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WWDC 2018 Wish List: tvOS

Here, let me just reuse my opening paragraph from last year’s post.

Here, let me just reuse my opening paragraph from last year’s post:

As we get closer to WWDC, I notice that there’s a dearth of excitement, interest, or rumors in anything involving the Apple TV. It’s hard to blame anyone for the disinterest since the platform hasn’t really wowed anyone since its premiere and no major rumors have circulated in advance of Monday’s event. I’ll run through a list of things I would like to see, though I myself am skeptical any of them will materialize in a few days.

That was easy.

That was easy.

The only thing from my original list that was knocked off last year was “backup and restore” which was addressed by storing your home screen and settings in iCloud to use on other Apple TV devices. That approach negates the need to use backups like an iOS device does. Another oddity is AirPlay 2 which magically appeared last week after a year of delays so the jury is still out on how “shipped” that is.

Apple also shipped a UHD HDR capable box last fall, which was a big deal. They even came around on whether they should convert all media to 60 FPS HDR (very bad) or switch modes (not bad). They have had to make refinements to this at several stages but it does seem to be improving. When they announced UHD they also announced that all movies would get UHD for free when available from most studios. The big exception was Disney. Any Disney news coming, I hope?

I still would like to see Apple tackle:

  • Picture in Picture - This is just a silly omission of a television technology when they have it for other platforms.
  • Interactive Programming Guide - With an increasing emphasis on live TV provided by multiple sources there needs to be a mechanism to expose what’s available to the user from the disparate silos. (Especially because the programming guide some of these bundlers provide in their own apps is shit.)
  • A New Multitasking View - The rolodex card thing has got to go.
  • Streamlined Apple ID and Apple ID Switching - A lot of people live with other people. Who knew?
  • Siri - Google demonstrated Google Home and a Chromecast working together over a year ago now.

Last year I called out tvOS for having huge shortcomings (regionally, and in terms of applicable services even if it was working in your region). Apple has made incremental moves to address these things but there are still huge potholes for a user if they happen to fall into a service, or use a provider, that doesn’t provide support. There is also a huge service missing from tvOS still, Netflix. A service that is far and away the number one service people subscribe to if they subscribe to online services.

There’s even a technical grossness to the way that TV the app redirects you to why you watch. This is true of Siri’s search as well. you get bounced around redirects that change what you see on the screen at each step. Why doesn’t tvOS resolve these links to a final destination and perform one change of the visible interface?

Expensive Box

The price situation is worse this year than it was the year prior. The 2015 4th Generation Apple TV costs $150. The same as it did when it was introduced. That is isnane. The 5th Generation Apple TV 4K added last year is even more expensive at $180 for 32 GB, and $200 for 64 GB.

There is no reason to buy a 64 GB Apple TV.


Apple has had three years to justify 64 GB and they haven’t. Even after the storage caps were increased. Right now the pricing structure seems to exist only to drive people to spend “a little” more money to get the next level.

Third Party Players

Many of the services have made their own playback controls, which is bad, because then different apps behave differently. The Siri playback controls don’t work in certain apps, and the same goes for hand gestures. The other week I had to watch Westworld in the DirecTV Now app because HBO Go doesn’t recognize my free HBO subscription from AT&T via DirecTV Now. DirecTV Now doesn’t behave like a normal playback system on the platform.

Games, lol

Gaming is a hilarious joke on the Apple TV. When it was first teased, people thought that they would have “console level” games on Apple hardware on a big screen in their living room. Apple undermined everything about that starting with input methods. It’s still bizarre that Apple demos the Apple TV in stores with a third party game controller.

If Apple demos an upgrade to Metal and shows how many polygons they can push now I will make a very impolite gesture with with my hand because those polygons will not matter.

I would argue that they should strip out any gaming aspirations and make a more economical streaming device.

More to Come

There’s still so much more to do with this platform. Especially with the Apple streaming service on the horizon. Let’s see how much progress Apple thinks they need to make…

2018-06-03 23:59:00

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tvOS 11.3

The last post on this site, from November of 2017, was about my disappointment with the 4th generation Apple TV. For some reason I was so devastated that I kept all my opinions to myself for months, but after the release of tvOS 11.3 this week I can dump all this garbage on you once more. We finally have frame rate matching on all the models of the Apple TV that Apple currently sells, instead of just the Apple TV 4K model.

I had been using the frame-rate matching feature in the 11.3 beta releases prior to this, and had been quite happy with it’s function. This is one of the features that enthusiasts had been asking for, on a variety of platforms, for a very long time. Amazon’s Fire TV added development settings to change the frame rate a couple years ago, but that never translated to anything that consumers saw. Perhaps it was part of an effort by Timothy Twerdahl, the former head of Amazon’s Fire TV unit that Apple hired to lead the Apple TV team over a year ago, and he’s the reason Apple has added it? Whatever the source of the change is, I’m happy that it has changed.

11.3 also brings improvements to the mode switching to match HDR or SDR content, as well as support for some Sony HDR TV’s that had some issues with the Apple TV prior to this. Josh Centers, at TidBits, detailed some of the issues he had with his Sony TV and Apple TV 4K prior to 11.3’s release. I had initially planned on buying a fancy LG OLED HDR TV and Apple TV 4K, but I’m not really on that kind of upgrade cycle at the moment. Particularly, in light of the inconsistent availability of titles, as noted by Jason Snell here. I’m happy that they’re improving that support for when I do eventually move to it, and for customers who have been buying those TV sets.

I’m less thrilled with the 11.3 onboarding screens that pepper the interface experience now. There isn’t a series of screens you can go through and dismiss, instead they wait to spring on you when you open certain things, or activate certain functions. It’s pretty disruptive to what you’re trying to do since the organic reveal of the completely useless information isn’t in line with what you thought would happen when you were navigating. This also seems to produce some glitches that survived the 11.3 beta and have made their way into the final release. Ask Siri to play something and you might see a flash of an onboarding screen for TV the app, which has an onboarding screen you may not have dismissed yet, and it bounces to black and on to what you had asked to play. You haven’t interacted with that screen, it’s just in the chain of events that got you to the video you’re watching. It’s a little peculiar. One graphical glitch I’ve experienced in the final release is that when I asked Siri for the TV show “Atlanta”, and I selected buying it from the iTunes Store, I was dumped to a black screen. The TV Shows interface was a completely black screen that needed to be force quit. I couldn’t ascertain if the black screen was a failure of some onboarding screen to trigger, or if the glitch was unrelated, since like many tvOS glitches I haven’t been able to reproduce it. Delightful.

Another annoying thing is that 11.3 is still missing AirPlay 2 audio. AirPlay (1) is not always reliable, and lacked modern audio playback features. AirPlay 2 was announced June 5th at WWDC last year to fix that. There’s a WWDC video on AirPlay 2. It is unlikely that there will be an Apple event between April 1st and Apple’s 2018 WWDC event, so it seems like AirPlay 2 will have been announced without a shipping version a full year in advance of when it should have been. Since I don’t desire more glitches in my devices, I’m not going to complain that something that isn’t ready should have shipped, but I will complain that something that isn’t ready shouldn’t have such prominent placement and be touted as part of upcoming products.

There are some audio interface changes though, like dragging down to reveal access to a menu to let you select a HomePod for audio output for your movie or TV show, that you’re watching on your Apple TV. There are three drawbacks for that though.

  1. Swiping down on the remote doesn’t work so well because that’s where the hole for the microphone is, so my thumb doesn’t smoothly glide over the area and the menu doesn’t always appear. Instead it usually triggers a tap to pause the video.
  2. The HomePod is a lousy TV speaker. I had theorized that it would be, and fortunately my friend Marko brought one over to my place to confirm my suspicions. This could be different with multiple HomePods using AirPlay 2 for stereo output, but I find that expensive idea based on vaporware unappealing.
  3. BlueTooth audio devices, and even “special sauce” W1 devices like my Beats X earbuds, don’t appear in that little menu, even if the devices are powered on, unless I go all the way to Settings, and select them there, even though they are visible as an option in Settings. It would be great if I didn’t have to go to Settings to use my earbuds, which I had assumed was the whole point of this quick menu.

Also every time iOS upgrades I have to reset the behavior of the home button, to go to Home instead of TV the app which is mostly useless with the array of services I do/don’t have. Totes adorbs.

While I know people might want to point out that I should just be grateful for the new features that Apple is adding to a product from 2015 when it isn’t the flagship device, and I am grateful for frame-rate matching, it’s not like Apple’s doing that just for me. It’s because they still sell this product from 2015 on store shelves for $150 alongside the flagship.

2018-04-01 12:00:00

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Mode Switching for Apple TV 4K, Nothing for Apple TV

When the Apple TV 4K debuted it brought not just a higher resolution, but also high dynamic range video, HDR. However, there still wasn’t mode switching so the Apple TV 4K would stick to it’s defaults: 2160p, 60fps, and DolbyVision. That meant it was converting non-HDR content to HDR which results in some pretty weird stuff. Apple told TechCrunch’s Matt Panzarino that they didn’t want to switch modes, and said the same to The Verge’s Nilay Patel:

All of this adds up to a real devil’s bargain that wouldn’t exist if the Apple TV would simply switch modes on your TV. I asked about it, and Apple told me it thinks mode switching is “inelegant,” because TVs often flicker and display built-in interface elements when they do it. (There’s some classic Apple-ness here.)

So from the jump, the Apple TV forces you to run your nice new 4K HDR TV at a suboptimal setting at some point during the course of using it. The specifics of this problem might only be of interest to A/V nerds, but the way it looks in the end will affect every single Apple TV 4K owner. I suspect Apple will eventually add an advanced setting to allow for mode switching, but out of the box right now, this is what you get.

Which I thought was bull. You wind up with a default mode that’s tailored to making the interface look smooth (60fps) and HDR when most video that will be played in 2017-2018 won’t be HDR.

Apple added automatic frame rate and dynamic range matching to the beta for tvOS 11.2 this week. It basically requires developers to inform tvOS what kind of content will be played and tvOS will adjust it’s output for the TV, otherwise media plays the way it does in tvOS 11.1 and earlier. Apple has released a video on it here. As Nilay predicted, there are two toggles (one for frame rate and one for dynamic range) that can be enabled, or disabled. The system default in the beta is disabled … which is a curious choice. This really seems like a gesture to placate AV nerds, and tech reviewers.

One thing that does not placate me is that Apple has only added frame rate matching to the Apple TV 4K, not the 4th generation Apple TV. They still sell the 2+ year-old Apple TV for $150 so it’s not a discontinued product. There appears to be no technological reason that I can find for omitting this feature for the non-4K customers who have been asking for 24fps playback. There isn’t even a manual setting for 24fps playback for that Apple TV model, but there is for the Apple TV 4K. Isn’t everyone worthy of fewer frames per second?

2017-11-03 08:45:00

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iPhone X Impressions and Reviews

So yesterday some iPhone X stuff went up, and today some more went up. Impressions and reviews — a blast of IR. The amount of time each person has had seems to vary from a week, to a day, to a briefing room in a temporary space in New York for about an hour. One controversial aspect of this — and I can’t believe I’m going to fucking talk about this — is that some YouTubers were given early access in the briefing area and published their material first. Matt Alexander has a good post pragmatically outlining the reasons why this was a good choice. There’s been some sour grapes about that with some other people. Which of course means the whole thing has been distilled to “old people don’t understand young people.” Where all The Olds are just grumpy YouTubers made videos instead of blog-words in their RSS feeds, when really it’s that the YouTubers did not make very good videos. Arguably because of the parameters Apple set.

The videos appear to be true to who the people are, and they all seem like very nice people, but the craftsmanship of these videos is just not very good. They’re mostly undifferentiated YouTuber-style videos with fast, consecutive jump-cuts that are unmotivated by any narrative reason, and a pretty generic, electronic music bed. They’re trying to make a mostly static scene where they talk about some pretty dry features seem dynamic in the only way they can given the constraints of the briefing room, and time. What they’ve made is a bubbling cauldron of clips of mostly a person standing in front of a brick wall, and wood table, and holding a black slab. Emphasis is placed on the face and hands of the person speaking. This is your human connection to this thing. Each video mostly boils down to, “Do you like this person and think they’re fun?” In a very strange way it’s not about the phone at all when you watch several of these in a row.

By all means, seed these people with review units again in the future. Just don’t do this briefing room. Give them the phones to take out in to the world and explore and create. Record material with the camera in the thing.

2017-10-31 08:45:00

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Black Eye for CBS All Access

I was dreading the new Star Trek Discovery show for the past year. Ever since the lackluster ship unveiling it seemed like things were a mess. Then the show premiered 6 weeks ago and I quickly realized that I not only liked the show, but I looked forward to new episodes every single week. There are flaws, of course, and things that nerds will bicker about, but one thing everyone seems to agree on is that CBS All Access is a trash fire.

This past week, with the release of episode six, “Lethe”, every single person I know who tried to watch the show on an Apple TV experienced glitches that caused audio and video to loop, decoding errors that caused the screen to be mostly blocks of green, or just intermittent black screens. This is a black eye for CBS in the fifth week of streaming this show every Sunday night. Particularly when they put “All Access” in the name of the thing.

Curiously, I switched over to watch CBS All Access on my Fire TV and there wasn’t a single problem, while my friends with their Apple TVs continued to experience errors. Another friend with a Fire TV was also fine. I don’t know if CBS has different servers managing these things, but if they do the ones they have for the Apple TV need to be checked out.

I would argue that the only reason to subscribe to CBS All Access over any other means of accessing CBS content is that it’s the only legal way to watch Star Trek Discovery in the United States. There are simply no alternatives. It’s $5.99 a month with commercial breaks, or $9.99 a month without advertisements. In comparison, commercial-free Netflix is $10.99 a month. I’m one of the people paying extra to watching one TV show a week without ads, and to completely avoid the service the rest of the week. There is no valid reason that CBS should fail to stream that one show, when it’s available to stream, every week, when you compare that price against services that offer you a large catalog of content.

In prior weeks, I’ve experienced buffering errors, where I needed to pause the stream and go do something else while video cached, lest I run into low quality glitches, or pauses in playback. That’s every four weeks of playback prior to today. That’s abysmal that they can’t get their house in order to stream this one show. The best viewing experience I’ve had so far was when the show premiered on CBS broadcast TV.

That’s probably because Star Trek Disovery streams in a maximum of 720p, with a low bitrate, and low bitrate audio according to analysis from Audioholics. I certainly believe it, based on my experience. The average episode costs $8 million dollars. That’s like taking a bottle of Dom and pouring it in a used Dixie cup to sell.

There are even extremely bizarre things that cropped up the first week when I tried to reactivate my CBS All Access account after having stopped the trial. I reenabled the iTunes subscription through the interface provided for subscriptions on iOS. That didn’t work, and caused errors when I would try to “restore iTunes purchase” from within CBS’ Apple TV app. I had to create a CBS All Access account - a step I didn’t have to do when activating the trial - just to enable access. I watched that second episode of Discovery with commercial breaks because it didn’t seem to identify that I had selected the no-ad rate from within the iOS subscription interface. It was only after I selected it in CBS All Access that it started working. There’s no good reason why the service should not be in sync with what I am paying.

My friend Dan Moren ran into a similar problem when he realized he didn’t know how to log in to CBS All Access on his Fire TV because he had also signed up from the Apple TV side and never created a CBS All Access account.

If the nerds are supposed to be the leverage to launch this service then it should occur to someone managing CBS All Access that the nerds might be a tiny bit critical about being able to watch our nerd show every week. Perhaps the calculus is that Trekkers and Trekkies will put up with anything to watch a new Star Trek show? I’m not sure I agree with that logic.

2017-10-22 23:30:00

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Literally Movies Anywhere

Disney launched Disney Movies Anywhere a few years ago. I didn’t think much of it initially until I had some problems trying to watch some Star Wars movies I had bought through iTunes. I signed up, connected it to my iTunes account (an easy authorization), connected it to my Amazon account, and fired up the Fire TV. I didn’t need to download the Disney Movies Anywhere app for my devices, because the movies weren’t siloed inside of an app, they were appearing as if they were natively purchased on whatever platform I was on. The only drawback is that this only worked for Disney movies (even though that turns out to be a lot of stuff).

This changed when Movies Anywhere was announced as a multi-studio program with participation from Sony Pictures (Columbia, TriStar, etc.), 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Warner Bros. Paramount, Lionsgate, and smaller studios aren’t participating at this time. This system works on all the platforms Disney Movies Anywhere had worked on: iTunes, Amazon, Google Play (YouTube), and Vudu. However, like all new entertainment-technology thingies, this is in the U.S. first, with no plans announced for a global rollout.

There was some pesky annoyance with setting up a new account (they didn’t just lop “Disney” off the name of the old system, I don’t know if they needed a separate legal entity, or whatever.) Once it was set up everything was working as advertised. I had movies and they were anywhere.

Something I was curious about was support for 4K/UHD, and HDR. The Movies Anywhere app, which is optional to use, doesn’t support playback beyond HD right now, but “eligible” titles are available across all the participating systems. Apple had recently announced that whenever a studio updated a movie for 4K and/or HDR that anyone who bought the movie already would receive that update for free (Except for Disney). Apple also showed off substantially reduced prices over what competing stores had been charging for purchasing 4K HDR movies. Amazon followed by slashing the prices of their 4K HDR movies, but they didn’t upgrade titles. How would these decisions interact with Movies Anywhere? Turns out you basically get the benefits of Apple’s content dealing for those titles on any platform that also has those movies in 4K HDR.

My friend Matt Alexander, an Internet Entrepreneur (Internetrepreneur), has invested heavily in his personal media library, with purchases on a variety of platforms so he was finding out all of these benefits yesterday. He had bought physical titles that had UltraViolet codes, and entered them in to Vudu (basically the only place worth doing that) and since Vudu is a participating platform in Movies Anywhere, those titles were available to him. So this is a service that even has benefits for people suffering from UltraViolet.

You even get benefits that might be particular to a platform, like iTunes Extras, or Amazon’s X-Ray information, depending on where you access the movie from. Don’t expect your playback info to synchronize though. If you pause a movie in iTunes, that won’t sync with Amazon, or vice versa. It only synchronizes what counts as ownership.

Someone might wonder what the catch is. There are three catches:

  1. You agree that the service can monitor the movies you have purchased, it needs this to know what copies you’ve bought so that other platforms will show them as purchased.
  2. You will need to buy movies.
  3. You can’t lend the digital copies to anyone, but you can lend a disc if you bought a disc and redeem the digital code.

Those aren’t really dramatic catches, but think about the second one. How often have you hesitated on buying a movie in the last 10-15 years because the way you “own” these titles is such a mess? There’s a reason so many streaming services with ephemeral libraries exist. Sure you might buy the occasional title that isn’t available for streaming, but that’s probably a big blockbuster you really liked. You’re not doing the kind of shopping that was happening in the home video space in the early 2000’s. As the kids say, the studios “made bank” back then.

When I was in college, we’d go to the Sarasota or Bradenton Walmart and buy DVDs that were on sale. Things we might not have even seen before, because they’d be in the $10 or less range. That was a peak time for home video because so many titles were re-released on DVD, and with so many editions, that there was always something coming out to buy. With the relatively pricey rental options, it was always a good idea to be on the lookout for titles that could be added to your personal library.

Then HD TV sets started to hit their stride and the studios wanted to sell discs that would play HD. They botched this really hard with two, competing, onerous disc formats that were priced higher than DVDs, to protect the existing DVD prices. Consumers were also getting used to consuming media on-the-go thanks to smartphones. Coincidentally, the global economy fell off a cliff during the same period. Oops. It’s no surprise that this devastated the home video sales market. Efforts to fix this have been systems like UltraViolet, where almost nothing played UltraViolet movies. Even Warner Bros. is participating in Movies Anywhere, and Kevin Tsujihara (WB CEO) was perhaps the biggest champion of UltraViolet.

Movies Anywhere is a return to focusing on selling content by reducing friction, but updated for the contemporary time instead of DVD sale bins. It signals to the customer that the movie they bought has value. Not just value on a particular, restrictive platform. It makes it seem like it’s not as ephemeral as Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu library content. It’s also not as fiddly as buying and ripping Blu-Rays for Plex. It’s a reason to shop for things to watch because the friction is so low.

I do wonder what the long term effects of this will be beyond movie sales. It’s possible that we’ll see fewer movies appearing on streaming services now that it’s more reasonable to buy a title, and a bigger shift to episodic programming. It’s also possible it could have a huge impact on the streaming hardware people buy to view titles. If you have a huge iTunes library, but don’t want to spend $180-$200 on an Apple TV to stream those titles, you can buy a 4K HDR Roku, or 4K HDR Fire TV for less than half that device cost. Several TV manufacturers have been integrating more robust connected services in their panels than what they previously offered - like Roku, or Fire OS. As Roku’s CEO, Anthony Wood, pointed out to Variety, one in five smart TVs sold in the U.S. this year ran Roku’s software. Roku offers support for Vudu, Amazon, and Google Play. Any of those will have Movies Anywhere content. Roku’s platform is certainly not my preferred way to watch media, but it’s proven to be more than palatable with 37% of all streaming devices owned by U.S. broadband households.

There are, of course, reasons to buy an Apple TV beyond iTunes movies (and there will probably continue to be once Apple releases their self-financed episodic programming next fall or the year after), but in multi-TV households, maybe people will save $180 per room if they don’t need to watch Amazing Stories and play exactly one game that’s a timed exclusive in that particular room. That’s money that could be spent on about 10-18 movies to watch anywhere. Money the studios would love to receive.

2017-10-15 19:50:00

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Apple TV Roundup

It’s pretty much certain that Apple is going to have a new Apple TV product for the fall with UHD (“4K”) and HDR. The first hint was larger storage limits for apps, even though that could mean a variety of things. Then the second hint was Amazon Video coming to the Apple TV (Amazon’s original video programs are all UHD) so that provides content. The firmware for the HomePod confirmed it, and “4K” has shown up on some recent iTunes receipts. While WWDC proved disappointing for Apple TV news, it’s evolved over the last couple months to be an inevitable product for this fall.

Mark Gurman reported yesterday that there would be an Apple Event in the month of September, which is not surprising, and that the new Apple TV would debut there. He also says that there will be a live TV element inside of TV the app unveiled at the event. There’s no detail provided on what that would entail. Many apps on the Apple TV provide live TV options, so it could simply be exposing those inside of TV the app with what’s currently playing, or it could be much more complex than that (like a programming guide so you can see what’s coming up, I hope?) This is so vague I have a hard time getting excited by it right now.

Chance Miller at 9to5Mac posted an opinion piece about how Apple could still disrupt Hollywood and summarizes the executive hires that have been reported on in the past. This isn’t disruptive to Hollywood in terms of the content being made — as evidenced by the Hollywood hires — but it is disruptive in terms of content distribution. It’s not just the Apple TV that this video content will play on (because that has declined to just 15% of the streaming-box-stick market), but every Apple device with a screen (calm down David Lynch). Wielding that leverage can be pretty powerful — just look at all the tacky-ass Apple Music banners in iOS.

Until the release of Apple’s first two original shows (Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke) there was nothing on an Apple platform that could not be watched, or purchased elsewhere. While iTunes video purchases offer platform lock-in once you buy them, iTunes library of titles is not exclusive to Apple in any way.

Amazon and Netflix have seen success in offering their own content, rather than solely licensing TV and movies from Hollywood studios. Hollywood studios are very protective of their existing revenue streams, and have been very, very, very slow to adapt to changing consumer demands. Most apps on the Apple TV that offer streaming content either require a cable/satellite subscription or they work better with one. If there was more material that didn’t rely on that relationship, then there’s more that can be done on the platform without relying on the whims of providers, and TV networks.

To complicate movie matters, there are the theater chains which also want to protect theaters, and will refuse to carry a film. (Most of US film distribution is tied up with AMC and Regal Cinemas. If they don’t carry a film then it effectively will have no box office revenue.) So while Apple might not disrupt the kinds of material you see, they could theoretically disrupt distribution models. Netflix’s push for day-and-date releases has resulted in several films that die a quiet death in the Netflix catalog. Amazon has a different strategy and they preserve the release window, with movies appearing a Prime Video after they’ve had theatrical runs. If one of the things Apple finances winds up being a movie, what course would they take with it? Right now, it seems as though they’re focused on TV shows, but the reporting is vague.

What will be interesting is that it is far more difficult for Apple to hide movie and TV production information than details of technical components. As the development executives make deals with directors, writers, producers, and actors over the next year we’ll get a sense of exactly what kind of material we’ll see. Several outlets have talked about Game of Thrones style shows, but one does not simply order-up 10 Game of Thrones shows. What will the diversity in the content wind up being like? Not just in terms of subject matter, but the people in front of and behind the camera. Those details should start appearing The Hollywood Reporter and Variety over the next year in ways that Apple tech coverage usually doesn’t.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to the conversations that will come out of the material Apple choses to make going forward. Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke can be written off as experiments before they hired people who knew what they were doing, and they didn’t involve an element of narrative storytelling. Some Apple-fan-bros squabbling over the value in a rom-com, and what it means for future iPhone sales will just be too funny.

2017-08-25 08:30:00

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On Disney and Stream Saturation

Disney announced yesterday that they would be ending their distribution deal with Netflix and starting their own service for Disney and Pixar fair. Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, isn’t sure about where the Marvel and Star Wars properties will wind up. Peter Kafka at Recode has the relevant portion of Bob Iger’s statement in his piece on the announcement.

My guess is that he would like to see if it would be possible to sell Star Wars and Marvel streaming access separately, but aren’t yet sure if it would be wise to charge extra for that. ESPN, also owned by Disney, has been exploring an ESPN streaming service that’s designed not to compete with their cable offerings, but to offer something extra for an extra fee. How Disney’s streaming package will compete with their various cable offerings (like The Disney Channel, and Disney XD) remains to be seen.

Even when it comes to movies, Disney has a service called Disney Anywhere that mirrors purchased movies on all major platforms, as well as providing an app to stream them directly if you so choose. What impact would a streaming service have on digital movie sales? Will they want to keep Disney Anywhere, and have their new streaming service offer only a portion of titles that rotate in and out like Netflix? (My guess is “duh” but we’ll see.)

Thanks to extensions in copyright law, and a series of very large acquisitions, Disney owns your childhood, and your children’s childhood, and their children’s childhood. That isn’t simply because of their ownership, but because of what a good job they do at keeping those properties vital and active in popular culture. So what can they get away with parceling and selling in various ways?

Of course that’s what everyone is usually worried about when it comes to streaming. How can these companies turn access to their media library into as much recurring revenue as possible while maintaining as much existing revenue as possible? At what point do they sacrifice some revenue in one area and trust that they will make it up in another?

Indeed, the stocks for Walt Disney and Netflix both took a tumble over concerns about that revenue protection. But the whole market was down because everyone was worried about something else too.

U.S. and global stocks opened lower Wednesday after U.S. President Donald Trump warned North Korea about facing “fire and fury” if it doesn’t stop threatening the U.S. The broad-based S&P 500 stock index opened about 0.3 percent lower.

Maybe the Disney Vault can be repurposed as a fallout shelter?

Anyway, I digress, let’s discuss protecting that revenue and what it means for consumers who live in a Fantasy Land of less-expensive cord-cutting. How are the streaming apps on your phone or TV paid for?

  • There are services that are specific to a cable/satellite/OTT package (FX, HGTV, Food Network).
  • There are services that are duplicates of a cable/satellite/OTT package (HBO, Showtime).
  • There are services that exist with partial overlap (CBS All Access, Hulu).
  • There are services that exist with no equivalent (Netflix, Amazon).

These are also monetized differently.

  • Part of a cable/satellite/OTT subscription on a monthly, or yearly plan with early cancellation fees.
  • Paid for directly with a recurring, monthly subscription.
  • Ad-supported, or partially ad-supported with a recurring subscription.

As people pick through the various things available to them they will do the math on what they think is worth it in each of those categories. Do some ad-supported streaming services offset the expense? Do they abhor ads and will only consider monthly subscriptions? Do they need cable TV and budget very little for additional streaming services?

After a certain number of monthly subscriptions, you do run into issues with expense — but hey, it takes money to make TV and movies happen, people.

The silver lining is that monthly, recurring subscriptions are very easy to cancel on various platforms, like Apple TV, Roku, or the Fire TV. People can drift in and out of paying each month. Though most people do just stay subscribed year-round. Effectively your a la carte services can be different month-to-month without penalty you. That is very unlike the traditional cable or satellite TV experience, with high-pressure telephone negotiations, equipment installations, and on-site visits.

So it’s not all bad news! Look how flexible that is! And in Darwinian fashion we will see what the market will sustain.

The one, major downside I see is that some executives will realize that it’s bad when people cancel, and they want people to not do that by shifting the threshold from monthly to yearly subscriptions, which people would be less likely to cancel. They are also less likely for people to start, so I don’t think you’ll see it until providers see saturation, because why steer people away? There will, of course, be an emphasis on a yearly “discount”. Sign up for one year and get a percentage off.

Amazon has done the reverse of this, where they used to offer Prime memberships exclusively as yearly memberships, but started offering month-to-month Prime memberships, priced higher per-month, to try and get more people in the door. There’s even a tier for Prime-Video-only at a month-to-month rate of $8.99.

I bet the pricing and programming research going on inside Disney is bananas right now.

2017-08-09 08:45:00

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Apple TV Wish List Dirge

I did not get a lot of stuff off of my wish list this year. Like last year. I had said that I wasn’t expecting hardware - unless there was a real developer story there for the hardware - but that certainly wasn’t what I wished for. After all, the 4th generation Apple TV was previewed at WWDC 2015 because there was a developer story. Tim Cook made a big deal about how he felt “the future of TV is apps” and that never materialized for developers.

I would really like to highlight, again, how the future of TV is not apps, but services, as it was, and always has been. Nothing drives that home more than Amazon Prime Video being the only thing unveiled in the tvOS section of the keynote presentation. That is a service.

Also, while I had figured on Amazon Prime news, I certainly didn’t anticipate it would be the only thing. I was gobsmacked, to say the least. There’s so much about the Apple TV, and tvOS, that should be addressed, but it won’t be addressed this summer. Tim Cook mentioned that more would be coming in the fall, but no specifics were offered. I only mention that to draw a distinction with several other things that were displayed but won’t be available until fall or December.

I am assuming that there will be new hardware, and possibly some headline software features, that will arrive at that time. Since they seem long overdue.

Same Price and Models from 2015

Just a reminder that Apple is selling the 4th generation Apple TV box in two configurations: 32 GB for $150 and 64 GB for $200, and they still haven’t articulated any difference between them other than a change to the storage caps for apps (which has had no material effect), nor has the price come down since it was introduced.

I had expected that there might be a price drop on the existing model, just to make the price seem less ludicrous, but they seem determined to hold on to these price points until whatever might come next arrives. I’m not sure if that means the next model will be in the $150-$200 range, or it will be even more costly and they don’t want people to blanche at at something drastically higher than $200 if the old model is still there to make it seem reasonable. They didn’t have a problem discounting Apple TVs in the past.

When the 3rd generation model lingered on for years, Apple cut the price of the ancient 3rd generation model from $99 to $69 at a March 2015 event because they still didn’t have the 4th generation ready for even a preview.

To put the considerable premium Apple is charging in perspective I’ll reproduce a list I made last fall with the prices of various competing products. The Roku products have even dropped by $10-$15 because they’re not spring chickens either.

  • $30: Roku Express
  • $35: Chromecast
  • $40: Amazon Fire TV Stick 2nd Gen. (Alexa, universal search)
  • $40: Roku Express+
  • $40: Roku Streaming Stick
  • $70: Chromecast Ultra (UHD)
  • $70: Roku Premiere (UHD)
  • $90: Amazon Fire TV 2nd Gen. (Alexa, universal search, UHD)
  • $90: Roku Premiere+ (UHD, HDR)
  • $115: Roku Ultra (UHD, HDR, Voice Search)
  • $150: Apple TV 32 GB (Siri, universal search)
  • $200: Apple TV 64 GB (Siri, universal search)

Apple is still selling a non-premium device at a premium price this summer, going into at least this fall, which will mean 2 years of this product at this price with relatively minor software changes. Even for things like voice search, which Apple prides itself on, it only outperforms the Roku devices, not the Alexa-enabled Fire TV models.

The Apple TV used to miss out on Amazon Prime Video so at least they’ll remedy that, but it won’t make it any more distinct against the other devices. All of those above have Amazon Video except for the Chromecasts. They all offer a very similar array of apps that access video services. None of them are appealing game platforms.

AirPlay 2

There was a mention later on in the presentation about AirPlay 2. An Apple TV could be used to play audio as if it was an AirPlay 2 speaker. The Apple TV can also control playback throughout the home. Curiously, this was part of the iOS feature presentation. No indication about whether or not it improves the reliability of AirPlay (1), or offers any other enhancements other than multi-room audio control. I had put a new version of AirPlay on my wishlist for WWDC 2016, but I took it off this year because it seemed like Apple had shown no interest in addressing any of the bugs or issues with AirPlay in the last two years. Should have left it on.

Better Video … for Everything Else

Curiously, the Mac, and iOS devices, are getting h.265 video support in software, and hardware, as well as HDR support. These are features that are definitely required for the Apple TV, but would need new hardware. Hopefully, this is just a sign that Apple is doing the work. (But they still haven’t brought picture in picture to tvOS so maybe they’re just doing this to frustrate me (just me, specifically)).

Unpublicized Features

Mark Gurman tweeted:

While not discussed on stage, there is a minor tvOS update coming. Dark mode will go on and off automatically + home screen sync.

I know many people will appreciate automatic switching between eye-searing-wrongness and correctness, but it really should just be correct all the time. Hopefully it will allow me to retain that setting. [UPDATE: You can select Dark Mode only.]

Home screen sync is interesting because I’ve been asking for it since I got my Apple TV 4th generation and realized it wasn’t backed up anywhere, and there was no way to restore it to the state I had it in if something were to happen to it, or if I were to upgrade to a new device. Mark’s tweet has absolutely no detail so I’ll have to wait and see what the scope of this winds up being. Maybe they’ve secretly removed one last thing from my wish list? [UPDATE: Home screen syncing is there, and it does obviate my complaints about the lack of a backup/restore mechanism. This also lends credence to a new hardware model coming because this will let you pass your home screen and apps to whatever new device you set up. While this is not an iOS-style backup/restore, this is in many ways a better solution to the problem. Kudos to the tvOS team.]

There’s likely to be more info that will come out in the weeks ahead, and I look forward to seeing, and hearing, more about what wasn’t mentioned directly on stage, but that’s all for TV.

2017-06-06 00:00:00

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Wacki Siri Theori

Since the Siri-in-a-can rumors started, I had always assumed it would be fancy microphones, and a fancy speaker. I did not really think it would include a display. Phil Schiller has claimed that Apple feels a display is essential (which is wrong) but I always took that as criticism of existing screenless solutions. I believe Jason Snell has also mentioned that as a possibility on Upgrade several times, but I can’t turn up a link to anything specific at the moment.

You walk in a room, you say, “Hey Siri, give me directions to the Pavilions on Beverly Drive and Olympic Boulevard” Then, magically, all your Apple devices would light up with a list of many Pavilions grocery stores, and the fancy speaker would intone, “Tap on the one you want.” Certainly solves Phil’s skepticism about screenless devices.

The rumor about the Siri-in-a-can that started circulating about it having a screen never really seemed like a good fit, but it’s coming from, Ming-Chi Kuo, someone well regarded for having sources in Apple’s supply chain.

This morning Mark Gurman definitively said it won’t have a screen, again. So … these two things are at odds.

I wonder if there are two models being manufacturered instead of a single model? One is more like Amazon’s Echo, or Google Home, and the other is more like Amazon’s Echo Show. That would make some sense, because one of the things I have been skeptical of is the pricing for a device that has an embedded screen. It would be very difficult to saturate a house with these devices if they’re in the $250-$300 range. A less expensive model, without a screen, would certain help. Particularly if people are skeptical of the utility of Siri-in-a-can. Not that anyone would ever have any skepticism about the utility of Siri.

I have no data to back up this idea. Apple is no stranger to releasing products that don’t scale well to every room of your house – like the Apple TV. It does, however, seem like a good explanation for the dueling rumors.

2017-06-01 13:29:00

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