Apple CEO Tim Cook has cultivated a close relationship with Trump


Apple CEO Tim Cook laughs with President Donald Trump during a meeting in the White House, Washington, March 6, 2019.

Leah Millis | Reuters

The federal government will determine in the next few months whether Apple will get a tariff exemption on its core products.

It’s a critical juncture for Apple and CEO Tim Cook: A 15% tax on Chinese imports would force Apple to raise prices or accept lower margins on its core products sold in the United States, including iPhones and Mac laptops.

The decision will be made by the trade representative, but Cook has already appealed directly to the president with his thinking that the tariffs could hurt the company and give its top competitor an advantage.

“I have a lot of respect for Tim Cook, and Tim was talking to me about tariffs,” Trump said in August. “And one of the things, and he made a good case, is that Samsung is their number-one competitor, and Samsung is not paying tariffs because they’re based in South Korea.”

Trump seems to listen to Cook and take his concerns seriously. That’s a surprising development for a business leader who supported Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, in 2016 and who has openly clashed with the administration on certain issues like immigration.

One possible reason: Cook has taken care to cultivate ties with Trump and his family — a charm offensive that started shortly after Trump’s election and continues to this day.

Cook has met with Trump over dinner at his golf course in New Jersey twice in the last two years. He’s attended state dinners hosted by Trump and has a good relationship with Ivanka and Melania Trump, White House officials say. Apple announcements have often found their way into Trump’s remarks or tweets when they fit into the president’s narrative. Trump goes out of his way to call Cook a “friend of mine.”

Apple doesn’t engage in politics as a company. The company doesn’t have a PAC, and Cook has said it “shouldn’t exist.”

Nonetheless, during the Trump administration, Cook has kept in touch with the president, and his strategy of showing up to meetings and making calls when appropriate has given Apple the president’s ear when the president’s policies collide with Apple’s corporate interests.

That influence is about to be tested if Apple applies for tariff product exclusions. “Tim Cook meets with the president for strategic reasons, if the probability of [tariffs] were zero, they probably wouldn’t meet,” Loup Ventures managing partner Gene Munster said in August.

Whether the Trump administration spares Apple remains to be seen. But Trump definitely hears Cook’s requests. “Others go out and hire very expensive consultants,” Trump said in August. “Tim Cook calls Donald Trump directly.”

Apple declined to comment for this story.

Where it started: The tech summit

President-elect Donald Trump speaks as PayPal co-founder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel (C) and Apple Inc CEO Tim Cook look on during a meeting with technology leaders at Trump Tower in New York U.S., December 14, 2016.

Shannon Stapleton | Reuters

It’s somewhat surprising that Cook has become the tech CEO most likely to call the president.

Shortly after Trump was elected, he called the CEOs of several tech companies to meet at Trump Tower. Cook sat next to Trump and was photographed looking distinctly unhappy in pictures from that day.

Cook had not been an early supporter: He hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in Palo Alto in 2016, and he was on a list of possible vice presidential candidates created by her campaign, according to a leaked email published by WikiLeaks. (Cook also supported Republicans; he also hosted a fundraiser for Paul Ryan in that summer.)

In a message to Apple employees, Cook explained why he showed up to talk to Trump despite supporting his opponent. “Personally, I’ve never found being on the sideline a successful place to be,” Cook wrote in the post published by TechCrunch. “The way that you influence these issues is to be in the arena.”

That’s been Cook’s guiding principle while dealing with the Trump administration.

“Tim seems like the kind of a person who recognizes his company’s interest in having a seat at the table — whether or not you agree all the time,” a White House official said.

Cook’s internal post included some insight into Apple’s legislative priorities, including “human rights for everyone” and “really combating climate change.”

But it also touched on the top issue Apple lobbied on in 2016, according to an analysis from OpenSecrets: Taxes.

“We have other things that are more business-centric — like tax reform — and something we’ve long advocated for: a simple system,” Cook wrote in the message to Apple employees.

Goal achieved

Apple achieved part of that goal in December 2017, when Trump’s tax reform enabled Apple to repatriate hundreds of billions in overseas cash at a lower tax rate, saving the company an estimated $27 billion in taxes.

A month later, Apple announced that it plans to pay $38 billion in taxes — signaling that Apple was planning to repatriate nearly $250 billion in overseas cash at a 15.5% percent tax rate.

Apple’s press release also said that Apple would contribute $350 billion to the US economy over the next 5 years, although it was based on a very broad definition of “contribute,” which included money that Apple had planned to spend on U.S. suppliers. Apple also gave $2,500 in restricted stock to many of its employees as a one-time tax break bonus.

Trump noticed Apple’s plans, tweeting on Jan. 17, 2018: “I promised that my policies would allow companies like Apple to bring massive amounts of money back to the United States. Great to see Apple follow through as a result of TAX CUTS. Huge win for American workers and the USA!”

Two weeks later, Trump used Apple’s stats in his first State of the Union speech.

“Since we passed tax cuts, roughly 3 million workers have already gotten tax cut bonuses — many of them thousands of dollars per worker. Apple has just announced it plans to invest a total of $350 billion in America, and hire another 20,000 workers,” Trump said. “This is our new American moment. There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream.”

Later that spring, National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow said that Cook remarked “he loves the tax cut and tax reform” when Cook visited the White House. Cook attended a state dinner hosted by Trump in a very non-Silicon Valley tuxedo. He was joined by Lisa Jackson, Apple’s VP of environment and policy, who used to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration.

‘I don’t think the iPhone will get a tariff on it’

The most important priority now for Apple in DC is navigating Trump’s trade war, which will start to affect Apple’s major product lines, including iPhones, iPads, and Macs on December 15 if the company doesn’t receive an exception.

A tariff on Apple’s products would lead force Apple either to raise prices on products in the United States or to eat the cost itself.

J.P. Morgan estimates that Apple would need to increase the price of an iPhone from $1,000 to $1,142 if the White House implements a 25% tariff on Apple’s imports, although analysts say that Apple is likely to absorb the tariff cost rather than passing it onto consumers. (Right now the iPhone would receive a 15% tariff if it does not get an exemption.)

In the summer of 2018, Apple seemed confident that the iPhone would avoid tariffs.

In an interview in June 2018, Cook said that “I don’t think that iPhone will get a tariff on it.” Two weeks later, the New York Times reported that confidence was the result of an assurance from the Trump administration.

That summer was also when Cook laid out his feelings on tariffs. “Our view on tariffs is they show up as a tax on the consumer,” Cook said during an earnings call.

The first challenge to Apple’s confidence came last fall, when the USTR finalized tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports. The list, called List 3, would affect significant Apple products, including the Mac Mini, Apple Watch, and AirPods.

But on September 17, one week before List 3 took effect, Apple got a tariff exemption on its Apple Watch and AirPods products. Basically, the Trump administration excluded Apple’s products from tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods.

List 4, first proposed by the Trump administration this spring, is poised to be even worse for Apple — the sweeping tariff list includes Apple’s crown jewel, the iPhone, which still makes up about half of Apple’s revenue.

Analysts believe that Apple will apply for tariff exemptions for List 4, although the exclusion process has not started yet. Apple previously said in a letter to the government that List 4 would cover “all of Apple’s major products, including iPhone, iPad, Mac, AirPods, and Apple TV” and that “U.S. tariffs on Apple’s products would result in a reduction of Apple’s U.S. economic contribution.”

Big plants

Apple unveiled plans Thursday for a $1 billion campus in Texas that will create jobs for the tech giant outside Silicon Valley. The new campus — for engineering other functions, but not manufacturing — will be near the tech giant’s existing facility in Austin and initially accommodate 5,000 new employees, with room to grow to 15,000.

SUZANNE CORDEIRO | AFP | Getty Images

Tariffs are part of a larger back-and-forth between Apple and the president centered on the company’s relationship with China.

Apple doesn’t operate any of its own manufacturing, except for a small amount of production in Ireland. Instead, it enters into deals with contract manufacturers, who assemble Apple’s products — nearly always in China.

Changing this has been a big focus for the president.

“I’m going to get Apple to start making their computers and their iPhones on our land, not in China,” Trump said during a 2016 campaign rally.

Trump’s focus on getting Apple to build domestically continued shortly after Cook called to congratulate him on his win in November 2016.

Shortly after the election, Cook called Trump to congratulate him on his win. Trump brought up the China issue, and later said, “I got a call from Tim Cook at Apple, and I said, ‘Tim, you know one of the things that will be a real achievement for me is when I get Apple to build a big plant in the United States, or many big plants in the United States, where instead of going to China, and going to Vietnam, and going to the places that you go to, you’re making your product right here.’

He continued: “He said, ‘I understand that.’ I said: ‘I think we’ll create the incentives for you, and I think you’re going to do it. We’re going for a very large tax cut for corporations, which you’ll be happy about,.”

Trump repeated his claim about Apple “plants” less than a year later, in July 2017, saying that Cook “promised me three big plants — big, big, big.”

The obsession with plants culminated in a game of brinksmanship this year. In June, Apple announced a new version of the Mac Pro, a low-volume, high-end computer that was previously assembled in Texas. It had not been redesigned since 2013.

After the announcement, the Wall Street Journal reported that the new version was going to be assembled in China like other Macs. But in a surprise, Apple asked for tariff waivers in June on 15 different parts it needed to import — prompting Trump to tweet that “Apple will not be given Tariff waivers, or relief, for Mac Pro parts that are made in China.”

As it turns out, Apple wanted to assemble the high-end, $6,000 computer in the same facility in Texas where the old Mac Pro was assembled. By the end of the week, Trump’s tone had already softened.

“A man I have a lot of liking for and respect is Tim Cook, and we’ll work it out, I think they’re going to announce that they’re going to build a plant in Texas, and if they do that I’m starting to get very happy, okay,” Trump said in July.

Last month, Apple announced that it planned to assemble the Mac Pro computer in Austin, Texas, after receiving tariff exemptions to import 10 of the 15 parts it needed for the Mac Pro.

“We thank the administration for their support enabling this opportunity,” Cook said in a statement. 

Outreach to the whole Trump family

Donald Trump isn’t the only member of the Trump clan who enjoys talking to Cook. In January 2017, Cook was spotted eating dinner with the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner in Washington, D.C.

Melania Trump also enjoys talking to Cook, according to a person familiar with their relationship. They talked about Melania Trump’s “Be Best” campaign in Bedminster, New Jersey, earlier this year.

Cook has continued to cultivate a relationship with Ivanka Trump. In February, Cook joined the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, along with the CEOs of Lockheed Martin, Visa, and IBM, and in 2017, Cook joined the White House Office of American Innovation. Both of those boards are led by Ivanka Trump and Kushner. Cook is also involved in a program called the Pledge to the American Worker alongside Ivanka Trump.

Cook and Ivanka Trump traveled to an Idaho elementary school last November for a photo opportunity. Apple had donated iPads to all teachers and students in the district.

“He and Ivanka have a great relationship. Very positive,” a White House official said.

Memberships on these boards are one reason for Cook to visit the White House. It was at a workforce advisory board meeting in March that Trump referred to Cook as “Tim Apple.” Most recently, Cook visited the White House in June as part of his responsibilities on the board.

“Tim Cook, from Apple, who was here today, who’s also on the advisory board,” Ivanka Trump said in June.

“Who just left. He just left our office,” President Trump added.

Follow @CNBCtech on Twitter for the latest tech industry news.

— CNBC’s Eamon Javers contributed reporting.



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Apple’s AR plans may come to life after acquiring iKinema motion tech


Apple’s ARKit already has many of the fundamentals in place to help developers create augmented reality experiences — this year’s release of ARKit 3 added RealityKit and Reality Composer tools focused on easing the process of adding virtual objects and environments to real world spaces. Now it appears that Apple’s next step could be virtual people.

Until last month, U.K.-based iKinema was focused on providing 3D motion animation tools to movie and game developers, enabling virtual characters to exhibit highly believable body movements. The company’s flagship RunTime software enables easy but realistic kinematic simulations of the entire human body, including locomotion and other procedural animations, openly winning deals with Google, Microsoft, and numerous game studios.

Following legal filings in the U.K. (via MacRumors) that showed an Apple attorney becoming an iKinema director in mid-September, and a subsequent change of address to the same location as Apple Europe, Apple confirmed today to The Financial Times that it has acquired iKinema — the company famously doesn’t confirm specifics about most of its “smaller technology company” purchases. Since the purchase wouldn’t make sense as a way to keep supplying various Apple competitors with kinematic tools, there has to be another motivation.

Bringing realistic human motion to ARKit and a wide variety of Apple AR-capable platforms makes the most sense, and there’s a particularly interesting set of AR applications that Apple could target: AR avatars. We covered iKinema last year when it worked with Japanese media company Gree to let YouTubers appear as virtual dolls within videos. Armed with little more than an HTC Vive headset and motion-capturing cameras, people could transform themselves into animated characters to narrate or participate in videos without showing their real faces. It was cool but arguably purpose-limited technology.

Samsung took the same basic idea to a different level at its Galaxy Unpacked event in August. Armed with a depth-sensing Galaxy Note10 camera, a demonstrator 3D-scanned a stuffed animal, then used a real person’s motions to bring the animal to life with no apparent extra effort. All the work was handled behind the scenes — in the phone — with advanced kinematic and computer vision tools that live-translated human movements into a skeletal structure for a doll.

iKinema’s work on the same concept was shown this May, as visual effects studio Digital Domain showed off “DigiDoug” (shown above), a completely realistic-looking digital person whose facial and body movements were being performed by a human engineer. At the time, the company said that the technology would be used for everything from digital replicas of real humans to virtual characters, virtual assistants, and VTubers (virtual YouTubers).

Now the tools are in Apple’s hands, which — if it follows past precedent — will likely lead to meaningful ARKit improvements a year or so from now, focused on bringing digital people into AR apps and games. But it could also improve Apple’s Memoji avatars, evolving them past heads into fully animated bodies, and potentially help developers make more realistic characters for their cross-platform iPad, iPhone, Mac, and Apple TV games.

Stay tuned, as AR avatar technology appears to be an emerging battleground for every major tech company from Facebook to Samsung, as well as smaller players such as Xiaomi. Acquiring one of the leading players in kinematic animations may have just given Apple a virtual leg up on its rivals.



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Ninja isn’t helping Mixer catch up to Twitch


Tyler “Ninja” Blevins is doing fine on Mixer. His livestreams continue to attract tens of thousands of viewers. But Ninja’s success is not lifting up other broadcasters on Microsoft’s livestreaming video platform, according to StreamElements and data-tracking firm Aresenal.gg.

As more kids went back to school in September, livestreaming hours watched dropped across Twitch, YouTube, and Mixer compared to August. But while those platforms are all dealing with typical seasonal decline, Twitch built on its lead over the others. Twitch’s share of the total livestream hours watched grew 3% from Q2 to Q3.

The takeaway here is that Mixer’s big-money deal to sign Ninja in August isn’t having much of an impact yet.

“While we regularly see a drop in hours watched from August to September, there are some interesting Q3 developments worth noting in the live streaming space,” StreamElements chief executive Donor Nir said. “For one, Ninja’s move to Mixer turned out to not be the game changer they probably hoped when comparing their market share with Twitch’s.”

Is Mixer’s Ninja experiment a failure?

Ninja hasn’t shared the details of his Mixer deal, but he likely has an exclusive contract for multiple years.

This should give Microsoft the chance to try multiple strategies to build on Ninja. And it’s possible that Mixer’s growth may take time — this happened in August, after all. The battle for online livestream viewership is a new one, and no one knows yet what it will take to pull people away from the market leader. Worth noting that this is exact fight that Epic is in with its efforts to build Epic Games Store in the face of Steam.

While Twitch, YouTube, and Mixer decline month-over-month, Facebook Gaming was the only major platform to see growth.

“It helps to apply a global filter to the data since Facebook is also strong in a lot of overseas markets,” said Nir. “[But] Twitch’s percentage of the pie chart illustrates that it has slightly increased its market share.”



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Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled teams up with Call of Duty Endowment


Activision’s Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled has teamed up with the Call of Duty Endowment charity to promote the cause of job placement for veterans.

Within the game, fans will now be able to buy a special kart, dubbed the Firehawk Kart, and the proceeds will be donated to the endowment, which finds jobs for U.S. and United Kingdom veterans.

The kart is modeled after a classic military plane. You can put your favorite Crash Bandicoot racer in the captain’s seat and soar across the finish line. The Call of Duty Endowment’s logo is featured prominently near the plane’s tail.

As of today, players in the U.S. and U.K. will be able to purchase the Firehawk kart directly from the PlayStation Store, the Microsoft Store, or the Nintendo eShop, and 100% of proceeds received by Activision for this special item will go directly to funding non-profits that place veterans in the U.S. and U.K. into high-quality civilian jobs. This item will be available up until $1 million has been raised for the cause.

Above: Crash Team Racing’s The Firehawk

Image Credit: Activision

The Call of Duty Endowment has placed over 60,000 veterans into well-paying jobs earlier than anticipated and hopes to reach its goal of putting 100,000 veterans back to work by 2024.

(Also, if you are a U.S. or U.K. veteran, transitioning service member, or service leaver — or know someone who is — requiring assistance in looking for employment in the U.S. or U.K., then visit the Veteran Support section of the Call of Duty Endowment website to be paired with a partner organization who can help in the job search.)



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ProBeat: Microsoft double dips on dual-screen devices


Microsoft got a little wild at its Surface event this week. The company’s notable announcements ran the gamut from unveiling earbuds that work with Alexa/Cortana/Bixby/Google Assistant/Siri/etc. to embracing AMD to co-engineering a chip with Qualcomm. But the wildest news by far was the announcement of two dual-screen devices, the Surface Neo and Surface Duo, more than a year ahead of launch.

In fact, I don’t think the lead time is the craziest part — after all, the company needs to get developers building for dual-screen devices before they launch — no, it’s that Microsoft is developing two completely different platforms for its two dual-screen devices. Microsoft is building Windows 10X, specifically for dual-screen PCs like Surface Neo, and it’s working with Google on Android for its dual-screen Surface Duo phone. Either one of these would be significant enough on its own. Together, they show just how massive of a bet Microsoft is placing on dual-screen devices.

Double dipping

Above: Microsoft Surface Neo

Microsoft’s HoloLens, Surface Hub, and Xbox One all run a form of Windows 10. But Windows 10X has its own name, likely because Microsoft is also bringing computer makers along for the ride. This isn’t just a first-party play — it’s an attempt to build an ecosystem. Windows 10X will power dual-screen PCs from Asus, Dell, HP, and Lenovo, in addition to the Surface Neo. As far as Microsoft is concerned, just as all Windows laptops are embracing touchscreens, all Windows laptops could one day be dual-screen PCs.

microsoft surface duo

Regardless of whether that happens, Microsoft also believes so strongly in dual-screen devices that it’s willing to get back in the phone game and adopt Android for the Surface Duo. Microsoft is choosing not to build a Surface phone that competes with all the other single-screen Android slabs. It’s also avoiding, at least for now, the inevitable issues with foldable phones like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and Huawei’s Mate X. (Foldable phones have one screen that folds, while dual-screen phones have a hinge.)

None of this will necessarily pan out. Dual-screen devices could flop. Two screens means more potential productivity, efficiency, and maybe even some fun games, sure. But two screens also raises questions around thickness, weight, performance, price, and battery life. After all, Microsoft has been on the dual-screen adventure before with its Courier project almost a decade ago — which it killed off because the device wasn’t up to snuff.

Assuming they launch as planned, Surface Neo and Surface Duo will hit shelves more than 10 years after Courier was canceled. That’s a long time in the technology industry. And yet, the very existence of two wildly different devices shows Microsoft isn’t sure what will ultimately work. Will people buy dual-screen PCs, dual-screen phones, both, or neither?

ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.



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Microsoft: Hackers linked to Iran targeted U.S. presidential candidate


(Reuters) — A hacking group that appears to be linked to the Iranian government has carried out a campaign against a U.S. presidential campaign, Microsoft said on Friday.

Microsoft saw “significant” cyber activity by the group that also targeted current and former U.S. government officials, journalists covering global politics and prominent Iranians living outside Iran, the company said in a blog post.

In a 30-day period between August and September, the group, called “Phosphorous” by the company, made more than 2,700 attempts to identify consumer email accounts belonging to specific customers and then attacked 241 of those accounts.

Hacking to interfere in elections has become a concern for governments especially since United States intelligence agencies concluded that Russia ran a hacking and propaganda operation to disrupt the American democratic process in 2016 to help then-Republican candidate Donald Trump become president. Moscow has denied any interference.

In addition, tensions between the United States and Iran have risen since May 2018 when Trump withdrew from a 2015 international nuclear accord with Tehran that put limits on its nuclear program in exchange for easing of sanctions. Trump has since re-instated U.S. sanctions, putting increased pressure on the Iranian economy, including its oil trade.

The Iranian government did not issue any immediate comment through state-run media on Microsoft’s statement of any link to Phosphorous.

Microsoft said Phosphorous used information gathered from researching their targets or other means to game password reset or account recovery features and attempt to take over some targeted accounts.

The attacks disclosed by the company on Friday were not technically sophisticated, the blog said. Hackers tried to use a significant amount of personal information to attack targets, it said.

“This effort suggests Phosphorous is highly motivated and willing to invest significant time and resources engaging in research and other means of information gathering,” the software company said in a blog post.

Microsoft has been tracking Phosphorus since 2013 and said in March that it had received a court order to take control of 99 websites the group used to execute attacks.

The company said it had notified the customers related to the investigations and threats and has worked with those whose accounts were compromised to secure them.

Phosphorus is also known as APT 35, Charming Kitten, and Ajax Security Team, according to Microsoft.



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Call of Duty: Mobile marches past 35 million downloads


Activision Blizzard announced today Call of Duty: Mobile has surpassed 35 million downloads less than a week after its launch.

The mobile version of Activision Blizzard’s hit shooter franchise launched on October 1 for Android and iOS. According to Activision Blizzard, it achieved this milestone faster than any other first or third-person shooter on Android or iOS. On Wednesday, mobile industry analyst Sensor Tower reported that Call of Duty: Mobile was at 20 million installs.

The game reached No. 1 app ranking based on downloads in over 100 countries. The shooter is available in all Google Play and Apple App Store regions except for Mainland China, Vietnam, and China.

Call of Duty: Mobile replicates the experience of classic multiplayer modes like Team Deathmatch. It also includes a battle royale mode, the second take on the experience for the series following Blackout from last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.

The next non-mobile entry in the series, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, comes out on October 25 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.



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The RetroBeat: Give me a Diablo II remaster, not Diablo IV


We’re less than a month away from BlizzCon, Blizzard Entertainment’s yearly fan event that always hosts major announcements. The show happens on November 1 and November 2 this year, and I’ll be there covering the proceedings for my third year in a row.

This looks like it could be the most exciting BlizzCon I’ve been to yet. Aside from the stuff that has become givens — new Overwatch character, new Hearthstone set, etc. — we’re likely going to hear about World of Warcraft’s next expansion. But a lot of Blizzard fans will be most anxious to hear some news on Diablo.

But while they’re hoping for an announcement for Diablo IV, I want to hear about something else.

Not dead, just sleeping

Diablo has been relatively quiet since 2014, when Diablo III’s first and only expansion, Reaper of Souls, came out. Since then, Blizzard has given the action role-playing game some updates (the largest of which added a new class, the Necromancer) and brought it to the Nintendo Switch. But it’s been a long time since we’ve had a new Diablo experience.

That’s why a lot of Blizzard fans were hoping for a Diablo IV announcement at last year’s BlizzCon. Instead, Blizzard closed its opening ceremonies by revealing the mobile game Diablo: Immortal. This angered much of Diablo’s fanbase, which consists of a lot of PC gaming purists. The outcry overshadowed the rest of the show.

This year, expectations for Diablo IV are even higher, as many expect Blizzard to “make up for” last year’s diabolical debacle. And, hey, I’d be all for it.

But I’d just be more excited for a Diablo II remaster.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRXP5td0ZrA?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent

Two good

Diablo II came out for the PC back in 2000. I had dabbled with the original game, but I fell in love with the sequel. It is a much larger, impressive endeavor. The first Diablo took place in one town and dungeon. Diablo II puts you on an adventure that spanned a continent, fighting hundreds of demons along the way.

It blends deep, customizable role-playing game mechanics and loot with a creepy, Gothic world. And even though it’s much older than Diablo III, it pulled all of that off better than its successor. Diablo III’s characters and worlds just don’t have that same off-putting aesthetic. The limitations of the time actually helped Diablo II. It’s characters with their low framerates look like something out of an old Harryhausen movie, while Diablo III looks like … well, like a modern video game. It’s technically impressive, but it lacks grit. Diablo III’s progression is also less satisfying, abandoning Diablo II’s talent trees for a simplified version that just unlocks skills as you level up.

When Diablo III launched in 2012, many fans were disappointed by how different it was from Diablo II. This opened the door for other games, including Path of Exile, to become spiritual successors to the beloved Diablo II.

I imagine that Diablo IV will look more like Diablo III than Diablo II. And Blizzard will have to focus on ways to keep Diablo IV relevant and profitable long after its launch with the same games-as-service systems that it’s used for Overwatch and Hearthstone. That means I expect constant updates and a story that lacks a satisfying conclusion at launch.

Above: Diablo II.

Image Credit: Blizzard

That’s why I’d prefer to just play Diablo II again. Blizzard has been doing a great job remastering some of its older games, like StarCraft. It’s even doing a full remake of Warcraft III. In Diablo II’s case, I prefer the remaster route. I don’t need a complete overhaul. Like I said before, those grainy, choppy graphics are a part of the game’s charm. I just want things like updated video options and better online support.

Ideally, we’ll get both announcements at BlizzCon. I could see them opening with Diablo II Remastered and closing with Diablo IV (with Diablo: Immortal getting a small amount of stage time somewhere in the middle). And I’m probably being a bit too pessimistic about Diablo IV. But Diablo II is one of my favorite PC games ever, and I’m dying for an excuse to play it again.

The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.



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Rep. Tlaib v Detroit PD, round 2, was a missed opportunity to bridge facial recognition debate gap


Weeks ago, a brief Twitter spat ensued between Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and the Detroit Police Department over the latter’s use of facial recognition software, ending with an invitation for Tlaib to visit the Real Time Crime Center headquarters. I predicted here that if the congresswoman took them up on the offer, it would make for a fine bit of political theater. This week she did, and it was.

But the rather bizarre visit, which was filmed by George Hunter of the Detroit News, smacked of a missed opportunity on Tlaib’s part. In a tour personally hosted by Detroit police chief James Craig, she had a chance to get more details about how Detroit police are using facial recognition, ask them difficult questions about the program, and take it all back with her to Washington, D.C.

Instead, she square-pegged a few important talking points into the conversation and appeared uninterested in a dialogue.

The visit lasted over an hour, according to a source who was present. The Detroit News’ video, which was edited down for length, begins with Tlaib chatting with Chief Craig in a busy hallway at the Real Time Crime Center. She spots the camera and says, “Are you facial recognizing me right now?”

It seems intended as a half joke, but she appears genuinely nervous about the camera’s presence. “Who are you and why are you videotaping me?,” she asks. She’s smiling, but it appears to be a serious question. The videographer identifies himself as a journalist. There are no other journalists present, and his is the only camera aside from the Detroit PD’s, but her initial question is oddly aggressive. She comes off as nervous and defensive.

Craig shows her the wall of live camera feeds — traffic, grocery stores, gas stations, and the like — and assures her that there is no facial recognition occurring on any of them. Then the video cuts to a desk with a series of monitors, where a crime analysis supervisor stands ready to show how the facial recognition is applied. Craig begins to expound on the supervisor’s credentials when Tlaib cuts in — “So you are doing facial recognition,” she says. “Absolutely we are,” responds Craig. “I’m going to show you.”

Quickly, instead of getting the promised demonstration, Tlaib is (slightly and politely) off-topic, bringing up past interactions she and Craig have had and voicing concerns about the whole program that, for her, have only grown over time. He’s impatient to show her the analysis. They talk over each other. He seems annoyed.

The scene cuts to Craig showing Tlaib a side-by-side of two images that the system flagged using its facial recognition software. He appears to be using this example to purposefully illustrate how the automated system can get things wrong and why it needs trained human workers to intervene. Craig begins to explain how the system made an obvious error, and Tlaib interrupts him to bring up the issue of error rates for people of color, and especially women of color, which is the very thing he’s trying to illustrate. He was in the process of telling her that the system has a problem with misidentifying people, by using an example that includes two people of color, one of whom is a woman.

Then Tlaib tosses in a non-sequitur, saying “See if you can give us some of our money back until you fix it,” apparently referring to federal funding of the program. “Nnno,” Craig replies.

The video continues, and Craig is able to explain further that the department knows the computer isn’t 100% accurate, which is why they have trained human analysts, and facial recognition is just one tool they use to help find suspects. In response to Tlaib’s question — “Is this solely what’s used to prosecute someone?” — he answers an emphatic “No. Absolutely not. Never.”

Then she seems to lose the narrative: “And also, analysts need to be African Americans. Not people that are not.” At best, the optics are poor, given that she’s speaking directly to two black men. Craig was clearly offended by the remark, as he made clear later in a TV interview, by calling it racist.

Regardless, that’s the angle numerous publications ran with after the Detroit News posted its story and video.

Tlaib apparently didn’t come to listen, which is too bad, because there was a lot for everyone to learn. Instead, we got awkward exchanges, political gaffes, and acrimony after the fact.

To Tlaib’s credit, she did represent the concerns of her majority-African American district by emphatically pointing out that facial recognition software has endemic racial problems and is ripe for abuse beyond law enforcement in areas such as housing and by expressing concerns about analyst bias, given that people of color already have to suffer the indignity of being frequently misidentified by people of other races. (Her anecdote about people on the House floor confusing Rep. Elijah Cummins D-MD and Rep. John Lewis D-GA for one another should be deeply upsetting to everyone.)

Tlaib later took to Twitter to share links to research she said she was alluding to during the visit. The whole thread is worth a look. Links she shared include research on facial recognition systems inaccurately recognizing people who are not white males, how face recognition predictions are more accurate for people who are members of the same race, and how people tend to less accurately identify and less accurately remember faces of people of other races.

But in the moment, instead of challenging Craig with this startling research, she fumbled. She missed a chance to potentially make an impact, or at least learn more, around a critical issue for which she is legislating. We need our leaders and lawmakers to do better.

Detroit is one of two cities in the country known to be testing live facial recognition software. This is facial recognition that can track an individual from a network of cameras around the city and quickly identify them. This change from traditional search methods is a big part of the urgency building up around facial recognition worldwide.

The meeting between Tlaib and Craig could have been the kind of crucial discussion between opposing viewpoints that we’ll need to build bridges and avoid misapplications that negatively impact society, particularly the poor and underrepresented. Instead we got political theater that may have done more harm than good.





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PayPal becomes first member to leave Facebook’s Libra Association


(Reuters) — U.S. payments processor PayPal said on Friday it was leaving Libra Association, the entity managing the Facebook-led effort to build global digital currency Libra, making it the first member to exit the group.

PayPal said it would forgo any further participation in the group and would instead focus on its own core businesses.

“We remain supportive of Libra’s aspirations and look forward to continued dialogue on ways to work together in the future,” PayPal said in a statement.

In response, Geneva-based Libra Association said it was aware of the challenges lying ahead in its attempts to “reconfigure” the financial system.

“The type of change that will reconfigure the financial system to be tilted towards people, not the institutions serving them, will be hard. Commitment to that mission is more important to us than anything else. We’re better off knowing about this lack of commitment now, rather than later,” Libra Association said in a statement. Facebook declined to comment.

Facebook announced plans to launch the digital currency in June 2020 in partnership with other members of Libra Association but the project quickly ran into trouble with skeptical regulators around the world.

Reuters reported last week that Facebook could push back the launch of Libra to tackle regulatory concerns.

Visa and Mastercard are also reconsidering their involvement in Libra as they do not want to attract regulatory scrutiny, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.

France and Germany last month pledged to block Libra from operating in Europe and backed the development of a public cryptocurrency instead.

With the exit of PayPal, Libra Association now has 28 members, including Uber, Lyft, and Spotify.

“We look forward to the first Libra Council meeting in 10 days and will be sharing updates following that, including details of the 1,500 entities that have indicated enthusiastic interest to participate,” Libra Association said in a tweet.



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