Random Thoughts – Randocity!

For whom does the bell toll? Microsoft’s Xbox.

Posted in botch, business, gaming, microsoft, xbox by commorancy on March 27, 2016

xbox-1-logoIn case you haven’t been reading recent news, here’s an article that might wake you up… especially if you happen to be an Xbox platform fanboy. What is this alleged article? Microsoft has stated it will merge the PC and Xbox platforms into a single unified platform, ending the sale of dedicated console hardware. Let’s explore.

Xbox and Xbox 360

When the original Xbox arrived in 2001, it received lots of fanfare. The console market now had a competitor against the PlayStation 2. The PS2 had released only one year earlier in 2000. Though, the Sega Dreamcast had promise, Sega pulled the plug in 2000 citing lots of reasons including bad sales, competition and poor platform reception. The Xbox’s controller, architecture and speed quickly ended up competing with the PlayStation 2.

A few years later, we went through the second iteration of this console war when both Sony and Microsoft released the PS3 and the Xbox 360, respectively and near simultaneously. Once again, we had our next generation console in our hands and we gamers were happily playing with better graphics and sound quality.

The Xbox 360 took the lead in the console market over Sony’s PS3, but only by slim margins. Though, the XBox 360 managed to stay one step ahead through out the lifespan of both consoles.

Xbox One and Ps4

Unfortunately, Microsoft would not be able to maintain its fleeting lead it had won with the Xbox 360 with its blundering Xbox One E3 announcement in 2013. Here’s what they had wanted to do:

This announcement in 2013 would set the tone for all things to come including the next iteration of the Xbox platform. Within a week of their E3 announcement, after facing Sony’s harsh rebuttal at E3, Microsoft reversed all of its DRM and privacy invasion strategies after the gamers clearly spoke with their wallet, PS4 orders surged and people cancelled their Xbox One orders in droves. It’s clear, this blunder was Xbox’s first death knell and set in motion many future problems to come for the Xbox. Unfortunately, neither Microsoft nor the Xbox has been able to recover from this blunder.

Elite Console and Controller

XboxOneEliteController-smImmediately prior to this Windows platform integration announcement, Microsoft had just released the Elite Console and Elite Controller. This controller being a much more costly update to its existing hardware ($15o vs $60). This console and especially the controller is Microsoft’s nod to a more professional gamer. That is, a nod to those gamers who want to play games using higher quality contollers, button remapping, changeable controller features, more inputs and faster consoles. I’ll tell you what, though. The Elite Controller is actually quite nice, but very very pricey. Yes, some of us do want these advanced features from our systems. However, it’s entirely disingenuous for Xbox to release the Elite controller and system only to see Microsoft announce the death of future hardware systems just a few months later. Really, what does this say to would-be gamers about Microsoft’s commitment to the gaming market?

To me, this says that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing in Redmond. On the one hand, you have the Xbox engineering team trying to drum up new gaming interest by releasing high quality experiences for the gamer. On the other, Microsoft itself is trying to reduce costs by getting rid of costly hardware projects it deems a loss. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean good things for Microsoft as a whole. This ultimately means that the whole company is fractured internally and doesn’t have a proper focus on its products or its markets. Instead, it is making rash decisions without thinking through the long term ramifications of those decisions. A death knell.

Microsoft’s confusion

With this announcement of the integration of Xbox with Windows, Microsoft has likewise announced that it also intends (see article) to stop making future hardware and will instead focus on the Xbox platform as a subcomponent of Windows. Just like Windows Media Center, it will become an add-on to Windows. You might think that this is a great idea, but it isn’t. Let’s understand why.

Windows itself already offers developers a solid gaming development environment to produce native games on Windows. Most AAA game titles are made not only for consoles, but also for Windows and sometimes even Mac. The question is, would that spell the death of the Xbox platform? Yes. The reason the Xbox platform exists is as a gaming hardware platform independent of Windows. It does not exist for Netflix, Amazon or for any other non-gaming entertainment. Sure, you can play movies and music on the Xbox, but that’s not the platform’s intended purpose. Microsoft is seriously confused over the reason the Xbox platform exists and why it continues to exist. This confusion spells yet another death knell. Basically, if Microsoft thinks that the non-gaming aspects of the Xbox will survive once in Windows, it won’t. You can already use native Windows apps to get access to all of the services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon… and the native apps are usually better.

The Death of the Xbox

Because Windows is already a solid gaming platform in its own right (in addition to being an entertainment platform), integrating a second gaming environment into Windows means that only one of these gaming platforms will survive the transition. Game developers will also only choose one platform to develop. Assuming status quo for the Xbox platform, the Xbox will be the clear loser. It’s simple to understand why: high priced licensing fees. It costs developers substantial amounts of cash to license and sell games branded with the Xbox moniker. It costs far far less to develop games under Windows directly. Unless Microsoft substantially changes their Xbox licensing model, this platform is entirely dead for gaming. Game developers won’t be willing to pay the excessive licensing fees on top of producing the game twice (Xbox and Windows) for the same hardware platform. Why would any game developer produce the same game twice that is destined for the same platform? They wouldn’t. A death knell.

So, what does this mean for gaming? PC gamers win a feather in their cap. Xbox gamers lose a platform entirely. Once games stop being produced for the Xbox platform, and they will stop, the only thing left to use the Xbox platform for is Netflix, other media activities and already purchased digital content. As I said above, you can already crack open Chrome or Firefox and do video streaming and music playing better. So, the answer, there will be nothing left to use the Xbox platform for except for legacy digital content that you may have purchased on an Xbox One/360… assuming that content even remains compatible after the Windows PC migration. Another death knell.

Digital Content

So, what does this mean for already purchased digital content? It means that you better hold onto your working Xbox One and Xbox 360 if you want to continue to use this content. Though, Microsoft may eventually force users to move to the Windows integrated platform and sunset the use of Xbox hardware entirely (and cut it off from the Xbox Live service).

This means that, at some point, you may no longer be able to download your digital content to your Xbox One and you may be forced to buy a PC. Depending on how Xbox One’s content activation system works, it may even prevent you from using the digital content you’ve already downloaded depending entirely upon how far and deep that Microsoft takes it.

Of course, this is still years off yet. But, once that time arrives, your Xbox One and 360 may become paperweights. A death knell.

Why this change?

From Microsoft’s perspective, I can understand the value and cost savings that integration (and lack of hardware) brings. No longer does Microsoft have to design, build and sell hardware platforms, no longer do they have to compete with Sony, no longer do they have to support this finicky hardware (a highly expensive ongoing investment). This means they can reduce their costs for all of the above. Instead, they can push the hardware costs back onto PC manufacturers to support their new Xbox platform.

Unfortunately, expecting PC manufacturers to support the Xbox is a pipe dream fantasy. There are far too many PC manufacturers who don’t follow the rules 100%. Instead, they get about 90% there and call the system done. This means that instead of having a fully 100% reliable Xbox platform, you’ll end up with a crashing behemoth of a system that, once again, barely works. The clear benefit to designing exclusive hardware is to achieve reliability by design. Leaving it to third parties to provide that hardware support means that some PC manufacturers will flat out not support the Xbox platform and those that do will charge a hefty premium. This ultimately means that buying a PC that properly supports the Xbox platform will likely mean a significantly higher cost than older far less expensive dedicated gaming console hardware. Not to mention, the clunky and ugly tower and desktop shapes of PC manufacturers which can no longer be used as a set top box.

This means that not only will the PC-based Xbox experience falter badly, you’re likely looking at 2x, 3x or more the price of today’s Xbox One to invest in a compatible PC-based Xbox platform. This puts this platform so far out of the price range of console gamers, this is yet another death knell for the Xbox. I won’t even get into the peripheral issues. Okay, I will a little. If Microsoft stops the hardware entirely, they’re likely to stop the controllers and leave that also up to third parties.

We all know how well PC controllers work with many games. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. They are usually not wireless and when they are, they are chock full of wireless issues. The whole reason the Xbox One works well is because of the wireless controller and its close integration with the hardware.

Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater

Ultimately, Microsoft is throwing away all of their hard earned gamer loyalty. They are effectively closing the Xbox and throwing away the key. What this ultimately says is that Microsoft has no long term commitment to the gaming market, the console market or the gamers. What was formerly the green glory will fade into Microsoft’s Windows obscurity.

Overall, this is the worst of all possible fates that could befall the Xbox. A console is not a console without hardware. We all know how well gaming platforms work when they offer dedicated hardware. We also know how well they don’t work when relying on third parties. Think Steam. Perhaps Microsoft is deluded enough to think that Steam is the model of the future? I can tell you that Steam isn’t it. Steam works, but for limited purposes. Effectively, Steam is the app store for gaming. Since most app stores don’t focus on gaming, it was inevitable that someone would put one together. Hence, Steam. But, the Xbox platform, regardless of its current strength in gaming will die a quick death once there is no more console hardware to be had. Gamers aren’t likely to spend their efforts chasing down third party hardware platforms that might or might not work. The whole point of a console is that it “just works”. The Steam model simply won’t work for the Xbox unless you’re talking about $2-5 pricepoint games which could run on Facebook. That’s not the class of gaming that Xbox One is today.

We all need hardware to make our lives better, yes even in gaming. You can’t game without hardware. Relying on PC manufacturers to get you what you need isn’t the answer. Worse, Windows native games and developers will kick the Xbox platform to the curb. No developer in their right mind would consider spending extra money to develop on the Xbox platform when they already have Windows development efforts underway. Why would game developers choose to redundantly build their game twice for the same platform? That’s just stupid.

Sony, Nintendo and, yes, Apple

All of the above is actually very good news for the remaining console developers. Once the Xbox platform dies quietly inside of Windows (and it will), Sony only need worry about Nintendo for the foreseeable future. However, with Apple’s recent foray into gaming with the latest Apple TV, this could mean Apple now has an opening into the console market. What I will say about the current Apple TV for 3D gaming is that it’s still very rudimentary. The textures are low res, the environments look like something out of the Nintendo 64 and there’s not a speck of realism to be found… yet. However, Apple can up the ante a lot in the next Apple TV console iteration. Assuming they wedge in a much higher end GPU and a lot more RAM into the Apple TV, they could easily match the specs of the Nintendo Wii U, but perhaps not yet approach the PS4… it will take quite a bit more effort by Apple to match Sony. For Apple, the door for the console market is quite clearly open. For Microsoft, the door is quickly closing.

Yes folks, the Xbox is officially a dead platform. With this integration announcement, this is the Xbox’s final death knell.

If you are considering the purchase of a new gaming console, you should steer clear of the Xbox One unless you really enjoy buying into dead gaming platforms.

 

Security vulnerability: Apple Watch, iPhone and Apple Pay

Posted in Apple, security by commorancy on March 6, 2016

apple-watch-passcode-screenIf you own an Apple Watch, there is a security vulnerability that could compromise your Apple Pay cards. Let’s explore.

Watch Stolen?

Let’s say you’re on vacation and you decide to visit that cute little patio coffee shop. Naturally, you’re sitting, sipping and enjoying your coffee. Your wrist adorned with your new Apple Watch is sitting on top pretty wrought iron fence. Someone comes along and grabs your Apple Watch off your wrist and runs away. What do you do? Chase after them to get it back? Oh, but they’re already gone. So then, try to disable the watch on your iPhone? So, here’s the dilemma (and the vulnerability). As soon as you unlock your iPhone, your watch is now quite vulnerable thanks to Apple.

Unlocking your iPhone

Apple has recently pushed an update that automatically and, by default, unlocks both your Apple Watch and your iPhone merely by unlocking your phone… so long as the watch is on anyone’s wrist (it doesn’t have to be your wrist). And herein lies the vulnerability.

So now, that thief who has just stolen your Apple Watch is standing close enough to still get a connection from your iPhone. The thief already knows what will happen after you unlock your phone. So, they patiently wait until you unlock your phone. Then, they get access to your stolen watch’s data until you A) Mark as Missing or B) remove all your credit cards from your wallet. It’s doubtful you can unpair the watch once they have taken it out of range of the Bluetooth/WiFi, but you can mark it as missing.

The thief will wait just long enough to get the watch unlocked and then run for it to get out of connection range. This may allow them to get access to the Apple Wallet and skim your cards from NFC. They could even still do it while in range of your phone, especially if you somehow hadn’t noticed the watch was missing (i.e., you had taken it off and placed it in your bag).

Fixing the Vulnerability

It’s quite amazing that this exists, a stupid security feature from the same company that’s trying to defend itself from unlocking a terrorist’s iPhone for a judge. Hypocritical much? No no, mustn’t unlock a phone for a judge. But, it’s perfectly okay to give thieves access to Apple Pay credit cards by enabling this dual unlock feature. First thing I’d immediately recommend is going into the Watch app on your iPhone and disabling this feature pronto! You’ll find that the Apple Watch itself also has this setting available under Passcode, but thankfully it can only be enabled or disabled on the iPhone.

However, this feature should not be available at all, Apple.

Preventative Measures

While you are still in possession of both your Apple Watch and your iPhone, you should immediately disable this feature. On the iPhone, it’s under Watch app=>My Watch (Screen)=>Passcode=>Unlock with iPhone set to OFF.

You’ll need to perform this while you are in possession of both devices, before your watch is stolen or misplaced. If you fail to make this change now, you cannot make this change after it is stolen. You can only mop up the mess.

Reactive Measures — My Apple Watch has been stolen!

If you leave the Unlock with iPhone setting enabled, anyone wearing your watch will see it unlock as soon as you unlock your iPhone if they are still in connection range (possibly 30 feet or so, but could be farther). So, you realize your watch is missing and the first thing you do is think, “I need to delete my Apple Watch from my phone”. However, merely by unlocking your phone, you may have just now given the thief access to your watch and to anything on that watch including your Apple Pay credit cards. This means they can activate the NFC on the watch and skim those card numbers off or even use them to charge in shops around the area, possibly even for the entire day until you remove the cards from the wallet. This gives the thief access to wallet and your credit cards until the watch runs out of battery or it locks again once taken off. Or, until you have taken measures to remove the cards from Apple Pay and have marked the watch as missing.

It’s very important to understand exactly how exposed you are by using the Apple Watch with the Apple Pay when enabling the Unlock with iPhone feature. But, you have to know that it’s stolen to take these measures.

Protecting Yourself

What do you do after it’s stolen?

Assuming you know that the watch has been stolen, the first thing you should do before unlocking your iPhone is disable Bluetooth and WiFi. How do you do this? At the > Slide to Unlock screen do not unlock the phone. Instead, swipe up from the bottom of the screen to the top. This will bring up the quick access menu that lets you manage items like WiFi on/off, Airplane mode on/off, Flashlight on/off and, yes, Bluetooth on/off. From the quick access menu, you need to disable both WiFi and Bluetooth before ever unlocking your iPhone. Because Apple Watch relies on Bluetooth and apparently an adhoc WiFi connection, the signal that you’ve unlocked won’t be sent to your nearby watch. It doesn’t seem to send this signal when your phone is on a carrier LTE or 4G data network. However, disabling Bluetooth or WiFi alone is not enough. The Watch can still connect to the cloud if close to a WiFi network it knows about. If you’re out on the street, that’s not likely. If you’re in or near your hotel, it might.

If you are not sure where your watch is, you should disable WiFi and Bluetooth before unlocking your iPhone. Once you’ve disabled WiFi and Bluetooth, go into Watch app=>My Watch=>Apple Watch and then Mark as Missing (making sure you have access to an LTE or 4G data network). You will not be able to disable the Unlock with iPhone feature while the watch is locked even if you reenable both WiFi and Bluetooth.  In fact, if you do enable WiFi and Bluetooth, the app seems to remember the last unlocking for some period of time and will pass that unlock to the watch to unlock it. You don’t want to do this.

Whatever you do, don’t enable WiFi and Bluetooth until you’ve selected Mark as Missing under the Apple Watch menu. The last thing you want to happen is the iPhone to send an unlock signal to your watch.

Didn’t notice the watch was missing?

If you’ve left the watch in a hotel room or at pool or on the beach, you may have inadvertently unlocked the watch for a thief while you did not know the watch was missing. In this case, you should immediately Mark as Missing (see above). The second thing you will need to do is go into Wallet and Apple Pay is remove all credit cards from this area. This will deauthorize the card from Apple Pay and prevent the watch from making any further purchases with your cards.

Because Apple Pay creates a unique new Apple Pay card ID for each card, the thief won’t get access to your actual card number. But, a thief can still skim these unique numbers from the NFC and continue to use the numbers as long as you have not removed the card from the Wallet and Apple Pay menu. See ‘Thievery at its finest’ below for a caveat on skimming of NFC Apple Pay card numbers.

You should also call all of your credit card companies and let them know the period of time the watch was lost. While replacement of the cards is not necessary due to the way that Apple Pay registers new card numbers for use, it might still be a good idea just to be safe.

Forever losing things?

If you’re one of those people who is prone to losing or misplacing your stuff (especially things like Watches), then you need to head back up to Preventative Measures and disable Unlock with iPhone while you still have both your iPhone and Apple Watch in your possession. In fact, you can do it now while I wait here… patiently… for you to open up Settings on your iPhone… and disable Unlock with iPhone. Yes, you. Go do it now.

Okay, so now that that’s done. You did go do it, right? Okay, just checking. Assuming you didn’t lie about disabling it, there is no way a thief can get access to your Apple Watch by being in proximity of your iPhone if stolen or lost (i.e., like at the beach or at a pool).

If you are the type of person who loses things regularly, you might not even want to enable Apple Pay on the watch at all. Though, if you have a credit card on file for iTunes, Apple tries to be nice and imports this card into your watch on your behalf after its first setup. You should immediately go into the Watch app on your phone and remove that card. You can always add it back if you like.

Thievery at its finest — (the thief who returns most of what is stolen)

If you take your watch off by a pool, at the beach or any place where you might not want your watch damaged, a would-be thief could ‘borrow’ your watch just long enough to NFC skim all your cards off of the device (after waiting for you to unlock your phone). Then, carefully return the watch to you. He now has all your cards and you aren’t even the wiser that the watch was even missing.

Before this happens to you, you should disable Unlock with iPhone. Though, if you’re concerned about the credit card situation at all, you might just want to delete all the cards from your Apple Watch entirely and not use the watch for Apple Pay. Even if a thief attempts to skim your card data from your watch, they won’t be able to do it if the cards aren’t even there. However, if you do choose to use Apple Pay with your watch and as a security measure, I’d suggest removing and re-adding the cards once every couple of months. Better, once a month. This forces your bank to issue a new unique Apple Pay card number for each credit card. This will invalidate old Apple Pay unique card numbers that may have skimmed from your watch.

You should always remove and re-add your cards if your Apple Watch has been out of your possession for any period of time.

The Takeaway

Hopefully, by reading this article someone doesn’t end up taking more than your Apple Watch from you. The takeaway from this article should be to secure your device by undoing stupid Apple counter-security measures. Disable Unlock by iPhone in the Apple Watch app. Remove unnecessary cards from Apple Pay. Better, don’t use Apple Pay on the watch if you’re prone to losing things. If you’re planning on wearing the watch, don’t take it off your wrist.

I can’t even believe that Apple would stoop to putting in such an obvious security hole onto a device capable of storing credit card information (even if the numbers are unique to Apple Pay). If an Apple Watch could identify my wrist differently from someone else’s reliably 100% of the time, then this feature might be worthwhile. Because the Apple Watch can’t detect who’s wrist it is currently sitting on, this is a security compromise just waiting to happen.

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