Sarah Tew/CNET
Apple hasn't had a new iPod since 2012. There were two that year, debuting alongside the iPhone 5: an updated iPod Touch and a redesigned Nano. It's been a while. And during that time, the iPod line's share of Apple's revenue -- once the company's bread and butter -- continues to fade.
Meanwhile, even as rival companies like Google and Samsung laying their cards on the table of the nascent wearable tech market, Apple has yet to announce -- or even hint at -- a wearable product. It's mid-2014, and we still don't know what Cupertino has in the works yet. All we're left with are guesses.
I have no more insight into Apple's plans than anyone else outside Apple's campus, but there's one thing I do know: when it comes to wearable tech, there's not much competition out there worth being scared of. The whole category, such as it is, is still a mess. And even though Apple fanboys pray for the company to make its presumed future mythical device magical, or captivating, it might make a lot more sense for Apple to just take the boring path.
And by boring, I mean useful. Practical. And possibly a little unexciting. The product that most fits the bill? The iPod.
I've felt all along that an Apple wearable shouldn't just be a watch. It should be modular. It should...well, it should feel a lot like the iPod lineup of old. And given that the line is already a recognizable brand -- albeit one that's in need of a turnaround -- it would make sense if Apple's rumored wearables turn out to also be the new iPods. I've been feeling that way for a while, and recent articles by others like John Gruber show I'm not alone in that opinion.

It's already a perfect name

The name iPod has always been enigmatic and a little futuristic. It's not iMusic, or iPlayer. It doesn't have to just be about music. It suggests something small. Why not make iPod the name for Apple wearables?
And, iPods have already been wearable. The Shuffle and Nano are already clip-on devices that can slide easily into a tiny pocket. Some people already wore the old Nano as a watch. I was one of those people.
Hex watchbands for the 2011 Nano. Sarah Tew/CNET

The return of the Nano plus wristband

Apple already cracked the solution: a small puck that can snap into a wristband or clip on a pair of running shorts. It's the 2011 iPod Nano. That device didn't have Bluetooth, but it did have some basic Nike+ software.
The old Nano, the one that fit on optional wristbands and was, already, a watch, could be a really model for what comes next. A modular, Bluetooth-connected device, that could also track steps and be a good overall music player, would solve a lot of needs. It wouldn't necessarily be super-exciting, but it could also get to a price that wasn't too expensive.

How the product lineup could work

Yes, the Nano could return as a wrist-worn, more advanced health tracker and smartwatch alternative. But maybe there's more than one Apple wearable. The Shuffle could incorporate an M7 processor -- Apple's motion co-processor that debuted in the iPhone 5S -- and double as an entry-level pedometer (think Fitbit Zip).
And maybe there's an even higher-end product, one that casts a wider net on lifestyle beyond fitness. A new Nano could add wireless connectivity for subscription music services, and maybe even some connected smartwatch-like features, if it's Bluetooth linked.
Just adding M7 processors and Bluetooth would be a big first step to giving Apple, essentially, wearable fitness products. Even in its reduced state with no new products, Apple still sold 2.75 million iPods last quarter -- a number that dwarfs the number of Samsung Gear watches sold to date. It wouldn't take much for Apple to go from zero to 100 in the wearable space, if its wearable products could at least double as iPods.


Standalone vs. "phone accessory"

I can't think of a single wearable I've seen that isn't function-challenged. It's a glorified pedometer, or it's got half-baked apps, or it has a ridiculously short battery life, or...it doesn't do anything a phone doesn't already do. That's the story of most bands and glasses. And almost all of them suffer a fate of being a phone accessory, serving a role that most people haven't found a need for yet. Most of these watches have awkward chargers, unreliable connectivity, and questionable apps.
Apple would have to solve these problems, and I'm not sure all of them can be solved right now. So maybe the answer is baby steps. Create a product that does a few things well now, and wait until next year or the year after to take the next leaps. Make it small, make it affordable, make it stand apart from an iPhone. That's something that even the lowly, screenless, 4-year-old $50 iPod Shuffle does well -- once you load it full of music, at least.

Let someone else figure out the wristbands

It's hard to make a great wristband. Snapping a band out and finding the right design is a pain. Most smartwatches also have to deal with wear and tear on those parts, too.
Selling the bands separately -- or, whatever other accessories are compatible -- seems most like the path of the iPhone, iPad and iPod. Apple has created a massive halo industry based on docks, headsets, cables, chargers, and especially cases. The wearable iPod can follow in that tradition. Sure, Apple can toss in a default band, but the core device shouldn't be married to one. Letting accessory partners fill in the gaps will make it easier to appeal to both men and women. The Misfit Shine and Withings Pulse have already taken this path.
Misfit Shine: already has an iPod Shuffle-like design. Sarah Tew/CNET

More fitness tracker, less smartwatch

I can't help wondering about who would buy a mythical iWatch, and what it would actually do to convince people to buy one.
When the iPad debuted, it wasn't the first tablet. The iPhone emerged when a fair number of people owned cellphones, and even smartphones. The iPod wasn't the first MP3 player. But the smartwatch market feels a lot less mature than those tablet, smartphone, and music player markets were at the time.
Fitness trackers are a different story. Because they're affordable and simpler to use, I know more people who bought or want to buy Fitbits, Fuelbands, Jawbone Ups and other bands. Fitness tracking is the market that makes the most sense for Apple.
An M7 chip-equipped iPod with a pedometer and Bluetooth audio may not sound exciting, but a lot of people would use one. Who? Anyone who's in the market for a basic fitness tracker. Add in an ability to transfer music wirelessly via iTunes, or work with a subscription music service like the one that Apple might have from a partnership with Beats, and knit in more advanced Nike+ Fuelband-like connectivity, and you have an equation for a better, more attractive iPod.

Beats might just sweeten the deal

Is that enough for now? Maybe not if you're expecting a revolutionary device, but watches studded with features that can also run apps are only as good as the use cases they're able to be amazing for. Samsung's Gear watches are full of features, but they're not very easy to use, and they don't do all that many things exceptionally well. They're forward-thinking, but unfinished.
Alternatively, a new wearable-friendly iPod could work in some new advanced tech and be really good at it: excellent heart rate monitoring that worked as well as Touch ID does for fingerprints, for instance.
Or, maybe the much-discussed but still not finalized Apple-Beats deal could provide new headphone tech, or extra features that enhance sound. Is Beats necessary for a future iPod? No, but if any Apple device seems like a no-brainer for Beats integration, it would be the iPod.
In a landscape as messy as wearables, I'm increasingly of the opinion that any gadgets are better off doing one or two things well or not do them at all. If this is the humble iPod's destiny, I'm all for it.

iOS 7.1.1 untethered jailbreak revealed in new video

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An iPhone 5C in untethered jailbreak mode. YouTube/Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET
The latest version of Apple's iOS has successfully been jailbroken, as seen in a new video that surfaced on Wednesday.
Popping up on YouTube, a new video posted by iPhone security expert Stefan Esser (aka i0n1c) takes us on a tour of an iPhone 5C running iOS 7.1.1 as he taps into various iOS apps and features. The tour includes a trip to the Cydia suite, which jailbreakers use to tweak their device and download apps not available through or approved by Apple.
Esser then goes on to shut down and power up the phone, after which he's still able to access Cydia, evidence that the jailbreak is untethered and still in full force after restarting the device. Jailbreaking an iPhone 5C shows that the process works on one of Apple's latest phones.
Video proof of an iOS 7.1.1 jailbreak actually surfaced a few days ago, as reported by Redmond Pie. Fellow iPhone security expert and hacker "winocm" posted a video demoing an untethered jailbreak of an iPhone 4 last Saturday.
In just a few months, though, iOS hackers will likely turn their attention away from iOS 7 and toward iOS 8. Apple is expected to take the wraps off the upcoming new version of iOS at its Worldwide Developers Conference on June 2. Assuming Apple follows the same pattern as last year, we should see iOS 8 roll out in September.
Apple is hardly a fan of jailbreaking and has warned users that the practice violates the end-user license. But the company apparently is a fan of some of the talent behind jailbreaking. Hacker winocm has reportedly landed a job with Apple to start later this year, Cult of Mac and other sites said in February.

Judge again denies Samsung an Apple mistrial over 'racist' remarks

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Judge Lucy Koh presides over Apple's patent infringement case against Samsung last year.
(Credit: Vicki Behringer)
Despite Samsung's protestations over "racist" comments by an Apple attorney, the Korea-based gadget maker has been denied for a second time a mistrial in a patent-related case.

On Friday, Judge Lucy Koh again admonished Apple's legal team over remarks made last November during closing arguments in the case, which involved determining the damages Samsung should pay for patent infringement. But she ruled that the remarks didn't influence the jury's verdict and that the verdict would stand.
"Particularly in light of...the high-profile nature of this litigation, the Court expresses its disapproval and disappointment in the comments that led to the instant motion," Koh wrote. "Counsel in this case have been exceptionally well prepared, and the Court has no doubt that counsel carefully chose each theme before presenting it to the jury in closing arguments."
An Apple attorney said during the November closing arguments that US TV manufacturing died because businesses didn't adequately protect their intellectual property from foreign companies. (Samsung is the world's largest TV maker.)
"Our economy will disappear," Apple attorney Harold McElhinny said then. "If the cost of breaking the law is a small fine...Samsung's copying will have proven successful."
In requesting a mistrial at the time, Samsung's lawyers said McElhinny's remarks raised issues about race and outsourcing and could have prejudiced the jury. But Koh denied the request, instead recalling the jury members less than half an hour after they were dismissed to begin deliberations and instructing them to ignore race, a company's national background, and other issues.

Place your bets: An Apple tablet, laptop -- or both?

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What is Apple cooking up for a large iPad-like device?
What is Apple cooking up for a large iPad-like device?
(Credit: Mock-up: Brooke Crothers)
Is Apple going to take a crack at a hybrid? Or is it eying a more conventional product?
Those are burning questions that analysts and the supply chain are trying to figure out.
Predicting Apple's next move has become a sport. With the supply chain (in the case of Apple, largely the collection of component suppliers) the arena where, after some trial-and-error, a final product emerges the winner.
Market researchers are the bookies, calculating the odds based on their best educated guess from supply chain sources.
The iPhone 6 is the latest example: the odds seem to favor a 4.8-inch (roughly) phone and, possibly later, a larger phone-like device.

 rather than the iPad line."
"Provided it's actually in development rather than in testing," the source added.
But here's a real product that may give impetus for Apple to bring out a larger iPad-esque device: the 12.2-inch (large by tablet standards) Galaxy Tab Pro, which Samsung has just begun selling.
The South Korean company is marketing it as a business-friendly tablet, with a Samsung-branded keyboard and mouse to go with it. If Samsung makes headway with this in markets untapped by the iPad, that could give Apple reason enough.
And the Windows 8/8.1 camp is already making a play for businesses with detachables. The HP Spectre XT is a 13.3-inch Windows 8.1 tablet that plugs into a battery-powered HP keyboard to become a full-fledged laptop.
Lenovo has the 11.6-inch Miix 2, also a tablet that can covert to a laptop.
Apple could of course decide it doesn't need to go there. Speculation suggests that Apple may also be eying a more conventional 12-inch MacBook (maybe an Air).
But I'm betting it does.
HP Spectre 13 detachable: The Windows 8.1 camp is trying to sell hybrids to business customers who want one device that can serve as a tablet and laptop.
HP Spectre 13 detachable: The Windows 8.1 camp is trying to sell hybrids to business customers who want one device that can serve as a tablet and laptop.
(Credit: Microsoft)

Proxy adviser backs Apple in stock buyback fight with Icahn

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(Credit: James Martin/CNET)
A prominent proxy advisory service has sided with Apple, recommending to its clients that they vote against a proposal by activist investor Carl Icahn that calls on the company to initiate a $50 billion stock buyback.
In a report to clients Sunday, Institutional Shareholder Services said the share repurchase proposal was unnecessary after recent stock buybacks and dividend payouts.
"In light of these good-faith efforts and its past stewardship, the board's latitude should not be constricted by a shareholder resolution that would micromanage the company's capital allocation process," according to the report, which was obtained by Reuters and The New York Times

Apple has roughly $160 billion in the bank and investors -- most notably Icahn -- have been appealing to the company to return some of that money to shareholders. Icahn, who owns about $4 billion in Apple shares, has been waging a campaign since last summer that urged the company to step up its share repurchases. However, Apple has urged investors to reject Icahn's "precatory proposal."
Shareholders will be asked to vote on this at the company's annual shareholder meeting on February 28.
The report comes on the heels of an Apple stock buyback that resulted in the repurchase of $14 billion of its own shares in two weeks. Apple has now repurchased more than $40 billion of its shares within the last year, which is a record for any company over a similar time span, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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