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.

Wild Guess: Mac OS X Lion will “run on” iPads with iOS5

So, 10.7 turns out to have true multiuser support — as in it turns your Mac into a time-shared system. And it has Mac OS X Server’s functionality built-in. And it has a bunch of convenient file-sharing functionality tailored to iOS users (iPad users in particular).

Hmm. What’s something that Apple does that none of the Android crowd (HTC, Samsung, LG, etc.) do that would provide huge synergy with iOS products? Apple makes Macs. (Note that while Google certainly knows a lot about servers, Google’s one major foray into the consumer OS market is the “browser as OS” — not something that will naturally extend to a time-shared home-server.)

Right now, the best remote-controlled media device in our house is a Mac Pro (with Netflix and Hulu). Why? Because we can use any iOS or Mac OS X device in the house to screen share it (VNC for non-Apple folks) and we never lose them (as of this moment, one of our two TiVo remotes is missing and we just found our Roku remote after losing track of it for nearly a year — and TiVo support among third-party remotes sucks, while Roku support is non-existent). There are many really nice screen-sharing clients for iOS, some special purpose (such as TouchPad) and others general-purpose (such as my current favorite, Remoter, currently on sale for $0.99 — and no I am not getting paid anything to link to either product).

Just yesterday I was trying to set a new profile picture in Facebook using my iPad in the living room and I realized that Facebook’s cropping UI isn’t usable on a touch-screen. So I logged onto the Mac upstairs and made the change from my iPad in a couple of minutes. It was a little clumsy — the Mac is running at 1920×1080 so there’s a fair bit of pinching involved, and I had to figure out how “click and drag” works on my screen sharing app (since it was the first time I’d needed it). But screen sharing onto a machine with a much larger display is always fiddly.

So, suppose this kind of thing gets built into iOS5 at a deeper level. Now, your iPad is, among its many virtues, a Mac OS X tablet running at native resolution. (But but but… scream the Linux/Android fans, we can VNC onto Ubuntu… yeah.)

Oh, out of curiosity, I wonder how well the new OSX gestures and UI elements work when used entirely by screen sharing from a touch-based device?

This also dovetails nicely with rumored improvements to MobileMe and making the “back to my mac” feature from MobileMe free. (Oh yeah, and I guess you can use Flash conveniently on your iPad if you really want to.)

But wait, there’s more!

What might a future device that supports iOS and Mac OS X device look like (or to put it another way, what does OS X look like when it becomes “legacy”)? Two different login shells on the same OS core. Now you can boot up your Macbook Touch (MacPad? TouchBook?) and launch into iOS by default. Or you can log into OSX by default. Either way, you can get to “the other side” either by “fast switching” or by “screen sharing”.

So in summary, perhaps what 10.7 is really about, from a UI perspective, isn’t copying iOS UI elements back to Mac OS X for its own sake so much as making 10.7 offer deep usability from touch-based devices so that you can enjoy OS X while logged into your Mac from your iPad 2.