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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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WWDC 2017 Wish List: tvOS

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.

The only thing on that list from last year that came to pass was “Darker Interface” in the form of tvOS 11’s Dark Mode. Later in the year, Apple added TV the app but it’s not exactly the overhaul of the TV Shows app and the Movies app I wrote about, nor does it completely satisfy the quick aliases for content that I would have liked. Similarly, Single Sign-On was not the unified iCloud Keychain experience I had hoped for since it relies on a service provider which doesn’t help cord-cutters, and cord-nevers. Purchases of TV apps on other Apple platforms was also made easier in the Fall, but that wasn’t part of WWDC. In January of this year Apple also increased the storage caps on tvOS, which did theoretically differentiate the 32 GB and 64 GB models, but I still haven’t seen any real ramifications of that change.

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.
  • 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?
  • Backup and Restore - If there’s ever a 5th generation Apple TV, I would really like to not set it up from scratch.
  • Siri - Google demonstrated Google Home and a Chromecast working together over a year ago now.

I’m not convinced that Apple will continue to make improvements to AirPlay, or refine the Home Screen with better organizational tools. Since the introduction of tvOS’ TV the app it’s been pretty clear that they want to eventually replace the Home Screen with TV the app, but they aren’t able to do it yet. I suspect the Home Screen will not see any changes in the next revision of tvOS.

Let’s move on to new things, including hardware, which I think isn’t likely to happen at WWDC, but it is a wish list.

tvOS

I expect a huge narrative around how amazing TV the app is (it isn’t amazing, but that’s never stopped Apple executives before). There’s probably going to be some ridiculous slide of all the apps that work with TV the app where you’re like “OMG, there’s so many I can’t even count all these corporate logos!” And then they’re going to showcase some big name that’s joining TV the app. I don’t know who it will be, but the rumors around Amazon and Apple coming to terms over Amazon Video make it seem like they would be an ideal candidate. There also hasn’t been a peep about Netflix joining TV the app. So either Netflix is keeping that a super-secret surprise, or it’s not happening and Apple is just hoping to put pressure on Netflix with another big name joining.

Then there will be a thing about how great Single Sign-On is (even though it’s not great because it’s supported by relatively few providers).

Then they’ll say that TV the app is going to be available in X number of countries more. I can’t imagine they have enough partners, globally, to make it even as “relevant” as it is in the U.S. so I don’t think a global roll-out is likely.

With the storage cap increase it’s also likely a brief game demonstration will occur, to highlight a game by a larger developer that they can finally port to the platform, and there will be some under-the-hood changes in the next tvOS that also make it easier (like the way content needs to be broken up for dynamic loading).

Whatever Siri improvements are available for the rumored Nuevo Siri will have some ramifications for tvOS, but Apple is never consistent about how Siri works on each of their platforms so I have to imagine it’s some weird subset of things.

“Hey Siri, play Planet of the Apps.” Then the TV will turn on and the video will start will playing without having to navigate. That’s not something new, but it would be new for Apple.

Hardware

The Siri Remote

To the last, I will grapple with thee… from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee! For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!

This remote was an abomination that should have never made it out of the design lab it was drafted in. It was conjured up by designers from another world who only had TV remote controls described to them using words in their native tongue. I want something that can be held comfortably, doesn’t shatter, and has asymmetry that you can feel to know what you are holding, and what you are pushing, without looking at the tiny monolith. I wanted it in 2015, and I still want it.

Whatever touch surface they include should be fine-tuned to work with a human thumb instead of whatever capuchin monkey the remote’s original designers were imagining.

Game Controller

After last year’s WWDC, Apple quietly let developers require a game controller. This was something that they had waffled on in 2015 before deciding that they didn’t want to offer anything in the tvOS App Store that couldn’t be used with the Siri Remote. The problem is they never introduced a first-party game controller.

If you walk into any Apple Store, or Best Buy, you’ll see the Apple TV with a Nimbus SteelSeries game controller. To have so thoroughly invested in a third-party solution for one of the key selling-points of an Apple platform just underscores Apple’s lack of care in this area.

If you look at the tvOS App Store, and hop down several rows, and move across, you’ll see a category of games that Apple’s Store team collected to showcase game controller apps. It’s stuffed with $2-$5 mystery apps with in-app-purchases, and Minecraft.

Apple likes to brag about the graphics horsepower that the 4th generation Apple TV possesses, but they’re really sending mixed signals to developers and customers alike.

A game controller is also something that could be announced independently of any other hardware, so it’s entirely possible we could see it announced at WWDC even if the rest of the hardware won’t be updated until a Fall event.

The Box

When Apple showcased the 4th generation Apple TV, there was some expectation that the product would start to see more regular, perhaps yearly, updates. Apple didn’t promise any, and certainly the pace they updated the Apple TV before the 4th generation model was no indication of rapid advancement, so it was definitely wishful thinking on my part. Silly me. Fall came and went last year and we still had the same models for sale, at the same price points, except the 3rd generation Apple TV was quietly killed. This is only frustrating when you look at the rest of the streaming box/stick market in context and see that Apple offers the most expensive model with no real standout features.

UHD, colloquially referred to as “4K”, was not widely available in TV sets when the 4th generation model premiered, but it was the direction the market was going. It was easy to defend a $150-$200 streaming box that didn’t have UHD in 2015, but not in 2016. According to Mark Gurman, writing for Bloomberg, there is a “4K” model being internally tested for release sometime this year. I would have expected the older box to drop in price and a newer UHD-capable box to take the old price point in fall of 2016 rather than this summer or fall.

Apple would need to offer UHD iTunes rentals and purchases, or it would seem silly, but they need to start that transition with their content providers eventually - like other storefronts, and subscription services are.

Amazon, for example, offers UHD streaming on their $80 Fire TV 2. With Amazon Video purportedly coming to tvOS it would make sense that UHD is coming with it. Amazon also offers HDR content - but none of their standalone players can display it, instead you need to rely on the TV set manufacturer bundling an Amazon Video app. I’m sure that these facts played a significant role in the negotiation that’s bringing Amazon Video to the platform. Negotiating over adding only HD video would be extremely odd.

I fully anticipate WWDC coming and going without TV hardware, but I do want to see inklings that they are moving in the direction of new hardware, or at the very least an understanding that the price isn’t competitive.

2017-05-26 09:00:00

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The Incomparable Membership Drive ►

I spent too long making this jazzy logo.

From the incomparable Jason Snell:

This month is our annual membership drive. We’re encouraging listeners to become members and support The Incomparable and the shows you listen to. Support goes to the hosts of the shows you select, offsets editing costs, and a lot more. Plus, you get goodies such as bonus episodes, bootleg recordings, and (at the higher support tiers) physical goodies in the mail!

This month we’re also dropping special bonus episodes in our members-only feed, as a thank-you to all our members.

The podcast I do with Dan Sturm, Defocused started out life in summer of 2014. We joined The Incomparable a little over a year later. Then Jason Snell, rolled out memberships last year and they are the bees knees. You pick a membership level, and then you check boxes for which podcasts on the network you would like your membership money to go toward. If you just pick Defocused, then some money goes to the network for operational expenses, but then rest is split evenly between Dan and myself. Dan and I still have day jobs, but the money does help us offset expenses associated with the podcast. Dan and I do our own editing as well. Obviously, you can pick as many shows as you would like, and reevaluate your selections later.

The various shows are all doing unique things for the members-only episodes released this month. Scott McNulty, who does the Random Trek podcast, decided to do an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series which he’d never seen any episodes of, but pick a guest at random — which happened to be me. Then, in retaliation, Dan and I invited Scott onto our members-only episode to discuss Lost in Space the horrible, horrible movie.

If anyone is unfamiliar with Defocused, the show evolved over the course of the first few episodes, and started to get into more of a rhythm. Cold-open with hellos and nonsense, then talking about a movie, then good-byes with more nonsense. Sometimes we pick good movies, but mostly they’re kind a pretty strange mix of things you could have found in a DVD-sale bin 10 years ago. Occasionally we’ll do a little bit of a themed run of episodes — like Christmas movies in December, or monster movies in October.

Typically, Dan and I pick a day and time the week of the show, but it’s usually 9 PM PST. We started offering a livestream for people to listen while we recorded the show. Not a lot of people find late-night recording times convenient though so when the Bootleg feed started we got a request to put our recording of our broadcast in there. The episodes in that feed are not edited. They’re just the conversation Dan and I had “on the air”. We don’t do really heavy editing to our episodes, but we do occasionally embellish with audio clips, or fix some minor issues. We’re not reconstructing events from scratch. So some people really enjoy just listening as soon as possible.

Last month, Jason Snell also added an Incomparable member Slack — which is just a fancy chatroom. There’s a channel specifically for Defocused, which Dan and I participate in, but it’s just an additional perk, so don’t feel like you’re missing out if chatrooms aren’t your thing. There’s always Twitter. Who doesn’t love Twitter?

Dan and I really appreciate all the members who have joined over this last year, and those that will join this year. Even if you aren’t a member, thank you for listening!

Zeppelin

2017-03-19 22:45:00

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Apple Vowed to Revolutionize Television. An Inside Look at Why It Hasn't ►

Mark Gurman has some more rumor stuff over at Bloomberg.

Twerdhal’s arrival comes as the company tests a new, fifth-generation Apple TV that it may release as soon as this year. Internally codenamed “J105,” the new box will be capable of streaming ultra-high-definition 4K and more vivid colors, according to people familiar with the plans.

After the storage caps were changed in January, there was some speculation that new models would be on the way. I was unsure if Twerdhal’s arrival would push back whatever was in their hardware pipeline, but I guess this means it might be unaffected.

Of course, that all depends on something launching, and rumors about the internal mechanics of the TV project don’t always translate to things we wind up seeing as consumers. Gurman had a run of rumors about the Apple TV before what became the 4th generation device was announced.

UHD and HDR signal that Apple is at least willing to have their premium-priced box offer features that are competitive hardware features with other streaming devices, and with TV panels that have their own internal streaming apps. After all, the price of UHD HDR is coming down, and there is stuff made to take advantage of it (a lot of UHD stuff contains stuff that is partially, or entirely scaled to that resolution from lesser resolutions).

Apple has essentially settled for turning the television set into a giant iPhone: a cluster of apps with a store. “That’s not what I signed up for,” says one of the people, who requested anonymity to talk freely about internal company matters. “I signed up for revolutionary. We got evolutionary.”

Whoever talked to Gurman also has an axe to grind, and it’s not clear if this axe is being ground about the plans from before, or after Twerdhal joined, and Gurman’s writing makes no attempt to clarify the timeline for that quote. Still, the criticism is valid at present, and even with hardware changes, it would still be valid without accompanying software changes, or improvements to the services offered.

2017-02-16 08:45:00

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Planet of the Low Aspirations

The trailer for Apple’s ‘Planet of the Apps’ was released the other day, along with an awkward interview with Apple’s Eddy Cue, and PotA producer Ben Silverman. I talked about it on Unhelpful Suggestions with Mikah Sargent, but I’ll go into some more detail here.

The trailer for PotA is exactly what you would expect from the reporting leading up to it. It follows many of the formulas and tropes that are expected, and offers no real surprises for the genre of unscripted competition shows. The novelty it introduces is an escalator which stands-in-place for the elevator in “elevator pitch”. PotA a really uninspired, mediocre, pedestrian affair. That would be fine, if this was for NBC.

Of course the show represents apps, and app development, as faithfully as any other show of this genre — like crap — but that’s what this sort of thing is. That does not, however, defend the decision to make this sort of thing. If Apple felt strongly about the subject there are many other routes to take that would be more reverent, and accurate. Nothing will ever come close to representing real app development, even if you follow someone around with a camera it won’t speak for every developer’s experiences, and it be affected by it’s own filming.

Take chefs, for example. There’s a PBS show called ‘A Chef’s Life’ that follows a chef in rural North Carolina, and over the years, the publicity of the show has affected her restaurant, as well as the show itself. Sure there’s honesty to it, but it’s not a purely objective view of her work and life that could be applied to the experience of all chef’s. Similarly, ‘Chef’s Table’ on Netflix rotates through a series of avant-garde chef’s, but no single episode can completely capture the chef it covers (maybe they could if they used less slow-mo shots.)

However, both of those small examples are well-respected shows that I would argue show artistry and thoughtfulness without anyone having to cook against a clock, or stand before a dramatically-lit panel of judges for needling.

Even in my own line of work, the show ‘Movie Magic’ on The Discovery Channel, in the 90’s, was an inspiration. An episode would cover puppetry, CGI, or matte paintings, and other things. You can catch the show on YouTube, because it’s unfortunately not something The Discovery Channel values.

So yes, there are other ways to approach this if the subject matter was something Apple felt like elevating — or escalating. Instead, Apple has selected a very specific format known for getting people in seats to watch disposable, unchallenging filler, and that’s disconcerting.

The argument of that being popular, or getting butts in seats, falls flat for me because that doesn’t speak to Apple’s aspirations. Apple doesn’t sell a low-end, plastic-backed iPad to drive up iPad sales, why should Apple back plasticky TV?

The excuse of “it’s not for you” is similarly asinine, because that doesn’t answer why Apple felt like taking this approach and is merely a way to dodge any critical thought about the subject matter, the format, and the distribution.

To further complicate matters is the method of distribution for this show, which is … Apple Music. While ‘Carpool Karaoke’ makes sense for Apple Music, PotA, does not. How this show drives anyone to consider an Apple Music subscription is beyond me. “Well I was thinking of Spotify or Amazon, but Apple has ‘Planet of the Apps’ so …”

The Music app is also a terrible video player. Apple has made several videos available in the Connect tab of the app, but that’s just … a mess. Even in terms of playback, screen orientation can occasionally bug out. It’s excusable because that’s not the primary purpose of a music app, but now it is. Will they integrate with TV the app to jump you straight to the episodes housed inside Music the app? Even if it does, TV the app is still U.S. only. What about the separate, companion app that will act as a “rubber band” according to Ben Silverman for people who want to “go deep” when they’re watching?

Most importantly, to me, as someone who doesn’t subscribe to Apple Music, will Apple use this opportunity to abuse notification policies, and take advantage of promoting this in as many places as possible? (The answer is almost certainly “yes” but I figured I should pretend it’s hypothetical.) Critics of Amazon frequently point to Amazon’s self-promotion of Prime video shows as something abrasive that Apple doesn’t do. (For the Quick Fire challenge, you have to cook and eat crow.)

In the interview at Code Conference with Peter Kafka, there was additional discussion about the possibility of other shows, and Cue said that they would consider a lot of things, as long as Apple felt it aligned with what they do. This show is not going to make-or-break Apple’s video efforts, and it can’t be used as a prediction for all future video efforts. Netflix’s first show was ‘Lillyhammer’, but that wasn’t their first success, and even now they produce a lot of schlock to fill their catalog, but those aren’t the shows people talk about. What will wind up being the show everyone needs to watch? It certainly won’t be PotA.

2017-02-15 08:30:00

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Apple Hires Amazon’s Fire TV Head to Run Apple TV Business ►

Mark Gurman at Bloomberg reported that Apple has hired Timothy Twerdahl, head of Amazon’s Fire TV unit as a vice president in charge of Apple TV product marketing, and he replaces Pete Distad, who remains at Apple, but will be focused on cutting deals with Eddy Cue. This reorganization seems a little weird, because “marketing” seems like an odd moniker to attach to the former head of Amazon’s Fire TV unit. I’m assuming, like many others have, that this has to do with the way the marketing department, under Phil Schiller, is deeply involved in overseeing products. Twerdahl reports to Greg Joswiak, who handles the iPhone.

I’m quite happy with this, for a number of reasons.

  1. My complaints about the Apple TV seem to all trace back to questionable management decisions, like shelving development while wheels were spinning over content deals that never came.
  2. A patchwork of software features that all relied on an alignment of deals between various parties, instead of software features that worked for the vast majority of users.
  3. A massive shrug, otherwise known as, “The future of TV is apps.”
  4. No incremental progress on hardware. There was a gap of over three years between the 3rd generation and 4th generation Apple TV, and then no revision of the 4th generation for over a year and counting.
  5. A premium price tag that wasn’t justified when comparing the device to other set top boxes. (I have often pointed to Amazon’s Fire TV products as more competitive than Apple’s if you’re not invested in iTunes purchases.)

I’m assuming the reason this is happening now, and not some time last year, is because someone wanted to wait and see how well the Apple TV would sell during the holiday quarter.

The last hardware update for the set-top device was released in 2015, but sales decreased year-over-year from the 2015 holiday quarter to the 2016 holiday quarter, Apple Chief Financial Officer Luca Maestri said last week in an interview. Amazon doesn’t disclose Fire TV sales, but last May called it the top-selling streaming media device in the U.S.

Unsurprisingly, a device that didn’t wow people in 2015, and received incremental updates to restore feature parity with the 3rd generation Apple TV, was not compelling in 2016. Look at the “report card” that Jason Snell conducted at Six Colors. The only major feature that materialized for all users around the globe was Dark Mode. TV the app is still exclusive to the U.S., Single Sign-On is unavailable for almost everyone, and Siri search services still only work for a fraction of countries.

It’s somewhat frustrating.

When the data caps were lifted last month, I wondered if that signaled a new model was on the horizon that refreshed internal hardware and offered specs competitive with the price of the device, but now I’m uncertain about it. Surely, Twerdahl would want to weigh in on anything that will wind up shipping under his watch.

I know that many Apple fans are skeptical of the Fire TV, and all Amazon products, but it really is a good media platform for your TV. So good, in fact, that Amazon is partnering with a TV manufacturer to integrate their software stack into the panel. It’s not perfect stuff, but it’s too often overlooked by Apple-faithful, or derided with, “Oh, I used an old Fire TV Stick one time”. I’m glad Apple recognized this and hired someone away from Amazon.

2017-02-09 07:30:00

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Apple Increases Resource Caps for tvOS Apps

One of the strangest things about the 4th generation Apple TV was the decision to add two storage tiers to the lineup. I feel like I’ve been harping on this for over a year now, but the caps that Apple placed on the size of apps, and the amount of local storage they could use, meant that there was effectively no difference between 32 GB and 64 GB. This was an overly cautious approach, because most people only have a handful of apps, and would never get close to filling the 32 GB model, even with on-demand resources.

PCalc developer James Thomson:

Apple says tvOS apps can now be 4GB downloads (up from 200MB) and include 20GB of on-demand resources. Bigger Apple TVs coming soon?

That’s a very large jump. The total size of the app download is now twice what the old on-demand resources limit was. They didn’t just loosen it a little bit.

On-demand storage is mostly relevant to video games that have to be structured in ways that can download things like game levels. If you resume the game in the same spot next week, it doesn’t have to re-download the level if that on-demand storage hasn’t been flushed. 2 GB doesn’t store a significant number of things — as I’m sure many people are aware.

This change will have almost no effect on most media streaming apps because people are typically streaming new video every time they open the app. I don’t even think most video streaming apps are structured to store huge buffers of video anyway, but that could change. (An HD movie is larger than 2 GB, but would fit in 20 GB.)

As James Thomson and Neil Cremins discussed this on Twitter, they theorized that the change in size could presage a new model that handles “4K” UHD assets. UHD is four times the number of pixels as HD, so you need more storage, even if you had a graphically simple game.

Also, when I talked about video buffering before, that was with the understanding that US broadband is typically robust enough to handle HD video streams, but UHD titles won’t be as speedy to stream on-demand. You wouldn’t want to start watching a movie in UHD, and then want to skip back a few minutes only to wait for that to have been purged already. (Although UHD is four times the resolution of HD, it’s not a straight 4x conversion for many reasons, including different codecs Apple would switch to.)

Rampant Speculation

I certainly agree with the deduction that some new device is on the horizon, since these sorts of changes aren’t very beneficial to customers with a 32 GB Apple TV. If I were to guess, I’d say that Apple might do away with the 32 GB 4th generation model, but they might retain it and move it down in price to offer something “under” $100. Which changes the lineup to:

  • Apple TV 32 GB (4th generation, HD) $99
  • Apple TV 64 GB (4th generation, HD) $149
  • The New Apple TV 64 GB (5th generation, UHD) $199
  • The New Apple TV 128 GB (5th generation, UHD) $249

Some people might scoff at keeping the 32 GB around with the new data caps, but Apple’s no stranger to introductory models that don’t have enough storage.

Now, unfortunately, these data caps don’t provide any insight on whether or not they will replace the fucking remote, but I’m going to gamble on them at least introducing a first party game controller.

  1. Raised data caps mean more for games than media streaming.
  2. Adding the controller requirement to tvOS 10 means more games will come out with the requirement as time moves on.
  3. Every single demo station of the Apple TV has at least one Steel Series Nimbus III controller next to it to try and get people to think of the Apple TV as something that can play a game, so why not make your own????
  4. It’s an accessory you can sell customers on top of the cost of the device, which is basically Tim Cook’s dream, so no one should expect them to bundle a controller.

Another thing that data caps don’t tell us, but I’ll BS about anyway, is whether or not a 5th generation Apple TV would have HDR. It would be awfully silly to go through all this trouble to add UHD now but not HDR support. Given Apple’s focus on Macs, iPads, and iPhones with great displays, and great cameras, it makes sense that they would capitalize on that further by supporting HDR. What spec would they support? I would assume that they have base support for HDR-10, since it’s the most prevalent, but they could throw a wacky curveball and bake their own and require studios to deliver them content mastered in iTunes for that — but that seems unlikely as no TVs would be on the market with support for it. HDR is weird in that it’s metadata that comes along with the video, so you can support multiple kinds of HDR for input and output. I’m relatively certain that Apple would want to specify exactly one supported HDR format though, since otherwise they’d have to specify which things had DolbyVision, and which were HDR-10. I’m not sure they would love to do that. Dolby has the least support, and fewest titles, even though it’s technically superior to HDR-10.

This is a lot of stuff to try and tease out of a data cap change, but I’m hopeful that Apple has revised their approach to this product, because I feel like this is an important space for Apple to be in. (I also hope Apple introduces device backups, and restores, so people can easily upgrade and not set up a 5th generation Apple TV from scratch.)

2017-01-13 09:00:00

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