Apple’s Broken Hub

WWDC is next week. iOS5, 10.7, and — most intriguingly — iCloud are going to be launched. I’ve been living with the AppleTV (v2, I never got the original) for several months now, and while I love this device, the ecosystem in which it operates remains deeply, and in some cases inexplicably, flawed.

I won’t go into the details of our home setup, but suffice it to say that every major category of Apple device is well-represented. (I won’t say how many iOS devices we have, it’s embarrassing.)

Now, there are plenty of major annoyances with the Apple media ecosystem that don’t have anything to do with technology, such as why won’t HBO let us buy their content (e.g. True Blood) in a timely manner? Ditto CBS. But let’s just look at the really obvious stuff that Apple could easily fix:

  • Why can’t we have an Apple remote that can power the TV set on/off, adjust volume, and select input source?
  • Why can’t I stream content from iTunes (on a Mac) to iOS devices over the LAN? Why can’t an iPad act as an AirPlay receiver?
  • Why can’t I buy something from my AppleTV and have it download to my Home Sharing server and then start streaming?
  • Why does Apple let me turn off Home Sharing on the AppleTV using the iOS Remote Control app without giving me a mechanism for turning it back on? (For that you need to use an IR remote, and if it’s lost and currently paired then you are in for a World of Hurt.)
  • Why can’t a Mac act as an AirPlay receiver?
  • Why does iTunes need to be running for everything to work? Or, why can’t it be launched automatically as needed? (Sure, I can launch it via a VNC client, but I shouldn’t have to.)
  • Why can’t a Mac act as a remote control? (E.g. via iTunes when you’re currently streaming video from that Mac to an AppleTV.)
  • Why doesn’t AppleTV respond instantly when powering on? Every other iOS device manages better response than the AppleTV. (And sometimes it’s crashed and you need to go cycle its power.)
  • Why can’t an iPhone or iPod touch act as a remote for an iPad? (Remember, Apple is selling HDMI outputs for iPads.)
  • For bonus points, why can’t airplay “hand over” sourcing of content to a server. E.g. if I have Cars half-way through on my iPad when I walk into the house, why can’t I “hand over” the playback to my AppleTV with my Mac server becoming the source?

Some of the things I thought would be issues have turned out to be non-issues:

E.g. the lack of DVR support is almost irrelevant (between Netflix and Hulu we hardly use our TiVos any more).

Similarly, ripping our existing DVDs to iTunes has been pretty effortless thanks to iRip and Handbrake (no more painful, say, than ripping MP3s from CDs back when), although as others have pointed out, ripped DVDs use more battery power to play back than iTunes purchases.

Prices in the iTunes store are pretty decent. E.g. we were unable to find better deals on Pixar movies on DVD from Costco or Amazon than iTunes, and the iTunes content is more convenient. (Bluray 1080p content is presumably somewhat better than iTunes 720P, but I’m simply not able to tell them apart with normal viewing.)

Aside: it turns out we can tuck a gen 1 iPad into our car DVD player’s mount and turn the iPad into an in-car entertainment system which doesn’t tie up the cigarette lighter slot (the DVD player could go for maybe one movie on a full charge when new, whereas the iPad can run continuously for a day of driving on a single charge, longer if it gets the charger when available). And, finally, we have a single charger that can charge our iPads (or in-car entertainment systems…) and iPhones and iPods.

Summing Up

The main problem with Apple’s digital ecosystem is that there’s content you simply can’t get without jumping backwards through hoops (and probably breaking the law). But there are plenty of technical shortcomings that Apple can and should address. Why can I stream content from this device to that device, but not this other device? Why can I control this gadget with that gadget, but not this other gadget? Right now, the best experience is streaming content from Apple or Netflix with streaming content from your Mac a fairly distant second, and dealing with content from outside Apple’s ecosystem (e.g. DVDs and rights holders that don’t want to play Apple’s game).

So what might we see on Monday?

  • iCloud digital locker for content purchased from iTunes moving forward
  • iCloud streams to all Macs and iOS devices
  • AppleTV allows purchases which become available immediately via iCloud
  • iCloud digital locker for content purchased from iTunes in the past (or with a small added fee)
  • 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
  • iCloud as an alternative to DropBox
  • iCloud to provide streaming backups for Time Machine
  • iCloud as a replacement for MobileMe
  • Gaming on TVs via AirPlay and AppleTV using iOS devices as controllers
  • Apps on AppleTV (or its successor) via iOS5
  • Gaming on AppleTV using iOS devices as controllers
  • 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.

We’ll see.