Microsoft took a uniquely middle-ground stance when they released Windows Phone in 2009. Admitting that their hand-off approach to Windows Mobile led to lackluster hardware from their OEM partners, Microsoft announced their new, more restricted mobile operating system. Complete with a rigid hardware spec, walled app ecosystem, and closed-source software, Windows Phone imposed far more stringent requirements on OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) than either its predecessor, or the then-burgeoning Android platform. However, one important detail was their commitment to the OEM partnerships who would be making hardware for the platform, which, along with Android, was counter to Apple’s ownership of both the hardware and software of iOS. With Microsoft’s Labor Day acquisition of Nokia’s devices business, this model is in some question.

Eyebrows were raised in 2011 when Microsoft and Nokia announced a high-profile partnership that involved billions of dollars, and a much closer relationship between the two companies. The choice of platform seemed obvious, with Nokia’s Symbian OS struggling to remain competitive with newer mobile platforms, the Android market becoming increasingly dominated by Samsung, and the recently appointed CEO Stephen Elop being a former Microsoft executive. At the time of announcement, many already suggested that Elop may be a Trojan Horse for Microsoft to gain control over Nokia, but the decision seemed to make sense.

The plan went as expected. Nokia’s first Lumia phone was announced some months later and brought some limited attention to the struggling Windows Phone ecosystem. Nokia continued to release a large number of handsets, spanning a wide set of price points. While neither company was seeing breakout success for the platform, it became increasingly clear that Nokia was dominating the market for Windows Phone, accounting for 87 percent of all Windows Phone usage by August 2013. Launch partner LG had announced no plans to launch new phones, and the Windows Phones made by HTC and Samsung seemed to become increasingly lackluster.

With the acquisition of Nokia’s devices division, it seems likely that all other OEMs will abandon the platform. After all, their Windows Phones typically see far less demand than their Android ones, and managing multiple operating systems requires considerable resources. With Nokia (or Microsoft?) receiving even greater preferential treatment, remaining competitive in the Windows Phone market would simply be too challenging for not enough reward.

The consequences of this may seem trivial considering nearly all Windows Phones were Nokia’s anyway, but the longer-term implications may be more complicated. The power of the OEM model is what made Microsoft successful in the PC market, and is what made Android successful in mobile. Everyone has different needs, and choice is the best way to cater to them. In fact, Nokia’s success with Windows Phone became apparent as it catered to many markets, and price points, and color options, a fact made obvious by the popularity of the budget Lumia 520.

Though at the present it feels that Nokia is the only choice anyway, there was hope that if Windows Phone increased its marketshare and consumer demand, old partners like Samsung, HTC, and LG may start investing in the platform again. However, with Microsoft’s acquisition, this seems unlikely.

Traditionally, it was uncommon for a company selling a platform (like Windows Phone) to also make their own hardware. For a company to preserve its relationship with OEMs, there had to be assurances that the game was being played fairly. No secrets or favoritism. However, this landscape may be changing. Google-branded Nexus phones and the acquisition of Motorola Mobility did not slow the production of third party Android devices, and Microsoft seems to have maintained its relationship with PC makers while producing their Surface tablets. Whatever happens looking forward, Microsoft needs to remember the importance of choice and find a way to provide that to consumers either with its recent acquisition, or with a continuing relationship with other OEMs.

ANDRE: Which days of Bumbershoot did you attend?

CLAIRE:  I only attended Sunday because it was the only day that seemed interesting to me.

ANDRE: What shows did you see?

CLAIRE:  I saw fun. Ra Ra Riot, and Death Cab for Cutie

ANDRE: What did you think of the shows?

CLAIRE:  Some were my favorite bands, one was one of my sister’s favorite bands when she was my age, and then one was my friend’s favorite, so it all three of us seeing our favorite bands together.

ANDRE: What did you think of the Ra Ra Riot performance?

CLAIRE:  I’m not saying it was bad! It just wasn’t my kind of music. It didn’t ‘zing.’ I’m more of a person who goes to cultural songs.

ANDRE: Why did you start spinning?

CLAIRE:  At first I told my sister I wanted to get closer but she said I couldn’t because it could have been dangerous and we couldn’t really stick together, so we just went to the back and she was just pointing out how most of the people were just standing stiff. My sister, my friend, and I started spinning because I just thought that’s what should happen at concerts like these. When you’re on the floor, you shouldn’t just stand.”

ANDRE: Do you spin for fun a lot?

CLAIRE:  I used to a lot when I was younger, but then it started freaking out my dog. So now I only do it at school with my friends, but I have a gift for not getting sick after a spin or two.

ANDRE: When did you first become aware that the audience was cheering for you?

CLAIRE:  My sister told me that the audience was actually cheering for me. I thought they were just cheering at some part of the song that they liked. When I realized they were cheering for me, it was a little embarrassing. I wanted to keep spinning, but I didn’t want them to think I was just doing it for the audience rather than because I enjoyed it.

ANDRE: Tell me what your interaction with security

CLAIRE:  Well I couldn’t exactly hear him but he said you’d have to go sit down. I acted like I was happen he told me to because I felt dizzy, but in my head I was like “Oh my god! What? Nooo!” Hopefully I did a good job covering up my feelings.

ANDRE: Why did they react the way they did? Both at the beginning and later?

CLAIRE:  I don’t fully understand that myself. I’m just kind of glad that they did it because everyone relaxed and started dancing. I don’t really know what they were thinking, because I didn’t see it from their point of view, but I’m pretty sure I would cheer for a little girl who was dancing. I’d get mad at the guard because she’d just be doing what she wants to do, which is dance. And what’s wrong with that?

ANDRE: How did you feel when the entire audience got up and started spinning?

CLAIRE: I felt slightly excited and I wanted to go back to dancing because, “Screw you guards! You can’t tell me what to do! I’m allowed to dance!” That’s what concerts are for.

ANDRE: How did you feel the whole thing affected the performance?

CLAIRE:  The main thing that kept going through my mind was that I hoped I wasn’t offending the band. People were posting things like, “Oh Ra Ra Riot was performing? I didn’t notice. I was watching #SpinGirl.” I hoped I didn’t offend them in any sort of way. I was thinking about it the entire time. It was going through my mind nonstop.

ANDRE: How did you feel when people asked for your picture?

CLAIRE:  I was like, “So this is what it feels like to be known.” I was kind of nervous because I didn’t know what to do and went along with them and said, “Sure!” It’s not like they aren’t allowed to have my picture, but it was kind of weird having people want it.

ANDRE: Are you aware that a lot of people have been posting about you on the internet and Twitter and such?

CLAIRE:  Yeah! Yeah! My friend told me, “This might go viral” and I was like, “Please… I don’t want that to happen,” but then this guy told me, “You know you’re on Twitter?” and I was like, “Great! It’s gone viral!”

ANDRE: Has anything interesting happened afterwards because of what happened?

CLAIRE:  Only a few people who asked me or got my picture know my real name, but a few kids at school who went to the show stopped me and were like, “You’re Spin Girl!”

ANDRE: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

CLAIRE:  There’s a story about a guy who was just dancing and the entire audience was just looking at him like, “what are you doing?” And then other people joined him and the audience starts to think, “Hmmm they’re doing it. There’s a crowd. Maybe I want to do it too because it looks fun!” The thing is, you kind of need a leader to get things started, but you also need those secondary people who are also very important in having that thing go on and on.

ANDRE: I asked a fan of yours what he’d say to you if he could have a word. He said he’d tell you to be happy and keep on spinning. I’d just like to say the same and thank you for giving me your time.

CLAIRE:  You’re welcome! And if you bump into him, tell him I will.

Ra Ra Riot had a competing act at their Sunday performance at the Bumbershoot music festival. Claire Sheehan, 11, now known as the “Spin Girl,” found herself the center of attention for over 15,000 in attendance when she rapidly spun in circles at the back of the dance floor.

Over the course of Ra Ra Riot’s performance, Sheehan danced with her arms out, facing the floor, and spinning like a helicopter.

Sheehan, who is just finishing her first week of middle school, explained, “Most of the people were just standing stiff. My sister, my friend, and I started spinning because I just thought that’s what should happen at concerts like these. When you’re on the floor, you shouldn’t just stand.”

Before long, the audience was cheering in periodic bursts that rivaled the cheers directed at the on-stage performance.

“I thought they were just cheering at some part of the song that they liked. When I realized they were cheering for me, it was a little embarrassing. I wanted to keep spinning, but I didn’t want them to think I was just doing it for the audience rather than because I enjoyed it,” Sheehan added.

As she gained attention, the cheers grew louder and her spinning was joined by the spinning of others around her almost virally, until a member of the event security asked her to stop. “That was embarrassing,” commented Sheehan.

The sideshow was far from over though. Throughout the rest of the performance, audience members would spin and be met with more cheers. When Ra Ra Riot finished their act and left the stage, the audience began chanting, “Spin girl! Spin girl!” in succession, demanding an unorthodox encore. All around, attendees were patting her on the back, taking her picture, and clapping for her.

Image

“You don’t usually get the entire audience chanting for you. The next day, people recognized my big sister as ‘spin girl’s sister.’ It’s kind of weird!” she said.

Her celebrity status is confirmed on Twitter. Check out #spingirl to see what people think.

Though her antics seemed innocent enough, attention was clearly diverted from Ra Ra Riot, who played on showing no indication that they knew of the simultaneous second act.

“I think it probably took away from Ra Ra Riot a bit, because people were focusing on her, but me and my friends had never seen them before and everyone seemed to really enjoy their show, so I don’t think it hurt them too much,” said Todd, an audience member of the show who came to Bumbershoot from Michigan.

Any fault of that nature goes to the audience, and though they paid for Ra Ra Riot to entertain them, granting them full attention is a sign of respect.

“The main thing that kept going through my mind was that I hoped I wasn’t offending the band,” Sheehan said, pointing out that some posts on Twitter playfully named her the performance of the evening.

Spin Girl became a rebel hero when security put an end to her spinning. The reaction of the audience was audible over the concert, including increased cheers for the girl, and boos at the members of security.

As they spoke to the girl, fans on the floor spun behind security personnel’s backs, while nearly half the audience, in what seemed like an act of non-violent protest, stood up and spun in place.

“I think what got everyone was that it didn’t seem necessary. She wasn’t hurting anyone. It looked like ‘the man’ was trying to keep her down and everyone wanted to keep the spirit of Spin Girl alive,” said Todd.

The event was staffed by Staff Pro who claims that their action was done out of safety concerns, explaining that, “The young girl was observed engaging in conduct that caused a potential danger to herself and others. Staff Pro strives to make sure that events are properly managed so that every guest is able to enjoy them in a safe and comfortable environment.”

It’s hard to pinpoint what made her so popular that night. Peculiarly absent from the event program, it’s safe to say she wasn’t the reason people paid money and waited for hours in line to get into the Key Arena. Perhaps it was just adulation of a young girl expressing and entertaining herself in a very outwardly carefree way.

“She was doing what made her happy. Everyone has their thing, whether it’s nodding their heads or tapping their toes. Everyone wanted her to be happy, because everyone wants to be happy themselves, and we all see ourselves in Spin Girl,” Todd explained.

VIDEO OF THE SPINNING WAVE: http://instagram.com/p/dyJ9QxQQCv/#

Whatever the reason, it’s undeniable that the events livened up the show. Where audience members once sat or stood, they now danced and spun. Before Death Cab took the stage, several human waves made it all the way around the arena, with people adding a spin as they stood. “You kind of need a leader to get things started,” Sheehan said. When asked what he’d say to Spin Girl if he had a chance to talk to her, Todd said conclusively, “I’d tell her to keep on spinning.”

People love action. Whether it’s Pacific Rim, or Man of Steel, big-budget action puts butts in theaters. Action is often simple and even stupid, with less time given to plot, characters, and ideas than time given to explosions, car chases, and tough-guy one-liners. It’s a tall order to add enough intellectual and emotional appeal to an action movie without sacrificing the spectacle that makes them exciting. Director Neil Blomkamp did this in District 9 to much acclaim and attempts this again with Elysium. The attempt is mostly successful, barring a few instances of convenient writing, overuse of a shaky camera, and an almost-cliché plot.

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Set in 2154, the world is massively overpopulated, the entire city of L.A. being a slum. Max (Matt Damon) hopes to one day live in Elysium, a space-habitat populated only by the richest and luckiest citizens. For most, life there is just a dream. As the stakes grow higher, Max becomes involved with an underground rebel organization who strive to bring down the bureaucratic government.

This all sounds a bit cliché, and it certainly is at its most outer level. However, the world that Elysium creates is so detailed and believable that it fails to be a real distraction. In particular, Damon does such a good job with his character that you won’t really care that he’s going through the same motions of just about every down-on-his-luck protagonist of all time. He’s convincing as a man that has nothing and is willing to sacrifice everything for his dream. Following suit, the entire cast gives solid performances, even those with shallower characters. The least believable characters are the stuffy rich people, who we’re supposed to hate, and while they are highly unlikable, they’re a little too stuffy and too rich to be entirely realistic.

The movie is beautiful to look at, with the Earth looking depressingly decrepit and Elysium looking so clean and sterile you’d think you weren’t allowed to touch anything. CGI robocops blend seamlessly with real sets and actors, and there are some cool space scenes that should make sci-fi fans giddy. The only visual problem is with the action scenes that make excessive use of a shaky camera. These scenes are intense and exciting, but the camera makes it very difficult to see what’s happening.

Unlike many big-budget action films, Elysium is well paced, providing adequate context for its action. It doesn’t pull a Man of Steel or Avengers, and spend its first half spouting slow expository dialogue before beginning an hour long action climax that ironically becomes boring due to its excessiveness. Actions sequences are short and intense, and characters show actual pain and fatigue as they fight. Unlike so many action films, our characters feel like people who are scared and can potentially get hurt, which adds to the intensity. It’s well done, and keeps the film from ever being boring.

The ending is entirely expected. Nothing about it will surprise you, and the issues brought up aren’t really solved. Earth is still overpopulated, medical supplies won’t last forever, and there’s no way everyone can live on Elysium. So while the movie successfully inspires thought about important issues, it fails to deliver a clear message and call-to-action for its audience. It’s not a crime, but it feels like a lost opportunity.

Compared to District 9, Elysium is far less thought provoking, and perhaps even less exciting. Its gorgeous visuals and pacing are held back by its only slightly above-average plot. That said, it’s more interesting than most action movies and shows that action doesn’t have to mean brainless. It’s important for movies to deliver in more than one way, rather than relying on a single selling point, and Elysium is a good example of how the sum of many good elements can create a movie that, like Frosted Flakes, is more than good.

The Verdict: While it won’t probably be a classic, Elysium delivers a mix of action and ideas making it easy to recommend. Science fiction fans are likely to especially like this one.

Xbox Live Arcade is best known for bringing hit indie games like Braid, Limbo, and Bastion into the world. All of these games have simple gameplay-mechanics, coupled with fantastically tight design, and excellent presentation, and while it was not released to the fanfare of these titles, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet really stands among them.

Box Art

Like many of its XBLA brethren, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a 2D side scroller, though instead of a head stomping, jumpy little guy determined to get from left to right, you zoom around in a little flying saucer, able to equip one tool or weapon at a time. Everything is out to kill you or block your way, and the game is largely about exploration and gathering new abilities to unlock new areas in the manner of Super Metroid or Zelda: A Link to the Past.

Main player character

The little ship you zoom around in

Controls are tight and intuitive, making it easy to use all the weapons and tools you eventually acquire. All equipment is controlled with the right analogue stick, which can be problematic when you must be precise, but overall it’s not a huge problem. The camera is completely controlled automatically, and in this case, works beautifully. There’s a diverse set of enemies, which will keep you on your toes, and while some portions of the game are unforgivingly difficult, there is a generous set of save spots, which double as healing sanctuaries to keep you from getting too frustrated. Levels are punctuated with challenging and truly memorable boss fights, something modern games have largely forgotten. These bosses fit each level’s theme and give you a well-deserved sense of accomplishment on completion before allowing you to move on to the next section.

Boss

Bosses have interesting and terrifying designs and will leave an impression.

 

An exploration-based game is no fun if the world you must explore is boring, and fortunately the game does not disappoint. Unlike many other 2D indie side-scrollers (Lone Survivor, Super Meat Boy), Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet ditches the intentionally retro aesthetic in favor of an almost graphic novel style. The game has six distinct sections, each with its own distinct visual-style. Settings vary from damp, swampy caves, to an otherworldly underwater section, to a messy clockwork area, and plenty more. Otherworldly is the best word to describe the colorful artwork, which is truly imaginative and drop-dead gorgeous.

Many of the levels have an underwater feel, but some levels actually take place underwater.

Many of the levels have an underwater feel, but some levels actually take place underwater.

Make no mistake, visually, this is one of the best games I’ve ever played. In terms of its aesthetic, the only disappointment is perhaps the soundtrack, which features an excellent theme song and is otherwise mostly uninteresting. While it’s never bad, it fails to be the positive contributor that the soundtracks of Braid and Bastion were.

Perhaps the game’s biggest shortcoming is its level design, which leaves many areas locked until you get better equipment. This wouldn’t be a big issue if there was a better network of shortcuts, but I found myself backtracking quite a bit to get to locked areas. Additionally, there’s essentially no plot, which isn’t a bad thing (Limbo showed a minimalist plot can be tremendously successful), but also doesn’t win the game any additional points.

The Verdict

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet puts you into a world that manages to be both dark, but colorful, eerie, and beautiful, and ultimately a delight to explore. I’ve been asked how it compares to Limbo, and I think it has Limbo beat in many ways. While Limbo really set a mood, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet does so as well, but with more fun core gameplay, more variation in the aesthetics, and fewer frustrating roadblocks. Regardless of which game you prefer, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a great game to pick up on XBLA for 800 Microsoft Points (~$10 USD), despite its minor issues and relatively short length.

Rating:

Presentation: 93% – Points deducted for uninteresting soundtrack and lack of plot

Gameplay: 95% – Points deducted for minor frustrating portions, excessive backtracking, and difficultly using robotic arm

Extra Credit: +1% – This game includes concept art, a multiplayer mode, and manages to be both unique and throwback.

Total: 95%

Google has famously cooked up April Fools hijinks for many years. They range from fun Google Doodles, to humorous (and fake) product videos, and any other manner of zany fun they can come up with. Before midnight had even hit the West Cost, my Facebook feed was brimming with posts about Google’s new “Gmail Blue,” a revolutionary update to the popular Gmail service.

The video, framed as a serious product announcement, is comprised of members of the Gmail Blue team talking about how amazing Gmail Blue will be. They use a lot of flowery meaningless phrases like, “moonshot thinking” to build hype for the product which ultimately is simply making everything in Gmail blue including the font, buttons, and logo. The humor is derived from the straightfaced delivery of such a ridiculous idea.

Many may see this video, think it is funny, and think very little else of it, but those who are a little more in the know may notice some fun poking at the expense of Microsoft. The most obvious hint is the name of the video, “Introducing Gmail Blue.” Sound similar to the codename of a forthcoming update to a popular operating system? I could have considered it a superficial detail or a coincidence until I watched more.

The next line that jumped out at me was, “We experimented with a lot of different colors. We tried orange, brown – brown was a disaster. We tried yellow.” Who could forget when Microsoft entered the market of personal media players with the Zune, available in multiple colors including, you guessed it, brown. The brown Zune became the butt of many-a-joke including one by the talented John Hodgman (“PC” from Apple’s “Get a Mac” ad campaign) at the 2007 WWDC where he, doing a comical impersonation of Steve Jobs, claimed he was resigning because of Microsoft’s, iPod killer, “the Zune. It’s brown!”

The final nail in the coffin comes at the very end of the video when Carl Branch, the alleged lead engineer of the project concludes, “I think the first thought that’s gonna come to the end user’s mind, is ‘I can’t believe I waited this long for this,’” which is perhaps a jab at Microsoft’s slowness to update Windows 8 and address the complaints the fledgling operating system has faced.

Some have suggested that this is perhaps a jab at Facebook, which liberally uses blue throughout its website, but I think much more evidence suggests this is targeted at Windows Blue. I had similar feelings towards the 2011 Google April Fool’s joke, “Gmail Motion,” which seemed to playfully point out the impracticality of the Kinect motion sensor.

The question at the end of the day is whether or not Gmail Blue is funny, and while the little jabs at Microsoft are not baseless, I don’t find the video to be particularly clever or humorous. Many people love Google’s April Fools jokes, but some of them feel a bit forced, as if Google feels that they must come up with good April Fools jokes every year, but hasn’t had true inspiration since they changed their homepage to read “Topeka”.

Three skeptical Seattle magazine employees investigate a classified ad in which an eccentric man seeks a partner to travel through time with him. Together they embark on a journey that is one part hilarious, one part believing, and all parts touching. If you’re rolling your eyes at this premise, then you are a cynic like me who believes that most movies that are so outwardly quirky are probably also schmaltzy and even pretentious. While Safety Not Guaranteed dances right on that line between offbeat innovation (see Little Miss Sunshine), and too indie for its own good, it ultimately comes out an enjoyable watch that had the potential to be a lot better.

The first thing I noticed when watching this film was that the main character, Darius, was basically the geeky, shy, introverted guy’s wet dream. She’s beautiful but not socially outgoing. She’s smart but underappreciated. And best of all, she makes Star Wars jokes. It’s not a bad thing, as she is likeable and, for the most part, believable, but I couldn’t help but feel that the writers were a little lazy in writing her this way. It’d be like if it was Spongebob’s birthday and you bought him a Krabby Patty. Unimaginative, lacking in nutrients, but he’ll definitely appreciate it. Come to think of it, I think she might have been taken directly from New Girl, which would be appropriate considering it also starts Jake Johnson.

My sarcastic synopsis at the beginning is actually a fairly complete summary of the plot. Besides a few character-building moments of dialogue around campfires, in cramped hotel rooms, or in beds, the plot mostly revolves around Darius getting to know Kenneth, an incredibly strange and paranoid man who thinks he can build a time machine and take them both back to the year 2001. While the plot isn’t complicated, dripping with political intrigue, or brimming with bold twists, it serves to facilitate the film’s excellent dialogue and, which for me was the high point of the movie.

Characters speak in a way that might remind you of real conversations you’ve had, and you actually can feel the friendship building between the relatively small cast of characters. The dialogue lets you really get to know each one, and I genuinely liked all the characters (well except crazy Kenneth) and found them to be incredibly believable.

Around now you might be wondering why I didn’t absolutely love this movie and declare it perfect. If I had to choose one reason it would be Kenneth, the crazy time-traveler the plot revolves around. At first glance, he’s just one brain cell away from completely bonkers, but as you might have guessed, we get to learn about his past and unique perspective on life, and we begin to question if he’s crazy just because he’s different. The problem is that the answer to this question is a resounding “yes”. I won’t spoil all the details of the ending, but the short version is we get the super sweet bubble gum ending where he’s not crazy, just misunderstood, and we’re all supposed to go “awwww…” If this doesn’t sound disappointing to you then I can recommend Safety Not Guaranteed without hesitation, but I had hoped for a little more from a movie that’s best feature was its believability and relatability.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to point to specific flaws in Safety Not Guaranteed. The truth is, the things that bothered me about it were pretty important to the film, and I can’t really think of another way to end it. Without the ending they had, I can only imagine anticlimax. That said, it doesn’t really absolve the movie from its easy-way-out, and I would have preferred something a little more down-to-earth. Ultimately, I did quite enjoy watching it, and I suspect most people, especially those that love cute love stories, to enjoy it even more than I did.

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