Weekly News Roundup (January 14, 2018)

January 14th, 2018

2018 has properly started, and the reason I say this is because there are actually some news stories to talk about this week. Some news stories, not necessarily the best or most interesting news stories, but you know what, I’ll take what I can get after the last couple of quiet, quiet weeks.

Lets get this thing started.

Copyright

Spotify Logo

Spotify: Good for the consumer, or is it more of the same?

Netflix and Spotify have been labeled as a solution to the piracy problem. To be fair, this label has been mostly applied by the PR people at Netflix and Spotify, as the industry do not necessarily see these services as any kind of solution, at least not one that benefits them. For people who are file sharing though, both do represent a new way to get their content, legally, and in the case of Spotify, for free as well.

But according to one of the founders of The Pirate Bay, people shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security over the emergence of Netflix and Spotify, because for file sharers, these are not solutions but something much worse.

Peter Sunde says that the whole point of file sharing was to decentralise not only the way content is distributed, but decentralise the way it is controlled by of a powerful few. And Sunde says that with Netflix and Spotify, this problem hasn’t gone away, if anything, it’s become a little worse.

This is because the same companies that controlled things before still controlling things now, either through being shareholders of streaming platforms, or because they have agreements with them that sets the rules on how things are done. “The dependence is higher than ever,” says Sunde.

It’s hard to argue against Sunde’s concerns though, but I will add this. Through Netflix and Spotify, we as consumers are getting something that’s a little bit closer to what we want, and that’s a positive change. Because the “dependence” is still there, there is always the risk that we will lose what we’ve gained, but that’s why we, as consumers, have to be vigilant and not simply accept changes that are not to our benefit. And this is why piracy is actually a useful tool for consumers, because it’s something that’s always going to be there to force the major labels and movie studios to at least try and give us what we want, or else we have alternatives. The danger is that, through the loss of Net Neutrality and the invention of new technical measures, we might lose this alternative, this competitive pressure that forces the market to produce better products for us. And when that happens, we will no longer get a choice in how we get to consume content (and at what cost), and that will be a bad things from a consumer’s point of view (and eventually a bad thing for the entire industry if consumers become disinterested).

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Amazon Fire TV

Google and Amazon’s fight means bad news for Fire TV users

Speaking of the powerful few acting badly and hurting consumers in the process, Google and Amazon’s little dispute is now causing major problems for users of Amazon’s Fire TV device – they can no longer use YouTube! Google has accused Amazon of abusing its market power by not properly selling Google’s range of products on their website. In addition, Google says Amazon is refusing to add Chromecast functionality for its Prime streaming service. It all adds up to Amazon not playing fair with Google in an attempt to promote its own competing products (Fire and Echo range, which competes with the Chromecast and Google Home range), at least that’s what Google claims.

Google may have a point, but the next move by the Google seems a bit petty – they have banned Amazon’s Fire and Echo devices from working with the YouTube app. This seems to have forced Amazon to start selling the Chromecast again, but an agreement that settles this issue once and for all seems to be far away.

The problem is that Amazon is both a service provider (in this case, a retailer that helps sell your products) and also a product manufacturer. It’s not in Amazon’s interest to sell tons of Chromecast and Home devices in its store, because it will have come at the expense of its own Fire and Echo range. On the other hand, if it promotes its own range at the expense of other products, it’s failing in its duty as a service provider to these other manufacturers (in this case, Google).

But Google shouldn’t feel they have the moral high ground on this. Google does exactly the same thing with its search engine and app store. Google has been accused of favoring its own websites and services, YouTube or Shopping, over other competing websites when people search for something related. In this case, Google is both a service provider and a “manufacturer”, and it both provides a service for website owners and competes with them in the same space. It’s exactly the same thing that Amazon is doing, except when it’s good for Google, it’s not evil.

In the end, consumers are the ones being hurt, and again this comes from companies getting too big, having too much control over what we consume and how we consume it.

Sometimes though, big companies get together not to take away our choices, but to give us more. But this usually isn’t because they’re doing it out of the kindness, but it usually means that their own self interest has been affected in some way. And this is why Apple is joining the Alliance for Open Media to push the AOM’s AV1 video format, not because they truly want an open format, but because if AV1 succeeds, it will mean less royalty payments going forward for them (although Apple may already receive royalties due to patents owned by them from HEVC, AV1’s main competition, they will probably still end up paying less if a truly open format becomes mainstream).

For those who like to tinker around with video stuff, having another format like AV1 is great news. It’s still early days though, as hardware support (for both encoding and decoding) is severely lacking. For consumers, it probably doesn’t mean much – the money saved by companies not having to pay HEVC will not get passed down to us. And companies most likely won’t be able to escape HEVC completely, because too many applications already use it.

Sorry to go all cynical on you in this week’s WNR, but I definitely didn’t intend to go this way at the start, but that’s where we ended up. Funny how these things work.

Gaming

I’ll try to remove the cynicism from the next story though, even though there are obvious places where one can insert a eye roll or two. Unlike with the PS3, Sony has been very open to releasing sales data for the PS4 (I wonder why that is *rolleyes*), and it’s announced that 74 million PS4s have now been sold, making it the 10th best selling console of all time.

Nintendo Switch

The Switch is selling better than the Wii at the same stage

Despite these healthy numbers, and a very good holiday sales period (5.9 million PS4s sold around the world), most of the positive news stories has been focused on Nintendo’s Switch, which has sold more than 10 million units in just 10 months. It’s selling faster than the Wii was selling, and if it lasts, it could outsell the PS4 eventually. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the PS4 is already more than 4 years old!

As for Microsoft, they’ve been keeping pretty quiet on the Xbox One sales figures (and I wonder why that is *rolleyes*), only saying that sales are above their expectations, whatever that means. By all estimates, it’s selling half as many boxes as the PS4. So not as bad as the Wii U (21st best selling console of all time), but definitely not in the Xbox 360’s league (7th best selling console of all time). The Xbox One is currently estimated to be the 14th best selling console of all time, according to VGChartz.

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And with that, we come to the end of another WNR. See you next week when I promise to be far less cynical!

Weekly News Roundup (January 7, 2018)

January 7th, 2018

Welcome to this side of 2018. Now the hard part begins of having to remember to write 2018 instead of 2017 (or if you’re one of those who did not heed the lessons of Y2K, 18 instead of 17). I nearly forgot to do just that for the title of this WNR.

With the holidays slowly coming to an end, there’s a bit of news this week, but only a bit. And to be honest with you, neither of the stories this week are the “freshest” in that they came out a while ago and I’ve only decided to cover them now because there’s not much going on really.

So without further ado …

Copyright

It’s the single story that has given us plenty to write about last year, but with the U.S. Copyright Office seeking submissions for changes to the DMCA, it’s an opportunity for interested parties to have their say, regardless of which side of the copyright divide they happen to be on. For filmmakers, you would think that they would be on the pro-copyright side of things, considering how piracy affects their livelihood. But for some filmmakers, it’s the existing copyright protections that are harming their creative rights and their ability to produce the kind of work they want.

It has been generally accepted practice for documentaries to be allowed to use existing footage even if it falls foul of copyright issues. This is why there’s an exemption to allow documentary filmmakers to rip DVDs and Blu-rays (and Netflix even), to use existing commercial footage for criticism or analysis.

Filming Smartphone Piracy

Filming a smartphone – the MPAA’s recommendation for when breaking DRM is necessary

But this locks out other filmmakers from being allowed to do the same for their non documentary work. And with the barrier between genres breaking down all the time, work that can be considered both a documentary and drama lies in a grey area where filmmakers run the risk of being sued if they rip and use existing works. This is why filmmakers are now calling for more clarity, and leeway, when it comes to ripping and using footage, even if the work in question is not strictly a documentary.

Funnily enough, the MPAA are not against filmmakers using existing footage if the work calls for it, but they are still firmly against any softening of existing copyright laws. How does this seemingly contradictory viewpoints translate to the real world for the MPAA? Easy, simply play the copy protected video as you would on a TV screen or a tablet, and then use your camera to tape that. I mean, I’m sure plenty of Oscar nominated films have done it this way, who can forget the parts of ‘Argo’ where it somewhat awkwardly cut into recorded footage of something playing on a iPad (I’m assuming taken by Ben Affleck holding a camcorder) and how that totally didn’t take you out of the a story set some 31 years before the first iPad was released. Argo f*** yourself, MPAA.

Google DMCA Stats

Google now actively blocking new piracy links from appearing, just not removing the ones already in its index

Speaking of effing yourself, Google might be doing just that with their latest anti-piracy move to preemptively block piracy related links. Going above and beyond what the DMCA calls for, Google will now block links that it hasn’t even indexed from ever appearing in Google’s search results, and many rightsholders are already taking advantage of this new way to block links.

I always hate the slippery slope argument, because you can use it to justify any objection to anything new, but it seems Google is getting closer to accepting the idea of “take down, stay down”, because part of that idea is to also make Google take down links that may not yet exist. But as long as Google stays firms on the condition that it has to be rightsholders that come up with the link in the first place, and not place the burden on the service provider to identify the infringing links, then the DMCA system is safe.

But then, in the same news piece, Google is advocating the use of A.I. in piracy take-downs, and that’s also worrying. Is A.I. going to be used to detect and preemptively block links, and if so, then isn’t that take down, stay down in practice?

A worrying start for 2017. I mean, 2018. Damn it!

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Luke and Rey

This film is not going to go the way you think

Before I go, I just thought I would wade into the Last Jedi controversy. I saw the film two weeks ago, and unlike many fans, I wasn’t offended by the film. I actually quite enjoyed it, and this is coming from someone who watched the pre Special Edition original trilogy about 30 times each when I was growing up. Yes, there are scripting problems, plot holes the size of a Mega Dreadnought, and some scenes are more ridiculous than miraculous (if you’ve seen the film, then you’ll know which one I’m talking about). But what it did well, I thought it did brilliantly and I can see why the critics liked it. Without spoiling things, I thought it was a thematically strong film (that really deserves a repeat viewing) that questioned the very nature of what it means to be a hero, to be a legend, and drew some really clear parallels with the political situation in the United States. Resistance has to be more than just about slogans, identity politics, and a cult of personality based on supporting political dynasties, and it’s easy to get trapped in your own opinion bubble oblivious to the real struggle and the real reason why people are in need of change. A tiny not-really spoiler, but Finn learns this along the way with Rose, and at the end, everyone gets it. Even themes of toxic masculinity gets a brief airing in the story involving Poe.

Obviously for people who saw these things in the movie but disagreed with the film’s stance on these and many other issues, will find a way to hate the movie, because the film itself is far from perfect. Just like all the Star Wars films.

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That’s enough ranting and political soapboxing for now. See you next week!

Weekly News Roundup, Looking Back at 2017 (December 17, 2017)

December 18th, 2017

Sorry for the lateness of this roundup. Two things happened. One, I was an idiot and slammed the car door on my left index finger, and so typing, while not impossible, became not quite a pleasant experience. And two, there really wasn’t much going on. So the originally plan was, before the finger ouchie, was to do a kind of brief roundup for the year. That is still the plan, but I’m afraid it will be even briefer now.

Let’s get started.

Copyright

So a lot has happened in terms of copyright news, and and in another aspect, not much has happened. Hollywood and the music industry are still going after the “bad guys”, only the bad guys will change from time to time (the lack of any effect on piracy, remains unchanged).

YouTube Targeted

YouTube is destroying the music industry according to the music industry

For the music industry, YouTube is now the new enemy number one, after having bit of a whinge at Spotify last year. Both YouTube and Spotify have virtually ended piracy as a thing, but because the music industry doesn’t make as money from these platforms as they like (kinda their own fault for not inventing these platforms, the ones that their customers had pleaded for them to introduce, and leaving it for the tech heads to disrupt the industry), they hate it.

They do have a point. As I’m typing this, I’m listening to The Last Jedi soundtrack on YouTube, an official legal upload by DisneyVEVO. There will be lots of people like me that, because of the availability of free listening, won’t bother to pay for it. And the ad money that these uploads make, won’t amount to much I suspect (the same ad for the movie Ferdinand playing over and over again hasn’t made me want to watch it). But in the past, people like me might have just pirated the soundtrack which means no revenue for the labels. So you win some, you lose some. And perhaps there will be others that actually buy the music after hearing and liking it on YouTube or Spotify.

But the fact of the matter is that streaming now accounts for the majority of the music industry’s income, income that has shrunk a lot since the heydays of CDs. People not willing to pay as much for music is now a reality, regardless of who is to blame (and maybe the greater availability of entertainment, from Blu-rays to Netflix to mobile gaming to social media, none of which existed during the peak of CD sales, has had a greater effect than piracy or even the move to digital). Accepting the reality and trying to adapt to it is a much better strategy than complaining about the present and reminiscing about the “good old days”.

MXQ Player

Kodi boxes were public enemy number one

For Hollywood, they too have a new Boogeyman in the form of Kodi boxes. Kodi boxes makes piracy too easy, argues the MPAA. This is true, but it wasn’t as if piracy was rocket science to begin with (especially if you have a geeky boyfriend/girlfriend/brother/sister/cousin/friend that can help you out). The real reason the MPAA is going after Kodi box makers is that it’s easy. These people usually have a traceable bank account, maybe even a real business address, and so it’s so much easier than going after Torrent sites and private trackers.

Going after someone, particularly an easy target that you can take to court and win easy cases against, makes the industry feel they’re doing something, and makes the MPAA relevant. It has no actual effect on anything though, because all that will happen is that we’ll begin to see a lot more Kodi box makers emerge from the traditional markets that are out of the jurisdiction and reach of the MPAA. People will also now learn how to make their own Kodi boxes, which isn’t too hard to begin with (again, the geeky boyfriend/girlfriend/brother/sister/… comes in handy).

HBO Hack

Hacking became a new source for pirated content

Hacking has become a real problem for Hollywood though, with the high profile HBO hack coming to mind. It’s not as disruptive as say general piracy, but in many ways, it is much more damaging. Not just the leak of unreleased content, but also emails and other data that studios would liked to have remained private.

There is also renewed attack on Safe Harbor protection, not just in the U.S., but in Australia too. Hollywood is seeking to erode the legal protection offered to tech companies, protection that has been essential in the creation of platforms like YouTube and Facebook. To be fair, this line of attack is not new, but Hollywood and the copyright industry are getting closer to rewriting copyright law than ever before.

And finally, the Weinstein expose will hopefully have a positive effect on the perverse and unhealthy culture in Hollywood and elsewhere.

High Definition

Disney content on Netflix

Disney (and Fox) will be a real threat to Netflix

The biggest disruption to business as usual in Hollywood in 2017 may have only occurred in the last few days, with the news that Disney will buy Fox. Two huge studios are now just one mega huge studio, and that has wide ranging effects on all parts of the industry. With Disney already announcing they’re coming after Netflix, the acquisition of Fox means they now have the content to mount a real battle. There is also Hulu, which has had a great year thanks to The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu is co-owned by Fox, Disney and a few others – it will now be majority owned by Disney, and is already a threat to Netflix and Amazon.

And the timing of the acquisition and the move into the streaming market couldn’t be more better. With the physical media business, one that Disney dominates thanks to its mega franchises, losing steam again in 2017 after a brief hiatus in 2016, the signs are already there. Ultra HD Blu-ray has done well actually, but it was always a niche market and the declines in standard Blu-rays and DVDs cannot be ignored (sales dropped by 8.5% and 15.7% respectively for Black Friday).

2017 probably marked the end of 3D as a serious format on home video as well, with fewer and fewer 3D TV sets being produced, and not that many movies being released either.

Gaming

Nintendo Switch Mario Odyssey Bundle

The Nintendo Switch is the must-have toy for Christmas

Gaming also saw some big changes in 2017. Two big new (or newish) consoles were released in 2017, the Nintendo Switch and the Xbox One X. But only one of these will be the must-have item for Christmas, and that’s the Nintendo console. The hybrid nature of the console, the line-up of great games (Zelda in particular), and the same-old-same-ness of the PS4 and Xbox One offerings really helped to convince many that the Switch is the one to have. Just about every Christmas ad I’ve seen for department store or online retailers, or even credit card companies, feature the Switch as a much wanted gift. This is just a reflection of reality, but at the same time, it’s great promotion for Nintendo.

It was a big gamble for Nintendo, and I’m happy for them that it paid off. Creativity and risk taking is something that the gaming industry lacks sometimes, and so it’s always nice to see innovation win the day, rather than just better graphics and higher framerates.

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I know it’s not much of a roundup, and I’m sure I’ve actually missed talking about most of the things that have happened this year, but you know how hard it is to type without your left index finger? Actually not as hard as I thought it would be, but still hard. Until next week or when my finger heals a bit more, have a great one!

Weekly News Roundup (December 10, 2017)

December 10th, 2017

Welcome to another WNR. It’s been a very quiet week, and I expect a few of them going into the holiday break. But as long as there’s a single story to talk about, we’ll be here, even if the WNR, like this one, might be a very short one indeed.

Copyright

Redbox Kiosk

Disney going after Redbox for re-selling digital copy codes

It’s not often that I agree with the premise behind a Hollywood studio’s lawsuit. These types of lawsuits usually tend to exaggerate the scale of the problem, frequently ignore the principles of fair use, and mostly just used by studios for propaganda purposes, with no real effect on piracy.

But Disney’s lawsuit against Redbox, from a common sense point of view, does seem to have merit. Redbox has been buying Disney movies at retail and putting them in their Redbox kiosks. This part I have no problems with, and while I’m sure Disney would prefer a more formalised deal, this isn’t what the lawsuit is about. What it is about is Redbox taking the Digital Copy inserts from these Blu-ray or DVD movies and then selling them to their customers, despite it being made very clear that these Digital Copy codes are not for sale or transfer.

I’m sure individuals have done this before – to sell the Digital Copy codes on at a discount compared to what the movie would normally cost on iTunes. But for a company to do this, on such a scale commercially, they’re just asking for trouble. The fact of the matter is that Disney and other studios offers a “discount” on these digital copies as part of a Blu-ray or DVD combo in order to promote their disc sales, even though they know this will eat in to their digital only business. Redbox actions removes any incentive Disney has for going down this road, and at the same time, takes a chunk out of Disney’s digital sales.

Redbox’s argument seems to be that it’s good for the consumer, and so they should be allowed to do it. They have a point in that, by offering these digital downloads at a discount, it’s doing us consumers a favour. But we all know that if this is Redbox’s only argument, then it will not hold up in court, because there are plenty of “pro-consumer” products and activities that are, at the end of the day, outright illegal.

High Definition

Redbox’s actions are not really a threat to Disney’s disc and digital sales, as the studio is doing roaring business thanks to its major franchises, all of which seem to do well on Blu-ray. But with that said, discs sales are definitely down all around. With Black Friday just out of the way, I’ve managed to have a look and write up the sales results from the week, and things aren’t looking up.

Movies at Walmart

Disc sales are down this Black Friday

In fact, almost everything is down. Both Blu-ray sales and DVD sales are down, but because DVD is falling faster than Blu-ray, weekly Blu-ray market share managed to rise compared to the last Black Friday. That’s little consolation considering overall sales were down $36 million, or roughly 13%.

The only bright spot appears to be Ultra HD Blu-ray sales, which now accounts for nearly 10% of all disc sales for many of the top sellers. That’s not bad considering the number of 4K TVs in people’s homes, and the lack of real discounting on BF.

The arrival of subscription streaming, and to a lesser extent, digital sales, have all had an impact on the popularity of discs.

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That’s all we have for you this week it seems. Told you it wasn’t much. Hoping there’s more next week, so until then …

Weekly News Roundup (December 3, 2017)

December 3rd, 2017

Welcome to the last months of 2017. It has really flown by, hasn’t it? I’ve found a way to judge how busy I’ve been in a year, simply by the amount of binge worthy TV that I’ve managed to miss. So if you’ve still got Black Mirror Season 3, Stranger Things Season 2 and other similar shows in your watch queue, it must mean you’ve had a super busy year.

Was it a super busy week in terms of news? Kinda. Let’s go through it and see what happens.

Copyright

Netflix Remote

Netflix’s effect on piracy may take time to measure

New research shows that Netflix may not be the cure-all for the piracy problem after all. The study compared households with a known piracy track record, and tried to see if there was a change when half of the households were given a free subscription to an unnamed VOD service. The results weren’t that promising, with only a small change in the downloading habits of those given free subscriptions.

The main problem? Most of the shows and movies people wanted to watch simply weren’t on the SVOD platform they had access to. Anyone who uses Netflix will know this is not a lie.

When asked given what’s available on Netflix, how much these households were willing to pay, most said an amount that was nowhere near what Netflix needs to cover its costs – only $3.25 USD. And even then, these households were still going to continue pirating.

So while it seems that SVOD alone isn’t the answer to the piracy problem, when combined with digital sell-through and fairer pricing for all content, the piracy problem may not be as difficult to solve as this research suggest. Plus, there is one major phenomenon that the study may have failed to account for – and that is how SVOD *changes* one’s viewing habits over time.

Speaking from personal experience, having access to Netflix, Australia’s own Stan and Hulu has dramatically changed how I consume content. It used to be that I would buy lots of DVDs and Blu-rays (but usually when they’re on sale – rarely would I buy a new release). Now, if I can wait for a movie to get onto one of the SVOD platforms, I would. For the movies that I really want to see right away, I would go see it at the cinemas, or when all else fails, buy it on Blu-ray.

I’m also now spending much more of my free time viewing original productions on Netflix, Stan and Hulu, to the point where I’m skipping a lot of content that, in the past, I would have bought on Blu-ray (when they were on sale). The content that I’m skipping would usually be the so-so movies with average ratings that, I’m curious about, but definitely not in the must-see category (there’s plenty of content on Netflix that falls into this category, so I’m never really out of stuff to watch). Even some blockbuster movies, ones that did well at the box office, might fall into this category as well.

So if other people can change the way they consume content, to be more patient with new releases, to consume more of the original productions, and to be willing to skip a lot of “not so great” content, then piracy should come down thanks to Netflix and other SVOD platforms. It will take time though for this to happen, something a quick study like this one might not be able to account for.

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A small followup to a story I covered a few weeks ago. It seems the latest version of Denuvo is working again to offer publishers some protection, since it’s been a month and Assassin’s Creed: Origins still remains uncracked, along with some other A-list titles like Star Wars: Battlefront II that uses the same updated version of Denuvo. So the cat and mouse game begins again, even though the cat (or is it the mouse) has the upper hand for now.

High Definition

Alliance For Open Media

Alliance For Open Media’s AOMedia 1 format looks promising

The HEVC hegemony is being challenged by a newcomer – AV1. Officially known as AOMedia Video 1 (with AOMedia standing for Alliance for Open Media), it’s a next-gen codec that promises to be even more efficient than HEVC. And Mozilla, one of the founding members of the Alliance, has just added AV1 support to the latest beta version of Firefox.

Tests so far have confirmed that AV1 is at least as efficient as HEVC, and probably more so. With software giants Microsoft, Internet giants Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix and computing icons IBM, Intel all backing the Alliance, it’s easy to see why AV1 might just prove to be the real thing (or at least more real than VP9).

The problem though, is the lack of hardware support for AV1 at the moment. Encoding is a pain in the ass right now, 150 seconds of encoding just for 1 second of AV1 video, and without hardware decoding support, anyone playing AV1 files on their mobile devices will soon run out of battery. But these things take time, and the hardware support will come (especially with Intel on board).

So why the need for AV1? It’s in the name, really – the Alliance for *Open* Media. Nobody wants to get tied to a royalty heavy codec like HEVC, so if there’s an open source, royalty free alternative, it will be warmly embraced, especially by open source developers like Mozilla.

While I’m here, I also wanted to address the strange emphasis on Apple in the CNET article I linked to above. While Apple has embraced HEVC in iOS 11, it’s by no means the first company to embrace HEVC, nor does it have some kind of stake in its success. In fact, one might say it is one of the last to fully embrace the format, what with Netflix, Amazon all using HEVC, and with support for it mandatory for 4K TVs and Ultra HD Blu-ray. And Android has had decoding support for it since Android version 5.0. So it’s not so much as AV1 taking on Apple, as AV1 taking on an established format that, I’m sure if AV1 was successful, the likes of Apple would be more than happy to add support for.

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And we reach the end of another WNR. Hope it was an interesting read for you all. See you next week!


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