Roku 3 vs. AppleTV

Roku 3 (image provided by Roku)

Roku 3 (image provided by Roku)

I just got spammed by Roku (we owned a second-generation — I think — Roku, which we hardly used and eventually gave away, so I guess they have my email address). I’m not really in the market for a Roku since it doesn’t let me watch iTunes content (in which we have a significant investment) and AppleTV lets me watch pretty much everything I’d watch on a Roku, but it is interesting to see Roku out in front of AppleTV in significant ways.

  • Remote control has a headphone jack. This is a huge missed opportunity for Apple, especially since many Apple “remotes” (i.e. iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads) already have wireless connections and headphone jacks. (Incidentally, some kind of fine-tuning of lipsync would probably be a good idea.) If you go back to my broken hub post, this kind of falls under the question why A can’t stream audio/video to or remotely control B for any A and B where-ever it would make sense in the Apple universe? It didn’t occur to me that AppleTV’s should be able to stream audio to other devices, but they should.
  • Search is federated. The company that built fast, federated search into its operating system still won’t let you search for a movie across content silos — I need to search for Phineas & Ferb in iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix separately. Again, it’s worse than that because Apple doesn’t build enough of the AppleTV software into its remote — I should be able to do content searches on my iPad and then simply tell my AppleTV to jump straight to a result rather than use my iPad to painfully generate a query on my AppleTV.
  • It also looks like Roku’s remote control apps are smarter — i.e. more smarts in the app rather than simply emulating a crappy remote control.
  • Roku also seems to be stressing how fast the new device performs. (Given Tivo’s ever-more-torpid UI and AppleTV’s overally network-dependent performance, this is no minor thing.)

If I were to provide a wish list for AppleTV, a lot of the items have already been addressed by the new Roku. (I assume that, given HBOGO now streams to AppleTV that an app for AppleTV is in the works.) Here’s hoping that AppleTV is about to get some serious love.

Apple’s Megapixel Year

Nikon D800 Sensor

When camera companies add megapixels it’s usually a bad thing — since most digital cameras hit around 6MP in the early 2000s, image quality usually goes down when pixel count goes up (with the notable exception of full frame DSLRs and medium format cameras). Yet all that Apple has really done this year is add megapixels (and Siri) to its devices.

Per pixel image quality hasn’t gone down per se, but when we’re talking about the limits of human perception, it’s a one-off improvement and the end results are mixed — suddenly we need much more storage space for applications, and more CPU/GPU performance to simply maintain responsiveness.

It’s been about a year since Steve Jobs stepped down as Apple’s CEO (it was August 24, 2011) and what has Apple done since then?

  • iPhone 4S. A minor upgrade, although compared to the new iPad and Retina MBP it at least offers tangible performance improvements. (And, hey, I like Siri.)
  • The New iPad“. Thicker, heavier, potentially less battery life. Cellular model offers 4G. A5X performance advantage entirely eaten by extra display resolution. Retina apps are bigger, so effectively less storage capacity (not that this doesn’t also affect non-retina iPad users). I know lots of folks rave about the display, but I can’t tell it apart from an iPad 2 until I pick it up (where its slightly thicker and heavier frame becomes noticeable).
  • Retina Macbook Pro. The new MBP’s display is more useful than the iPad (because you can scale your resolution to taste) but the GPU load in particular is tremendous. Meanwhile, it has a chipset that supports 32GB of RAM, but a maximum of 16GB of RAM is soldered onto the motherboard. It may be the best Mac Apple has ever produced, but not being able to upgrade the RAM next year will lead to buyer’s remorse.
  • 1080P AppleTV. If you look closely at your giant 1080P TV you may notice the difference (although models which do bad interpolation can make it more obvious). The recent addition of Hulu Plus is a nice bonus (at last, the Daily Show!), but that’s almost certainly more legal/business than technical.
  • I’m using Mountain Lion. Safari is significantly improved (a cynic might say it’s kind of like using Chrome with Lion). Aside from Safari and Notifications, I can’t say I’ve noticed any change working with ML.
  • I haven’t played with iOS6, but I expect it will be a significant improvement over iOS5.x since there’s so much low-hanging fruit in the mobile space.

It seems relatively certain that there will be major announcements on October 4th (one day before the anniversary of Steve Jobs’s death) — the iPhone 5 and possibly a new 7-8″ iPad. Aside from anything else this means that Apple’s (by recent standards) anæmic Q3 will be followed by an equally disappointing Q4 as more consumers hold back their iPhone purchases or — worse for Apple — buy rival phones.

iLab iPhone 5 Photo

Image of the “iPhone 5″ assembled by Japanese fixit site iLab. Looks pretty credible to me — I just hope it’s harder to break and easier to repair than the iPhone 4/4S (for my wife’s sake).

I think it’s fair to say that we all have high expectations for the iPhone 5:

  • We’re due for a design refresh. (Although the rumored new design looks remarkably similar to the current design — that said, the current design is totally gorgeous.)
  • A slightly larger display has been much rumored (taller without making device itself bigger).
  • Better CPU. Four cores?
  • More RAM?
  • More storage (at least as an option)?
  • Better GPU (A5X doubled the A5′s pixel pipelines if I recall correctly).
  • 4G.
  • Smaller (better?) connector.

With the iPhone and the iPad both “retina” now, the iPad will likely have ~ 4x the pixels for the foreseeable future, might we see the iPad and iPhone getting permanently separate CPU lines (A6, A6X)? I hope the iPhone 5 doesn’t sport an A5X.

But it’s getting late in the year, we were promised lots of stuff, and much of Apple’s product line is lagging:

  • Where’s the Mac Pro successor / replacement / alternative that was hinted at around WWDC?
  • Will we get Grand Central Dispatch to the cloud? (See previous!)
  • A lot of Macs — Mac Mini, Macbook Air, and of course Mac Pro — are getting a bit old in the tooth, does Apple care any more?
  • Will we see an iPod Nano with wireless capabilities? (Does this even make sense?) Or perhaps a true iOS Nano.
  • The iPod Touch hasn’t been revved since forever. Even if Apple maintains the uglier form factor and poor quality camera to keep the iPhone’s key (non-Phone-related) advantages.
  • Might we see a quick refresh of the iPad, since “the new iPad” was kind of a downgrade in some ways? (I note that Apple has gone from offering the iPad 2 16GB at $100 less than the equivalent retina model to continuing to sell the entire iPad 2 range. Personally, I find the iPad 2 a more compelling product than the new iPad, and it’s over a year old. Well, not counting the 32nm die shrink which further improves battery life.)
  • Will Apple open up AppleTV to third party developers?
  • Will we see low latency AirPlay such that AppleTV becomes viable for gaming with iOS devices?

Perhaps unsurprisingly this has been something of a lost year for Apple. I’d like to see things back on track.

In terms of epic changes (i.e. of iPad / iPhone / iPod proportions) it’s hard to see where Apple can go. And it’s not like the iPad or iPhone came totally out of the blue — Apple had long been known to be working on phones and tablets, and rumors of their imminent release were perennial. The only rumor of this nature emanating from Apple is Apple branded TVs. How could these possibly make sense?

Hulu Plus on AppleTV

Obviously, a TV with an AppleTV built into it would be pretty nice, especially compared to the pathetic crap recent TVs have built into them. (My new TV actually shows advertising when it’s turned on.) But it’s only a tiny bit nicer than a TV plugged into an AppleTV, and I just don’t see Apple being interested in supporting the myriad of options people expect from TVs, nor of the masses rushing to buy expensive TVs with relatively limited features.

But, consider Apple TVs as giant iPads. Maybe they’re gesture, rather than touch, -based devices. My kids already try to treat any large screen TV as an iPad, so it’s obviously pretty intuitive.

Windows 8 Surface Pro

The devices Apple is selling today are at the center of the digital vortex. (Well, aside from the network and server stuff.) Other markets, e.g. photography, are likely to be sucked into the vortex faster than Apple could conquer them, even if they were worth conquering. The iPhone is already the most popular camera on Flickr, right? (I’ve written a whole meandering blog post — not published — on the desperation evident in the Camera industry.) Apple probably needs to start thinking about making its own devices better integrated and/or obsolete. What comes after the iPad and the Mac?

Codea for the iPad

Codea for the iPad — seen here editing the parameters of a synthesized sound. It lets you create iPad games on an iPad. To actually sell them in the App Store you simply export your project and insert it in an open source wrapper provided by the developer.

One thing Microsoft is right about is that eventually tablets need to do everything. What Microsoft is wrong about is the need for a tablet OS to do everything by supporting legacy apps in some kind of bastardized way. (But hey, “the enterprise” loves bastardized.) The only reason there are no “real development tools” on the iPad today is that Apple won’t allow them in the App Store. (This is not speculation: Andrew Barry — creator of Realbasic — would have released an iPad-based development tool two years ago if Apple had let him.) Even so, there are some pretty nice development tools for the iPad (ignoring iPad tools for developers, a slightly different thing, such as Diet Coda and Python for iOS) written so as to navigate App Store restrictions.

RFID Tag

Back in — I think — the mid-to-late-80s there was a Scientific American article on what was going on at the time at Xerox PARC. The basic idea was very straightforward — your data and most of your computer horsepower were on the network (substitute “cloud”) and there were three basic kinds of devices — whiteboards (wall screens), tablets, and post-it notes. According to the article the first two were real and actually worked (and the researchers were using them for their day-to-day work) while the last were crude hacks using LCD displays with very limited capability.

We still can’t make post-it-note-sized networked computer displays cheap and small enough to completely fulfill that vision, but we’re getting there. Certainly, being able to cheaply print RFID-tagged notes is totally doable. Xerox PARC may not have been very good at producing commercial products, but it certainly did a great job of pointing the way.

Three kinds of interactive displays — tiny, cheap, and disposable; portable; and big. Seamless networked computing. (And maybe there’s room for immersive VR in there somewhere.) That’s where the puck is going to be. Time for Apple to saddle up (again) and help get us there.

WWDC Keynote

I didn’t predict so much as wish for stuff this year. Here’s how Apple did:

  • Using Twitter integration to afford a unified message interface. No. While Twitter integration is nice, all they’ve done is made doing stuff with Twitter a little bit slicker. In fact, Apple has actually made things worse in some respects.
  • iCloud digital locker for content purchased from iTunes moving forward. Yes.
  • iCloud streams to all Macs and iOS devices. Yes. (But no video.)
  • AppleTV allows purchases which become available immediately via iCloud. No.
  • iCloud digital locker for content purchased from iTunes in the past (or with a small added fee). Yes.
  • iCloud digital locker that (say) identifies tracks you’ve ripped, or your CD or DVD, and offers to sell you a digital/streaming version at a discount. Yes. ($25/year, music only.)
  • iCloud as an alternative to DropBox. Yes, unless you need Windows support.
  • iCloud to provide streaming backups for Time Machine. Yes, but not exactly.
  • iCloud as a replacement for MobileMe. Yes.
  • Gaming on TVs via AirPlay and AppleTV using iOS devices as controllers. Yes on iPad2 and presumably an as-yet-unannounced A5-based iPhone.
  • Apps on AppleTV (or its successor) via iOS5. No, keep dreaming.
  • Gaming on AppleTV using iOS devices as controllers. No, keep dreaming.
  • From left field: iCloud acts as virtual DVR based on content Apple can establish you have access to — actually that sounds like a really great idea; e.g. if you can prove you have basic cable and thus receive CBS, Apple gives you access to a streamable version of the Mentalist the day after it airs. Even better, Apple simply negotiates TV rights as if it were a new cable provider and makes everything available on demand. No, but I still think it’s a brilliant idea for a third party.

I should note that iCloud is free to iOS5 and 10.7 users for 5GB of online storage, $25/year for unlimited music storage via iTunes match. No word on pricing for added data not for music. And, again, no word on video.

Of course Apple delivered a ton of stuff I didn’t get to, especially on iOS. (Making predictions about Lion would have been easy and a violation of the NDA we’re all subject to.)

  • Improved notifications. Obvious, but also a two-edged sword. (The problem with having a “good notification system” is that everyone overuses it and it becomes noise.)
  • Reminders with geotagging (so you can remind yourself to buy milk when you go to the store vs. at 5pm when you won’t necessarily be at the store). Very, very cool.
  • Over-the-air-everything. Activate your device in the store, sync to iCloud, wireless sync to desktop.
  • Newstand. So that maybe I won’t rely on every damn magazine to implement a decent download interface.
  • iMessage. Noooooooooooo!!! Great, so now there’s yet another freaking place to check messages. This is the opposite of what Apple should be doing. Oh yeah, and it’s iOS-specific.
  • Mail inbox in portrait mode (iPad only).
  • Instant Camera Access with volume button as shutter release.

Unified Messaging. Not.

You could argue that the improved notification system will act as a unified messaging system but in fact it won’t for two important reasons.

First, all kinds of things will generate noise in it (Game Center?) and unless you set your preferences carefully it will probably become Just Another Annoying Thing. I hope that it will be great but the proof will be in the pudding.

Second, at best it only unifies incoming messages. What about outgoing? What if I want to phone someone who just texted me? Or text someone who just left me voicemail (“In a meeting, ttyl”)?

Meanwhile Apple has added iMessage, a new proprietary messaging app that’s kind of like Twitter and SMS and IM but not and different and iOS specific. WTF? Is this the next product from the Ping team? (On The Talk Show, Gruber seemed to think that iMessage is great because it will help create vendor lock-in the way BBM has for Blackberry. Ugh.)

Even so, iOS5 looks like an incredible update. If it’s available for preview by developers it will definitely be the first prerelease version of iOS that goes on my iPhone and iPad.

tl;dr

10.7 is as expected. iCloud looks both awesome and free, but not a replacement for Dropbox if you need to share files with Windows users (who may be you). But then it’s free, so who cares? iOS5 hits all the right notes except for unified messaging which is a case on two steps forward (Twitter integration and improved notifications) and a small step back (iMessage probably won’t matter because I expect that no-one will use it).

On the impending death of broadcast TV…

Can guess the source of the screen image?

Can guess the source of the screen image?

According to this article in AllThingsD, Apple is pitching the idea of subscription-based TV via iTunes to content producers. I’m assuming the idea is “pay $30/month and see as much stuff on iTunes as you like”. I further assume that Apple’s business model will remain “we make money on hardware, you make money on content” (i.e. 30% for Apple to cover costs, 70% to … someone … for content). I’m certainly no expert, but from my random readings on the subject, Apple’s deals generally favor content-producers to a staggering degree compared to pretty much anyone else. (Amazon, purportedly, takes 70% of eBook revenues from the Kindle, which is quite a lot given the pretty much total lack of added value on their part. Similarly, Cable TV companies pay only a tiny fraction of subscriber fees to content producers.)

The main thing preventing iTunes from being the best deal for TV as things stand (aside from piracy, of course) is the lack of content. Only two-thirds of the TV shows I’d want to watch are available via iTunes, and many of those are available for free (with ads) from Hulu. The cost of buying all the TV shows I’d like to watch and/or buy each month (that aren’t available for free on Hulu or elsewhere) is significantly lower than the cost of digital cable (but not basic analog) if they were available.

$30/month is the same as the cost of 15 TV episodes on iTunes (or 10 HD episodes). A lot of people would do the arithmetic and figure — OK which episodes will I end up buying on DVD or similar? If you’re like me and end up buying about five seasons of TV per year ($150-250) and would be just as happy to have a digital copy (I, for one, would prefer to give up on DVDs which are fragile and easy to misplace) then you can figure in another $15-20/month. Who has time to watch 17-25 episodes of TV each month? TV via iTunes is already competitive with broadcast/cable/DVD in terms of price to viewers and, I suspect, return to content producers, but the question is whether everything you want to watch is available.

And the real problem is that if you want a good broadband connection in the US, you’re basically stuck with cable or DSL, both of which come bundled with TV in some way or another. So Apple has two problems — making more content available and overcoming the bundling of legacy TV content with broadband.