AppleTV

Yesterday, 9to5 Mac noticed that Apple had rejigged its online store so as to position AppleTV as a product category. Also interestingly, Lee Clow has apparently hinted that, for the first time since 1984, Apple may be airing a super bowl spot. And then during Apple’s first quarter earnings call, Tim Cook foreshadowed new product categories for 2014. We’ve also had rumors of Apple cutting content deals over the last year that never turned into announcements.

It seems pretty clear that one new product category is going to be AppleTV. And here’s where things get really interesting.

Facts

  • Apple’s online store now treats AppleTV as a product category rather than an accessory.
  • Apple is not currently selling an Apple-branded 4K display (the 4K displays it is selling are from Sharp)
  • Apple’s OS-level support for 4K displays is conspicuously poor (they need to be treated as Retina displays)
  • iOS now provides proper (API) support for bluetooth game controllers
  • The price for high quality 4K displays is about to drop well under $1000
  • The current AppleTV does not support 4K displays
  • The current AppleTV does not support 802.11ac

Opinions

  • The last crop of consoles (Xbox One, PS4, Wii U) had the most anemic rollout (in terms of launch titles) in recent memory
  • The way AppleTV’s remote app works is primitive compared to the way Chromecast can be “handed” a playback task (and Apple knows this)
  • AppleTV currently needs a system update in order to add a new content channel; the tools for managing “apps” in AppleTV are primitive to put it mildly
  • There is already an ecosystem of iOS-compatible controllers and iOS games supporting those controllers
  • 4K displays blur or even erase the line between monitors and TVs

Rumors

  • Apple has bought a Super Bowl spot
  • Nintendo has suggested it is looking at developing titles for mobile platforms
  • Apple has been negotiating content deals with major players (movie studios, etc.) but it has borne no visible fruit as yet

Predictions

  • Apple is at last going to release an AppleTV console (whether it’s called AppleTV or not remains to be seen)
    • It will have access to major new sources of content
    • It will have an App Store
    • It will support Bluetooth controllers
    • It will support the use of other iOS devices as controllers
    • It will be powered by the A7 or something more powerful
    • If it is powered by a new chip (e.g. “A7x”) it will support 4K (the A7 can drive 2K)
    • It will have a shockingly good set of launch titles (how else to explain the lackluster launch titles for all the other consoles?)
    • It will not have a tuner or Cablecard support or any other horrific kludge
    • It may introduce streaming video with ads for content from networks (effectively on-demand playback of licensed content with ads)
    • It will cost $199-399 (I’d predict $199, but Apple might actually sell a range of products with varying storage capacities)
    • The ghastly Apple Remote iOS app will be given a proper overhaul, and work in more of a peer-to-peer manner (and be able to hand off tasks to the AppleTV)
  • An even smaller $99 version which doesn’t play games might continue as AppleTV Nano or some such
  • We’re going to see extensive 4K support across Apple’s product lines over the next 12 months
  • We’re going to see Apple-branded 4K displays (“Retina HD” perhaps?) designed to work seamlessly with all this new stuff

Sony PS3 GTAV Special Edition Out Of Box Experience…

…sucks.

I wish I’d taken pictures. It’s so bad it’s almost comical.

First impressions — initial screens were horribly ugly and had badly anti-aliased text.

Then, the device didn’t detect it was plugged into a HD TV automatically — I had to tell it. The screens henceforth were nicer, but not consistent or polished. (XBox 360 is much snazzier.)

When I turned on the device, it required me to enter a bunch of information (e.g. date and time) which it could have obtained online if it had simply requested network login information first. Duh.

Initial configuration involved using multiple keyboard interfaces, one like a cellphone (multiple presses per character) and another with a more conventional layout that nevertheless was idiotic (e.g. highly inconvenient access to the @ symbol when entering email addresses).

Oh, and then it needed to download an update.

Every game I’ve played on the device, including the GTAV that came bundled with it, needs to download and install an update before it will run. The downloads are ridiculously slow and you’re repeatedly told (a) that they can’t be done in the background (why not?) and (b) not to interrupt them. (I’m writing this diatribe while I wait for LittleBIGPlanet 2 to patch itself into functional form. To be fair, most of the patches don’t take especially long, but this one is glacial.)

Every app I’ve downloaded from the menus (e.g. Netflix and Amazon Prime) immediately needed to be updated immediately after installation (and did not do so automatically, so I go off to grab a coffee or whatever, and come back to a screen requiring me to click a button to update the damn software).

When you start a game or launch an app, the screen goes blank (as in the PS3 stops sending out a video signal) for several seconds. It’s just ugly and clumsy.

Once you’re in a game, it’s a pretty nice machine except for the constant squeaking of the optical drive.

Finally — note that this is the new slimline 500GB PS3. Maybe the older, bigger, more expensive PS3 was a better put together piece of kit, but I assume it had the same lousy software. It’s quite noisy and pumps out a significant amount of hot air. In terms of build quality, it feels shoddy compared to me original Sony PS2 or my newer slimline PS2, or my XBox 360 — let alone a Mac Mini, say. I don’t know if it’s designed to stand vertically, but there are no affordances such as rubber feet.

Oh, and it’s very easy to knock the power button (which is mounted on the front edge of the device). I’ve accidentally toggled off the power mid-game twice already.

Seriously, this is a piece of shit compared to current Apple hardware, let alone software. I hope the PS4 is better (my several year old XBox 360 is a freaking masterpiece compared to the PS3 in terms of user experience).

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.

A deal the TV networks can’t refuse

If I thought my blog actually had any influence, I probably wouldn’t publish this.

Apple has just patented a gizmo (software, I assume) for seamlessly detecting ads in a media stream such as a radio broadcast and replacing them with media from some other source.

So imagine this scenario:

  1. Apple negotiates deal for AppleTV to work as a legitimate set-top box.
  2. Apple’s set-top box gains ability to automagically filter ads. (After all, what kind of media stream is a lot like a commercial radio broadcast? Oooh, commercial TV.)
  3. Suddenly, selling TV programming on demand through the iTunes model is a lot more attractive. (Indeed, I really don’t see how it’s not more attractive to sell TV shows via iTunes than try to monetize them through ads, etc. but CBS certainly seems welded onto this belief.)

Steve Jobs supposedly told Walter Isaacson that he had finally cracked TV. Does anyone imagine that his ideal TV viewing experience included ads?

Edit: looks like I’m not the only person who reacted to the patent this way.

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.