Squeezing True Blood from a Stone

hbo you ignorant slut
With BitTorrent you can download episodes of True Blood faster and more conveniently than you can set up or cancel a cable or satellite TV subscription. Hypothetically, of course.

I just ordered DirectTV (“$34.95 per month(1) with two upgrades(2), including HBO (3), Starz…, and covering up to 4 TVs(4)”) and then — after some mental arithmetic and a quick conversation with Rosanna — almost immediately canceled it. Indeed, the person whose unenviable job it was to close the sale had to read me what sounded like two pages of fine print legalese. I’m amazed that anyone agrees to the service at that point (part of the legalese required me to say “yes” but I never actually was asked to, which I found puzzling). From the cancelation process (during which I was offered a lower rate and a DSL bundle — even if you plan to keep the service, I strongly suggest you try canceling it — remember: telephone operators are standing by) it’s quite clear that cancelation of such orders is very common. The person handling my cancelation seemed demoralized and fatalistic. Why? Because:

  1. the $34.95 per month is only (a) after a rebate (seriously, why? how many bait-and-switches do you think it takes before your customer gets pissed off?) and (b) only for the first 12 months of a (c) 24 month commitment which (d) costs $20/month for early termination.
  2. the upgrades are not free and increase your $34.95 (or whatever) per month to a lot more. (And remember, the $34.95 goes up after the first twelve months.)
  3. for the first three months after which it’s $15.99/month for HBO and goodness knows how much for the rest.
  4. up to 4 TVs are covered for installation, but you pay extra per month per TV beyond the first, and extra again for HD per TV beyond the first, and extra again for any DVRs. This can easily add up to more than the plan itself.

As an aside: the “foot-in-the-door” technique (a.k.a. “bait-and-switch”) is a well-known sales technique, but there has to be some point at which it ceases being effective. I would like to think that these guys have gone well beyond this point but since they’re clearly not stupid I suspect that tacking on a half-dozen extra charges that more than double the up-front cost of the alleged deal actually works. (And I never did get to find out what taxes get slathered all over the bill at the end.)

After paring down the deal to its minimum (one TV with HD reception, no DVR) it was going to cost $34.95 per month (after rebate) for twelve months and then either $65.99 or $70.99 per month for the next 12 months. HBO (et al) would be free for the first three months and then $15.99 per month thereafter. The deal includes some kind of premium access to NFL coverage for this season which we need to cancel after the season ends but before the next season begins to avoid being billed for that. And to get the rebate in a timely manner we need to process the rebate before the installation takes place.

In other words, $1200 if I don’t make any mistakes. And people think Apple’s products are overpriced.

All of this to watch True Blood via HBO Go.

This is our second attempt to get access to True Blood Season 4. Our first attempt involved trying to change our Comcast Subscription by the absolute minimum amount necessary to get access to HBO on Xfinity. (“Xfinity” is a made-up word that you get by crossing out the word “infinity”. This is because “zero” is a common word and can’t be trademarked.) This first attempt spanned almost four weeks, including several waits on hold each over 30 minutes, and two identical “escalated” “engineering” tickets that were each supposed to be resolved within 72h but were in fact never resolved. (I did receive one call about one of the tickets shortly after having thrown in the towel and canceled the whole fiasco — I believe the person called to tell me the ticket was being closed because I had canceled the subscription.)

Here’s the thing. I only did all this crap because I am, basically, an honest person. Stupidly honest, in fact. It’s not, for example, that I don’t know how Bittorrent works. If True Blood were available via Season Pass in iTunes at a ridiculously inflated price, I would cheerfully have paid for it. But nooooo. HBO wants to protect its ability to attract fools to satellite and cable TV subscriptions rather than simply giving people what they want at a reasonable, or in fact any, price.

In the time I wasted making one call to Comcast, I could have torrented the first episode and had the others drop automagically onto my hard disk overnight. Incidentally, for the three weeks we were subscribed to HBO via Comcast and yet unable to actually watch any HBO content, this would have meant illegally downloading content we were legally entitled to watch but couldn’t. That would be a fun lawsuit.

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).

Back to the Mac

What can we expect from Apple on October 20th? I have no better idea than anyone. But I can hope!

Educated Guesswork

What everyone expects based on the teaser picture is Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion”. I’m hoping the teaser image reflects some kind of emphasis on 3d, e.g. the Collada support that appears to have been pulled from 10.6. I expect to hear something about the new Final Cut Studio (Motion 5 in particular) — especially since Jobs actually had to deal with rumors of its demise earlier in the year, a new iLife, and — less likely — a significant new iWork. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see an insignificant new iWork, but I’m talking automatic indexing for Pages and serious new functionality for Numbers.)

Aside: it’s funny how “sudden” 10.7 seems given the emphasis on all things iOS over the previous twelve months. A lot of people assumed nothing much was happening on the Mac front because WWDC was all about iOS (indeed some rumor sites have claimed that Apple’s engineering folks have all been pulled off Mac OS X development). I thought at the time that it was all about message management: Apple was carefully orchestrating the release of strategic new products and wasn’t going to confuse people with anything off message.

iWeb: not just the worst iLife App, but the ugliest icon
iWeb: not just the worst iLife App, but the ugliest icon

Rumor has it that iWeb has been completely rewritten and iDVD is gone (it’s been in maintenance mode for a while now). I’d like to see iMovie and Numbers get some serious love. A new iWeb that didn’t suck would be a revelation as that space is still wide open (of the programs in that space, there isn’t a single one I consider useful for pretty much anything). My guess is that the focus of the new iWeb (if there is one) will be MobileMe integration and producing Mobile Safari -friendly pages (something iWeb right now is very, very bad at).

XCode 4 has been in beta for a long time and could get released or have some kind of release date announcement. We might even see some kind of major tool announcement (e.g. some kind of new functionality that will be part of XCode 4 but wasn’t in the semi-public beta).

On the hardware side the consensus is that we’ll see a Macbook Air replacement.

Wishful Thinking

OS Integration

On the OS/software side, I’d love Apple to surprise us with multitouch screen and App Store support for Mac OS X (so you can run iOS apps as Dashboard widgets, say) and Apple TV (which would turn Apple TV into a serious gaming console). This would also hint at the future reintegration of iOS and Mac OS X (indeed I expect and hope to see Mac OS X become “classic” under iOS, but I imagine that’s a few years down the track).

Fix Fracking iTunes

As much as I wish for it, iTunes was just revved, so any hope for serious improvements in the near future will be in vain.

Wireless Sync For Frack’s Sake. Every iOS device ever made has built-in wireless networking and we still have to plug the damn things in to sync them. Seriously?

DRM Craziness. It was one thing when most of us had one computer and one iOS device, but just figuring out which Mac can sync to which iPod / iPhone / iPad or whether I can safely upgrade one of my devices is getting to be difficult for me, and I’m a freaking developer.

I imagine that the way all this stuff works (or doesn’t) must be infuriating for the kinds of people who own buttloads of Macs and iOS devices (like… I don’t know… iOS developers?). Why doesn’t it get fixed?

E.g. when I plug my iPhone 4 into my Macbook Pro or my Mac Pro (and I know it’s synced to one of them) I get the same warning about needing to backup before I can upgrade. WTF? I’d really like to see Apple completely rethink the “rules” by which iTunes operates along the lines of “it’s the job of iTunes and not DRM to stop people pirating shizzle” so that you can sync to any PC and let the PC device whether it can play a track or not.

But then, if syncing were wireless I wouldn’t even need to think about this crap, right?

Organizational Craziness. Until iTunes became a movie store the typical iTunes collection didn’t dominate your storage requirements. These days it’s entirely possible that your iTunes folder is most of the stuff on your hard disk, and that most of your iTunes folder is video. If you want to do something as simple as copy all the music on your desktop to your laptop you’ll need to figure out the inner structure of the iTunes folder (OK it’s not that complicated, but still). Even so, iTunes is just really stupidly organized these days. E.g. by default if you have multiple logins for a Mac, one person can’t play another’s music. And why is your iTunes folder in your music folder when it’s essentially got all kinds of stuff in it?

Bloat and Crap. And then there’s the whole “why is it so freaking slow?” issue. Back before iTunes was iTunes (I believe it was called SoundJam) I wrote an MP3 player (QuickMP3) that could import a music library tens, maybe hundreds, of times faster than iTunes. How? Simply by assuming a file that looked like an audio file was an audio file. My program would assume “foo.mp3” was in fact an mp3 until it tried to play it. 99.9% (or more) of the time this just worked, and the rest of the time it simply resulted in the track being skipped (and removed from the playlist) “just in time”. (iTunes can get tripped up by an MP3 that has become corrupt since it was imported, so it’s not like it doesn’t still need to check at playback anyway.) iTunes makes you wait while it checks each damn track, and audio and video tracks are big and complicated, so it’s slow. There are plenty of boneheaded design decisions in iTunes along these lines and they need to be fixed.

Easy, Stupid Stuff. Recent versions of iTunes are able to go into full-screen visualizer mode with a single keystroke (great) but it takes two to get out of it.

While we’re at it — the new icon really does suck.

3d

Collada Logo

Wouldn’t it be nice if Apple revealed a serious 3d app that would put it back in the 3d landscape. This could either be third-party (e.g. Autodesk reveals 3D Studio Max 2011 running on Mac OS X) or open-source (e.g. Apple releases a fork of Blender with a real Cocoa UI). Given the level of attention Apple’s job ads get, it’s almost inconceivable that it could simply pull a major 3d app out of its ass today without having made a lot of ripples (but it did buy some serious 3d hardware outfits a few years back didn’t it?).

Apple could possibly just buy its way into this market (after all, high-end 3d is one of the biggest segments for the kind of computer Apple makes its money in, and if it wants to keep selling high-end computers it might want to take this into consideration). Autodesk’s market cap is currently around $7B, but it looks a bit overpriced to me (but what do I know?) simply based on its P/E. Maxon is owned by some kind of huge German conglomerate (which might make it both cheaper and easier to acquire than a publicly listed company like Autodesk). But here’s something to think about: Newtek is big in both video and (fadingly so) in 3d, has a highly portable 3D code base, and a market cap of ~$55M. I would guess that Pixologic (zBrush) and Luxology are both possibilities too. Maybe SideFX (Houdini) too.

If Apple is to acquire a 3d vendor it will need to be privately held and, preferably, small. Apple could already have closed a deal on one of the smaller companies mentioned and simply have it under wraps, whereas if it tried to buy Autodesk we’d probably all know about it. A big company like Autodesk is simply too nasty for Apple to buy — it could possibly buy Maya or Softimage from Autodesk though.

Imagine if Final Cut Studio 5 were to include Modo or Lightwave Core, or one of these products became a $195 product for Mac users.

Input

Sony's impossible to parody "Unique Remote" for its GoogleTV Product.
Sony's impossible to parody "Unique Remote" for its GoogleTV Product.

As a modest aside, I’d really like to see a single-piece bluetooth keyboard and trackpad for around $100. Bonus points if it works with iOS devices in the obvious way. But then the existing glass trackpads could do this job too. (And note how that would dovetail nicely with running iOS Apps under OS X (it would be damn useful for iOS developers using the simulators too).

You know what would be really cool? Stick an accelerometer in the Magic Trackpad (or this new thing) and allow it to be a game controller for AppleTVs running iOS games.

Radical Macbook Pro Redesign

I’d like to see Apple release MacBook Pro’s with no internal optical drive, and switch to SD media / USB sticks for software distribution. Multitouch and/or stylus support would be great (indeed, wouldn’t it be neat to get a hybrid tablet now given the direction Apple is heading with the iPad?) but perhaps too much to hope for. (Especially since it might divert developer attention away from iOS.) Given that Apple kind of has too many laptop lines right now, the Macbook Pro 13″ and Macbook Air could merge, while the Macbook Pro 15″ fills the empty space left by removing the optical drive with battery and the Macbook Pro 17″ keeps its optical drive.

Mac Pro Lite / Headless iMac / xMac (Again. Sigh.)

You can now get a bleeding edge, quad core iMac with a decent (but RAM-poor and down-clocked) GPU and a magnificent display that will be obsolete in 18 months simply because its GPU isn’t upgradeable (and frustrating right now because it could so easily have a better GPU with more RAM). The only option for anyone even a little serious about 3d is to pay twice as much for a Mac Pro. This wouldn’t be so bad if there were some kind of not-quite-so-huge-and-expensive Mac Pro option, e.g. a quad core non-Xeon machine with a box half-to-two-thirds the size of a Mac Pro that sold for $1200-1500. There’s plenty of room for Apple margin in there (and it’s not like you can’t pay that kind of money for a modestly awesome PC these days).

I guess the big question for Apple is whether it’s leaving money on the table with its current lineup. I guess their thinking runs like this: some hypothetical buyer wants a Mac to game on or do 3d, and either ends up buying an iMac (and cursing its GPU and having to upgrade in 18 months) or a Mac Pro (and pays Apple an extra $1000 more than he/she intended) or a Windows PC.

In the first case, Apple makes about as much money as it would have if it sold a hypothetical xMac. In the second case Apple makes more money (and the buyer likely ends up being very happy in the long run). And in the third Apple makes no money and perhaps loses a current or potential customer forever. This has to be weighed against the money Apple loses to cannibalized Mac Pro sales if an xMac were an option for the folks who currently buy Mac Pros because there is no cheaper option, even though they don’t need all the goodies the Mac Pro offers (overpriced server CPUs chief among them).

One possible option would be a bigger Mac Mini with a quad core CPU, 8GB RAM, an SSD and a decent (and upgradeable) GPU. It’s hard to imagine Apple couldn’t make serious margin on such a machine without cannibalizing Mac Pro sales (or perhaps even not caring if it did).

But it’s not going to happen.

Bottom Line

(Edit: I’ve added how I did in parentheses.)

  • iOS 4.2 and 10.6.5 will probably get mentioned/announced/released (yeah this is a Mac event but iOS 4.2 is bound to 10.6.5 for printing) (no)
  • 10.7 Announcement (“Spring 2011”) (“Summer 2011”)
  • Final Cut Studio 5 Announcement (“Early 2011” — NAB is in April, but perhaps earlier since Apple doesn’t care much about trade shows any more) (no)
  • New iLife with no iDVD and iWeb replacement (yes, iDVD and iWeb in maintenance mode)
  • New iWork but with disappointing feature set (no)
  • New Macbook Air (yes, two)
  • XCode 4 Announcement (“Available for download today”) (no)
  • Some speed bumps (no, unless you count the Macbooks Air)
  • Addendum: PCWorld’s wish list includes iChat support for FaceTime which I think is almost certain (yes)

And I did not predict the Mac App store. (I was fooled by Apple’s denial of earlier rumors, which turns out to have been a half-truth.)

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.

HBO on iTunes

HBO’s stuff is going to appear on iTunes. So far, I only see the first seasons of the shows I’m interested in (Rome, Deadwood, and most of all The Wire) but I assume it won’t be long.

The first thing a lot of folks latched onto was Apple being “forced” to be flexible on pricing by making some of the shows $2.99. Since most HBO shows don’t have ad breaks, and sometimes don’t even fit inside an hour, and are made to higher standards than typical network TV shows, this is hardly unreasonable. Two episodes of The Wire equals three episodes of Law & Order. Fair enough.

It’s worth noting that it’s $1.99 for some pretty short format stuff on iTunes, and that many super-long music tracks are “album only” in the music section. So this doesn’t seem, to me, to be comparable to Apple caving to HBO where it didn’t cave to NBC.

Oh yeah, and Cable TV: I think your number is up.

P.S.

By the way, here’s a letter by David Simon to fans of The Wire after wrapping up the final season. It’s a rather depressing commentary on the state of US society and politics.