Good News: Xbox LIVE Gold Can Be Refunded after June If You Don’t Need It

As announced recently, the entertainment and communication apps on Xbox will not need the Xbox LIVE Gold subscription after an update rolls out in June 2014. That’s good news because more customers will be able to enjoy those apps without having to fork out an extra $60 a year.

But what happens if you already paid the Xbox LIVE Gold subscription fees, which are usually paid on an annual basis? Well, per a recent FAQ on Xbox support site, good news awaits. After the June update rolls out, you can contact Xbox support and request a refund.

Will I be able to cancel my Gold membership?

Yes. Once the Xbox One and Xbox 360 system updates become available in June, Xbox Live Gold members who purchased a paid membership before that day can cancel and receive a pro-rata refund of any unused remaining days between the date of cancellation and the date their paid Gold membership ends. Cancellation and pro-rata refund requests must be made by August 31, 2014 and require six to eight weeks for processing. Free or trial Gold memberships are not eligible for a refund. To request your pro-rata refund, please click after the system updates become available in June.

So, it is good news for consumers not just that Microsoft is lifting the requirement of Xbox LIVE Gold but also that they taking care of those who bought the subscription prior to this change.

As a reminder, here’s what the new structure will look like:

Xbox features with and without Gold membership
Xbox features with and without Gold membership

Are you a casual gamer or a non-gamer like me? Are you planning to cancel your Gold subscription once this feature rolls out? I have a concern that my refund won’t go through because I bought Gold via a prepaid card I bought from Fingers crossed, though. :-)

Xbox One Will Be Sold Without Kinect and Entertainment Apps Now Free to All

Microsoft made a bold decision to sell their new console, Xbox One, bundled with the new Kinect hardware. It was a bold decision because its rival Sony decided to make their motion sensing accessory optional with their own new console Playstation 4. As a somewhat direct result, Xbox One was $100 more expensive at retail compared to the Playstation 4.

Directly or indirectly related to the sales price, Microsoft took a beating against Sony when it came to sales in the months since both consoles launched. Despite having more exclusive games and content, the Xbox One was unable to beat the Playstation 4. Then came the most anticipated exclusive game for the Xbox One, Titanfall. Despite selling reasonably well as a game, it was unable to push Xbox console sales to a point which made Xbox a clear “winner”.

Here’s Xbox’s Yusuf Mehdi and Phil Spencer with the news:

Maybe that was the turning point for Microsoft officials to think about ways to juice the unit sales. A couple of direct cost cuts were announced on the Xbox Wire blog on May 13:

  • As of June 9, Kinect will not be bundled with the Xbox One, and the sale price of the console-only SKU will be $399 (the bundled price was $499 at launch, although there have been several promotions since then to make effective price lower).
  • Also as of June, Xbox LIVE Gold membership will not be required in order to enjoy all the entertainment apps that are part of the Xbox platform. Until now, in order to use Netflix on the Xbox, you not only paid Netflix for their service, you also had to pay Microsoft an annual fee of $60 in order to “unlock” that and all other entertainment and communication apps. The latter is no longer required to access services like Netflix, Hulu, NFL and utilities such as Skype and OneDrive.

The Kinect hardware will be available as a standalone SKU in the Fall in case someone wants to add it to the Xbox One after purchasing the console.

So, who would pay for the Gold membership if all the entertainment and communication features of the Xbox are now unlocked for everyone? Well, the blog post notes all the benefits of the Gold subscription:

  • Free games with the Games With Gold program: This is a continuation of the program launched for Xbox 360 and will now be applicable to Xbox One games.
  • Exclusive discounts with the Deals With Gold program: Promised savings for Gold members up to 50-75%.
  • Online multiplayer: Like now, if you want to play online multiplayer games you will need Gold.
  • Home Gold: Share the Gold membership with everyone in the household.
  • Smart Match: Algorithmic matching of players to make multiplayer less one-sided.
  • Parties and Party Chat: Enable viewing party and chat alongside parties.
  • Game DVR Cloud Storage: Your game recordings stay in the Microsoft cloud without storage limits. This feature will be a Gold-exclusive.
  • Xbox Fitness: A great “game” that tracks your fitness and provides guidance and follow ups.

Some may argue that the entertainment unlocking was long overdue and I am one of those doing so. I could not understand how Microsoft was able to get away with it, but am happy to see they have changed their ways, regardless of the reason to do so. However, in order to be a true entertainment option for most, the Xbox needs a “lite” version for those who like the entertainment options that Xbox provides and don’t care about the gaming aspects of the console. Could this and the unbundling of the Kinect hardware be a precursor to a potential XTV? Let’s hope so.

As for the Kinect, I don’t understand the move at all. One of the biggest deals for game and app makers with the Kinect bundled is that they are assured of the Kinect being present so there is no fragmentation (well, besides Xbox 360 vs Xbox One but that’s separate). Now with Kinect becoming optional, game makers have to take that extra step to handle Kinect’s presence as well as absence and adjust the interaction models accordingly. With development resources tight, I suspect most developers will go for the lowest common denominator and program with the assumption that Kinect is absent and only add voice and gesture controls as a bonus rather than making them the core interactions. That’s a pity.

It does look like Microsoft has made it a priority, much like their situation in Windows Phone and Windows 8.x tablets, to increase the installed base of the devices before thinking about “the right thing” or “the best thing”. I somewhat understand the point of view. It is no longer the huge tanker that needed years to change course. They hear the feedback, prioritize it internally, and make the changes necessary.

Xbox features with and without Gold membership
Xbox features with and without Gold membership

As a consumer, I am happy that I have a choice of buying the console with or without Kinect and am extremely delighted to have all those apps without an annual fee.

Are you more willing to buy the console now that it is $100 cheaper? Does Kinect with its voice controls appeal to you? Do you use Xbox One to control your cable box? Let me know in the comments!

XBOX ONE: Can Microsoft Own the Living Room?

On May 21, Microsoft revealed the next generation of their gaming-cum-entertainment console, Xbox. Dubbed XBOX ONE, officials made it a point to talk up the non-gaming aspects of the new console as much as, if not more than, the gaming aspects. Given that the reveal event was limited to an hour, and that this is a console that has not been updated for years, there were many questions raised than answers provided.

Some of the key questions, at least among the tech media revolve around the gaming aspects of the console, and whether it or the upcoming console from Sony, the Playstation 4 (PS4) would be the better device for gamers. The other aspect that has been questioned a lot is the live TV feature revealed by Microsoft. Eyebrows were raised when everyone realized that the live TV feature would be provided via HDMI input and IR blaster as opposed to TV tuners or cable cards.

This is typical of tech media nowadays. For whatever reason, they make anything that Microsoft does seem silly. Here’s my take on what the Xbox One represents for Microsoft and how some of the things that are in the console may make sense.

First, this was the first of many events where the Xbox team will talk about the various aspects of the console. Naturally, since there is so much information to disseminate, it would be too much to do all at once and in a reasonable amount of time. Remember how the Sony event went on for hours because they went into too much detail at a “launch” event? I think, Microsoft learned the lesson and kept it short and left it simply as a reveal event without going into too much (or any) detail with regard to the developer story, the policy for used games, etc. There are at least two known events in June where they will get a chance to talk about the Xbox One as well as Xbox 360: the E3 expo in early June, and the Microsoft developer conference, BUILD, in late June. The timing of the reveal event absolutely makes sense given that they can follow up on the story within weeks of the reveal.

As for gaming aspects, Microsoft did talk about the specs of the console which are a significant upgrade over the Xbox 360. They also talked about how the three OSes in the console work in a way to make it possible to instantly switch between apps and games without having to wait for the game to reload. Some have rightly pointed out that by pure specs, the Xbox One is inferior to the PS4. However, as we know, there is no point in having a higher spec gadget where the software or content cannot or does not take advantage of the higher spec. For example, the iPad with Retina Display had an issue when it shipped, where many of the popular apps were not Retina-ready and looked worse than they looked on the non-Retina iPads. So, we will have to wait and see how much better the graphics look on the PS4 before concluding that it is “better” than the Xbox One.

As for the games themselves, they showed some of the exclusives that are coming to Xbox One from large development shops like EA. Naturally, E3 is the more appropriate venue to talk more about the games that will be coming to the console when it launches, both from large shops as well as indie developers. Also, BUILD is the best venue to discuss the developer story, especially how Xbox plans to accommodate indie developers especially if the “guts” of the console are based on Windows 8. Can a developer, for example, build an app or a game for Windows 8 tablet and with minor modifications (like maybe Kinect support), publish it to the “Xbox Store”? I am of course making the assumption that there will be an Xbox Store, which has not been confirmed by Microsoft but again, between E3 and BUILD we should know for sure.

Now, regarding live TV and wasted resources (hardware and software) to support it via a combination of HDMI passthrough and IR blaster. The argument made is that these methods are backward and it was tried by Google TV and did not succeed at all. Let me just say that Google TV, among many other flaws, did not support voice like Xbox One is supposed to support. The demo at the reveal event showed how you could simply talk to the Xbox and switch from playing a game to watching a channel or a show just by voice. Google TV had a clunky remote that was really hard to use and perhaps the failure of Google TV was not the IR blaster as maybe the user experience itself.

Coming to the choice they made by not including TV tuners or cable cards, the same pundits complaining about these are also claiming that more and more entertainment is viewed without cable. There is evidence that at least in the US, many households are “cutting the cord” and living without cable. These households have not stopped watching TV, they just use services like Netflix, hulu, etc. to consume their content. If that is the case, and knowing that the Xbox console is built for at least a 7-10 years lifecycle, what is the point in supporting a dying technology? Why should the Xbox have the incremental cost bundled into it now, knowing that in maybe 3 years most of the content won’t be consumed via the cable box? The Xbox One has done the right thing by providing the equivalent of a USB dongle for floppy drives when floppy drives were eliminated from laptops. The HDMI-in and IR blaster will help transition away from the cable box. Even though they have to plan for the future, they still have to support the present and that’s what these ports allow them to do. The only issue I see so far, and we don’t know everything about it in detail yet, is the lack of a DVR in the console itself. That too could be a non-issue if the voice commands could bring up the DVR content from the cable box too.

The Xbox 360 has sold 76 million consoles in its lifetime so far, but I am sure Microsoft wants that to expand dramatically. Why wouldn’t they expect to have one in each household? In order to appeal to “non-gaming households”, Microsoft will have to make the console appealing to the casual gamers and non-gamers via their entertainment story as well as the ecosystem story. There is, after all, a potential to see apps written for Windows Phone that may work on Windows 8 and Xbox One (with code modifications to suit each device appropriately, of course). Pure gaming console market is surely on the decline, so targeting just the gamers by simply making the most powerful console on the market would be a waste of R&D resources. Instead, by making it reasonably competitive with the PS4 for gaming, and dramatically improving the other experiences like live TV, snapping two apps, Skype video conferencing in HD, completely overhauled Kinect with wide-angle 1080P camera that can see in the dark, exclusive partnership with the NFL, etc., Microsoft has a shot at becoming a permanent fixture in the living room.

Personally speaking, I am at best a casual gamer. I liked what I have seen so far. I do want to know how they are going to fit the developer pieces together and what are the chances of seeing a spurt in apps as well as the integration within the Windows ecosystem. By the end of June, I will know enough to decide if I am going to buy the console right away or not.

Are you excited about Xbox One? Sound off in the comments!

Netflix Open Sources Janitor Monkey, an AWS Cleanup Tool

Following the plan to open source its Simian Army gradually, Netflix has now open sourced the Janitor Monkey tool. This is the second Simian tool to be open sourced by Netflix after the source for Chaos Monkey was released to the public in July last year. The Simian Army at Netflix is used to manage cloud services and the last offering of Chaos Monkey was used for stress testing. As a whole, this Simian Army suite is well designed to perform a multitude of actions on cloud services.


The legend behind Janitor Monkey goes as follows:

At Netflix, when we analyzed our Amazon Web Services (AWS) usage, we found a lot of unused resources and we needed a solution to rectify this problem. Diligent engineers can manually delete unused resources via Asgard but we needed a way to automatically detect and clean them up. Our solution was Janitor Monkey.

In short, the Janitor Monkey comes in handy when disposing of unused resources. The Janitor Monkey service runs in Amazon Web Services (AWS) and it can be scheduled to perform regular resource cleanups.

Although Netflix is calling this an open sourcing of the entire tool, it seems like Janitor Monkey have not been open sourced entirely. Only modules that are generalized for other cloud services have been made available under the Apache 2 license.

The source code for Simian Army tools are made available on Github, as and when they are released. Netflix had also open-sourced its Asgard tool in June last year, which was not a part of the Simian Army, but deals with cloud services.

Netflix Q3 2012 Earnings: $905 M in Revenue, $8 M in Profit

Netflix announced its earnings for the third quarter of 2012, and its stock price has fallen nearly 10% after it slashed its subscriber estimates for the year. It generated around $905 million in revenues last quarter, and made a net profit of $7.7 million. It ended the quarter with around $370 million in cash and cash equivalents.

It added around 1.85 million net streaming subscribers, and its total subscriptions now add up to 25.10 million in the US and 4.31 million internationally. Paid subscriptions account for a large portion of that, with 23.80 million in the US and 3.69 million internationally. Its DVD business continues to shrink as a portion of its overall business.

With the competition in the online streaming space increasing thanks to Hulu, Amazon and HBO, Netflix is trying hard to license more content and also create its own original content.

Reed Hastings wrote in the shareholder letter:

Dear Fellow Shareholders,

In Q3, our global streaming membership grew by nearly 2 million, and our 29 million streaming members enjoyed over 3 billion hours of TV shows and movies from Netflix.

We have compelling exclusive content, an outstanding member experience, and a brand that stands for high quality streaming entertainment. These strengths, combined with the industry-wide forces of improving Internet devices and bandwidth, are fueling our rapid growth around the world.

We believe Internet TV will grow for the next few decades, and that some firms will build extremely valuable businesses providing consumers an incredible, personalized Internet TV experience.

Society has had over 50 years of linear TV dominance where channel owners decide what and when people can enjoy content. With Internet TV, consumers get power, control and convenience. They can decide what, when, and where they want to watch. They can pause and resume anytime. They can enjoy content on a broad range of amazing devices.

Internet TV is the future of television, and we are leading the change.

via SEC – Netflix

Netflix for iOS Updated for iPhone 5 and iOS 6

Today, Netflix has updated its iOS app  for iOS 6 and the iPhone 5’s 4″ screen. This update also improves the browsing, searching and watching experience. In fact, I have tried it and it is very noticeable. Overall, it is a great update.

iOS apps supporting iPhone 5’s taller display is really useful in video/movie apps such as Netflix as it allows many widescreen movies to be viewed in their native aspect ratio. Watching video on the iPhone 5 is truly a bliss. The Netflix app is free download from the App Store, but requires a Netflix account.

Many popular iOS apps continue to get updated for the iPhone 5’s larger display. Yesterday, Instagram and Foursquare and many iOS games were updated.

Netflix Open Sources One of its Simians for Cloud-Testing

Netflix is known for its Simian Army, which it lets loose to test its service every once in a while. The cloud calls for strict availability and reliability, and the only way to ensure this is through stringent testing. Netflix has an amusing nomenclature for its testing strategy. It likes to group its cloud testing tools into a simian army. As amusing as that may be, when it comes to implementation, the simian army is a piece of commendable technical wizardry. The Latency monkey, Doctor Monkey, Janitor Monkey, Security Monkey, all are part of the simian army at Netflix.


Recently, Netflix has decided to share one of its earliest cloud-testing tools with the world, and what better way is there to share a piece of technology than open sourcing it? Netflix describes Chaos Monkey:

A tool that randomly disables our production instances to make sure we can survive this common type of failure without any customer impact. The name comes from the idea of unleashing a wild monkey with a weapon in your data center (or cloud region) to randomly shoot down instances and chew through cables — all the while we continue serving our customers without interruption.

Chaos Monkey runs in the Amazon Web Services (AWS). The service has a configurable schedule that defaults to run from 9 AM to 3 PM. The schedule can be configured and it can be used as a great tool to perform system downtime drills.

The world of steaming media is expanding and high availability and is key to this entire industry. Netflix has done a good job by giving back something to its own ecosystem. This is just the beginning, and Netflix has plans to release its other simian tools as well.

Netflix Reports Q2 Earnings; $889 Million in Revenue, $6 Million in Profit

Netflix reported its earnings for the second quarter of 2012, with revenue of $889 million, up around 2% year-over-year, and a net profit of around $6 million, better than a net loss of around $4 million last year. It now has over $800 million in cash and short term instruments.

Netflix now has around 24 million domestic streaming subscribers, and is continuing to expand internationally into new markets like Canada, Latin America, UK and Ireland. It now has a total of 3.6 million international streaming subscribers, and 9.1 million DVD subscribers. DVDs continue to shrink as a part of its overall business.

Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, mentioned this in his shareholder letter:

“In Q2, we achieved financial performance in the top half of our guidance in nearly every metric, and have returned to profitability.

66 months ago, we launched Netflix streaming in the US with limited selection. Now, we have 24 million domestic streaming members and an incredible selection of TV shows and movies. Networks that license us prior season TV shows are in several cases benefiting from record audience numbers in the current season, partly due to the availability and promotion of prior seasons on Netflix. We are growing our business, and helping to grow the entire industry.

This growth in each of our [new international] markets reflects our investment in an easy-to-use personalized selection experience, ever more compelling content, and higher quality streaming delivery. Device by device, title by title, network by network, market by market, we are constantly improving our service.

Q3 has begun strongly for us, and we expect to be profitable again in Q3.

In Q4, we will launch our next international market, which will drive us temporarily back into the red.

We have enormous challenges ahead, and no doubt will have further ups and downs as we pioneer Internet television. We are making progress in every market we serve, and see a once-in-a-generation opportunity ahead to build the world’s most popular TV show and movie service.”

via Netflix – SEC

Netflix Now Supports All Android 2.2 & 2.3 Devices

Netflix is one of the most popular video streaming services in the United States. While iPhone users got a dedicated Netflix app quite a long time ago, there was no news about a dedicated app for the Android OS. A few months ago, when the Netflix app for Android was finally released, it only supported few Android handsets available in the market.

The reason behind supporting only selected handsets was the DRM technology used by Netflix, which supported phones with only locked down/encrypted boot loaders. There was a huge outrage due to this, and instead of blaming Netflix; Android OS was blamed because of its fragmentation issue.  The guys behind the Netflix app soon updated the app to support a bunch of more devices, but it still was not enough.

Today, the Netflix app has got another update, which makes it compatible with  all  Android handsets running Android 2.2 and/or Android 2.3+. This means that the app will now run on more than 85% of Android handsets out there! Better late than never!

Android users in the United States can download the latest version of Netflix from  here.





Netflix Integrates With Facebook for Better Recommendations

Netflix has recently started testing Facebook integrations for a better recommendation service. Facebook is already a partner in the movie rental business with Warner Bros. Netflix, on the other hand, is the largest commercial cloud based movie recommendation service and has done an excellent job in recommending movies; all based on viewing history and user ratings. Their service is far superior to that offered by Warner Bros.


(Image source: Investors)
The Facebook integration takes Netflix recommendations one-step deeper and adds a social dimension to their recommendation engine. This will help serve personalized Netflix content to users, just the way they want it. In this case, users should be willing to give up their personal data in return for better recommendations.

Patrick Seitz from has elaborated on the integration saying,

By connecting your accounts, your Facebook friends will be able to see that you’re a Netflix member as well as what you’ve watched, rated, what’s in your queue and other information about your use of the Netflix service,the terms state. You’ll be able to see the same information about your friends who participate.

Netflix also said it may personalize and otherwise enhance your experience based on your Facebook information, such as your Likes and Interests,the terms state.

In addition to this, Netflix also has many social features in plan. Though, it did not shed light on any of them.

Facebook is a storehouse of personal-data and if users allow Netflix access to Facebook, its quality of service will increase marginally. Being the current czar of streaming and rental movie services, Netflix will see a huge number of users who opt for this integration.