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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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Apple Music Dramas, International Netflix, and Amazon's Anime Channel

Somehow Apple, Netflix, and Amazon conspired to have streaming news this morning. I’m not sure how. The Wall Street Journal published something from “people familiar with the matter” alleging Apple is in very early talks to add a few original shows like HBO’s “Westworld” or Netflix’s “Stranger Things”. I put that in quotes because those shows are quite different from one another, but WSJ said those were the examples. The weird part is bolting that onto Apple Music, where Apple is putting other music-centric video programming. WSJ alleges this is a way for Apple to differentiate itself from Spotify, rather than compete with Netflix, but I’m not sure anyone was really asking them to bolt a non-music drama series onto a music service. Also, I hope someone at Apple eventually tries to play video content inside that Connect tab, because it is a mess, and it needs to be fixed before you shoehorn TV shows in there.

Assuming there’s a massive marketing blitz around the TV show, it could be a way to get people who don’t pay for Apple Music to sign up for the TV show and try Apple Music, before they cancel their subscription when the show is concluded. Apple Music will just mangle your iTunes Library so you can watch a TV show. No big.

Seriously though, there are probably people who have burned through their Apple Music trials, before deciding not to continue, and now that the service has improved over time, the video programming could be an incentive to pay to try it again.

I’m mostly looking forward to all the drama about the drama series — assuming, of course, that these very preliminary discussions evolve into actual video.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg Businessweek published a story about Netflix’s international efforts, specifically in Brazil, where they are targeting their video content, and their infrastructure to the needs of markets where they previously didn’t exist. They don’t simply flip a switch to activate Netflix in Brazil.

Lastly, Variety released the news that Amazon is launching their first add-on subscription channel of content they bundle themselves. Amazon has offered add-on subscriptions for a while now, and they basically let you add a “channel” of on-demand video from a specific provider to your streaming package for a nominal, monthly fee. It’s integrated into Prime Video, and you don’t get shunted to a separate app experience. These little a la carte bundles offer more specific, targeted content, similar to adding a channel, or a tier, to a traditional cable or satellite package. Amazon’s anime channel is mostly notable because it could presage other channels Amazon creates for other sorts of programming, or genres.

2017-01-12 09:00:00

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Defocused Shirts

Defocused shirts!

Dan and I are pleased to announce that we’re selling shirts, and a hooded sweatshirt, on Cotton Bureau to support our podcast, Defocused on The Incomparable Network. The shirts are on sale until January 24th, so if you’re considering buying one, I would recommend acting on that impulse sooner rather than later so you don’t miss the window.

There’s a brief discussion of the shirt launch that we added to the first few minutes of episode 130.

We enjoy a little retro flavor for the shirts, so we kicked around some ideas. Palm trees, that sunset circle with the lines through it — all the great 80’s things. Eventually this lead us to defunct production company logos. We were certainly influenced by the logo for The Cannon Group. They were a pretty bonkers production company. Dan mocked up different ways of interconnecting letters, and aspects of the lines in black and white. To add a little color, there’s a sort of fake chromatic aberration effect but with magenta and cyan. Because of the way Cotton Bureau prints, solid colors are preferred.

Having said that, I did a weird gradient test to mimic some aspects of Cannon’s logo, and Dan polished it. We liked that a lot and it became the new podcast logo this year. Naturally, that meant we had to do this:

The Defocused logo for the start of a terrible, terrible movie.

2017-01-10 08:35:00

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First Impressions of TV the App

Ever since TV the app was announced on stage in October, I’ve been very skeptical of what Apple would deliver — especially what Apple would deliver by the end of the year. Every project overseen by Eddy Cue seems to be a management disaster, with a few good ideas executed poorly, adorned with asterisks, and infested with bugs. Which is why I was so skeptical about what Apple wasn’t saying in the lead-up to TV the app shipping.

TV the app for iOS was unresponsive when it first launched, I guess it was caching artwork from my library. After force-quitting it seemed to perk up. Not a great start. The app has four icons at the bottom for Library, Watch Now, Store, and Search. The version of TV the app for tvOS has the same four options in an upper menu, but flips the order of Library and Watch Now for … reasons.

Library

The iOS version’s Library view has iPod-like menu widgets for TV Shows, Movies, and my iTunes Library from my Mac, which happened to have iTunes open. If I closed iTunes on my Mac, the widget for that library stayed up, but tapping on it recursively takes you to the Library screen you were just on, but without the iTunes Library listed. However, because I had navigated to that, there’s a navigation Back button in the top left of the screen that takes me to the exact same screen with the iTunes Library still listed there. Yup. I had to force-quit the app and relaunch it to get rid of the iTunes Library that was no longer accessible. If I open iTunes again, it’s not added back to the Library screen in the app, requiring another force-quit and relaunch. I don’t rely on this feature very often, but I know there are people that make extensive use of Home Sharing, so they’re probably not thrilled — Also, it’s the first third of the screen the app opens to so it should probably work or something.

Below the iPod-like widgets is “Recently Purchased Shows” with a horizontal-scrolling list of TV show artwork, chronologically organized by purchase date. Ditto for “Recently Purchased Movies” under that. Unfortunately, I rarely purchase TV shows on iTunes, and most of the category has a few free episodes of shows that had promotions at one time or another. So that’s why the only two things displayed are the first season of My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Comedy Central’s Moonbeam City pilot. “Recently Purchased Movies” is less sad, but because of where it’s placed on the screen, only the very top of Al Pacino’s head is visible.

It’s possible to hide purchases from showing up through an iTunes web interface available to you on a desktop computer, but that wouldn’t really let me alter that layout.

The version of the Library view for tvOS is uninspired, with a pair of buttons on the screen-right side for “TV Shows” and “Movies”, both are displayed alphabetically, not chronologically, and there’s no Home Sharing here. Home Sharing is located on the Home screen for tvOS still, which gets into the weird Home-but-not-Home feeling of TV the app on tvOS. It reproduces some things you find elsewhere in tvOS, but not this.

Watch Now

I appreciate what Apple was aiming for with Watch Now — a unified interface to access media buried in siloed-off apps, and keeping track of where you left off with what you were last watching. Unfortunately, they haven’t hit what they were aiming for yet. The only compatible app I had on iOS was HBO Now. It asked to “connect” and share data with Apple. I accepted and had to sign in to iTunes. Then it populated a screen with HBO shows and movies that HBO had streaming rights for. This concludes the list of applications I use that are supported.

I paid for HBO Now to watch Westworld, and HBO Now keeps track of what episodes I’ve seen inside of it’s app. Apple, however, doesn’t have access to that data because I didn’t watch Westworld from TV the app so as far as Apple’s concerned I’ve never watched anything, including Westworld. This is a problem if you use apps outside of Apple’s ecosystem. Some episodes of Westworld I watched on my Fire TV Stick, some on tvOS, one on iOS, and all versions of the HBO Now app know what I’ve seen regardless of platform, but not Apple’s new, preferred method for me to track what I’m watching. That thing has no clue.

Westworld is recommended to me under:

  • What to Watch
  • TV’s Biggest Shows
  • Lights, Camera, Action: Thrill-a-minute rides, coming right up.
  • Top TV Shows

But I guess it’s hard to fill out all the categories if there’s only HBO to draw from? Still, there are a lot of repeated entries for things I’ve seen — and things I have no interest in seeing. There’s no way to mark that I’ve watched something already, or that I have no interest in seeing Divorce even after I’ve been pitched on “Witty Sarah Jessica moves on to conscious uncoupling in the suburbs.”

Also, in case anyone is wondering if maybe Apple only has access to tracking data going forward from the point I agree to “connect” HBO Now, I started up an episode of a HBO show on my Fire TV Stick and it’s not appearing under “Up Next”. However, if I open the iOS HBO Now app, and resume playback from where I started, then it appears under “Up Next” on both iOS and tvOS. So however Apple is connecting to HBO Now, it appears to be on the Apple device itself, and then the data from that on-device connection is shared with my other Apple devices, rather than connecting to HBO directly. At least that’s the only explanation I can come up with for the behavior. It didn’t mark Westworld as watched either, so it’s not like it just flushed some cache or something.

Another peculiarity is that I had the CBS All Access app on my Apple TV because I had used a trail period of the service and never deleted the app. When TV the app started up for tvOS it asked me to connect CBS, and I approved to see what would happen. It wasn’t great, because Apple shuffled in CBS recommendations with the HBO ones, but I had no active subscription so any attempt to play a CBS entry would kick you to a screen where you could pick subscription payment options. This was unpleasant, so I removed the CBS app from the device thinking it would remove CBS from the Watch Now recommendations, but it didn’t. Turns out that’s hidden under the settings for the TV app.

Home > Settings > Apps > App Settings > TV > Connect to TV > CBS > “Remove CBS” or “Remove CBS and Clear Play History”

That was fun to find that. At least I didn’t have to use a desktop computer’s web browser. Small victories.

Store

The storefront interface is pretty annoying because there’s no personalization at all. Top row features Westworld (HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT THIS SHOW?) available from HBO Now (HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT THIS APP?), followed by Star Wars: The Force Awakens which is available on Starz, but I already own the movie through iTunes so why should an advertisement to pay for a subscription service to watch a movie I already own be displayed to me? The rest of the row is populated with a prominent piece of media available on other apps that are also featured in a row directly below.

Star Watching Now:

  • HBO Now (Already installed and connected)
  • Hulu
  • Starz
  • Showtime
  • CBS (Intentionally disconnected)
  • CW
  • Tribeca Shortlist
  • MUBI
  • CW Seed
  • Crunchyroll
  • CuriosityStream

Watch with your TV provider has a variety of other media that’s inaccessible to me at this time. Then, buried at the bottom are “New Releases on iTunes” and several categories to buy and rent on iTunes.

I absolutely loathe entering text on the Apple TV. That persnickety little row of letters is there, but you can use the Remote app, or voice dictation. Yes, the Search here does produce different results than using Siri to search. Why? I don’t know! My current favorite example: “The Thing” with voice dictation in this field will display the 2011 prequel/remake/whatever, and then the 1982 classic. That’s not bad. Siri will produce a string of Fantastic Four properties, Addam’s Family movies, a Cat in the Hat cartoon and Alfie.

You can trick Siri if you say “The movie The Thing” but the assistant seems to have no common sense to produce the same search results as this Search field.

By default, trending movies and shows are displayed under search.

Home Button Remap

The button that looked like a 16:9, flat-panel TV, but was named Home, is now used for TV the app for many functions. If TV the app has been force-quit from the multitasking view, it won’t launch the app, it’ll behave as it did before, but if TV the app was running on the system, then pushing the button mostly takes you to the Watch Now screen. Even if you’re inside of TV the app in another area, it will bring you back to Watch Now. Push it again to go to the actual Home screen. If you push it on the Home screen it takes you back to TV the app. Unfortunately, this muddies the idea behind what this button does. It’s a TV-Home-Multitask-Sleep button — Which is kind of overloaded.

This adds to the weird feeling that TV the app should be the Home interface, but it isn’t. They’re still separate, with some features reproduced, and reorganized. To say nothing of the fact that it’s only available in the U.S., and has limited utility depending on what apps you use, and what TV provider you have.

This … kind of feels like cable box software, but with more fluid movement, and hardly anything to watch. Two of the most popular sources for non-cable, non-satellite, streaming media are Netflix and Amazon and they’re nowhere to be found TV the app. The people who derive the most benefit will be people who can access all of this on another box connected to their TV, which they pay for. I still don’t know what the marketing pitch for the Apple TV is. Own this $150 box because you can keep your cable subscription? Own this $150 box because you can get another interface for HBO Now?

2016-12-13 08:30:00

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Why I Recommend the Fire Stick 2

Amazon currently has the 2nd generation Fire TV Stick on sale for $29.99, that’s $10 off the normal price, and an unbeatable bargain. That’s wacky-arm-flailing-inflatable-tube-man pricing. I’ll risk recommending something that some people might hate, because at $30, it’s basically the cost of a bad dinner, and a drink, at a restaurant.

However, I did recommend someone buy a particular brand of saltine crackers once, and they’re still giving me crap about it, so I suppose anything’s possible when it comes to recommendations.

I bought the 2nd generation stick when it was first available for preorder in October, and have been very pleased with it’s performance over the 1st generation device. Since the previous model I had also came with a voice remote, there’s no difference in features, but if you had purchased the model without a voice remote it’s absolutely a different experience. (You could also use the Fire TV app on your iOS, Android, or Fire OS device and it would grant you a microphone, but it’s less convenient, and they did a weird thing with the swiping for navigation that irks me ever so much.) The new device is much snappier than the previous model and I consider it a worthy upgrade for that alone. Also, if you haven’t used a 1st generation model in a while, you might be surprised by some of the software features that have appeared, or have been improved.

I generally find that most people have a Fire TV Stick in a drawer somewhere because they didn’t find it useful at one point or another. However, Amazon slowly rolls out features over time, without any fanfare, and thus those drawer-stick owners aren’t up to date on software fiddly stuff. Amazon doesn’t do a particularly good job of synthesizing a complete sales-pitch for the device, or even a product page that makes a lot of sense.

The Home screen isn’t just Amazon Prime recommendations, it’s a mixture of recommendations based on which apps you have installed. They have to participate in the system, of course, but there are notable ones like HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and others. This rolled out in September before the new model came out.

There are also improvements to Alexa’s voice search, and more services provide data for Alexa. This includes Netflix, which was absent from this search feature before. The search also includes buttons to launch the app and play it. (In my time with this feature on both models, I have noticed that sometimes it takes you to the Netflix user profile screen instead of playing the video, it seems like the app doesn’t like to play nicely if it wasn’t recently active.) In cases where the media is available on multiple services, you’ll see the options presented to you, like watching old Star Trek episodes on Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Unfortunately, there are some wrinkles, since not all services participate, you can’t use Alexa to look up a PBS show in the PBS app. Similar drawbacks exist for Siri on the 4th generation Apple TV. I do find that Alexa’s results are more often in tune with my expectations than Siri’s results. If you search for “The Thing”, which is admittedly generic, you will get several Fantastic Four movies, and other properties with various names, but not 1982’s “The Thing” by John Carpenter. Alexa shows that as the first result, and no Fantastic Four movies in sight.

Alexa does get confused when there are conflicting names for things, one of those conflicts my friend Dan Sturm uncovered when he instructed Alexa to “Play The Grand Tour” which provides an error message that the Alexa Skill for “The Grand Tour” is not installed. This is an unfortunate marketing clash because their effort to get the word out about the show (the Alexa app is a weekly teaser with clues and B.S.) actually makes it more difficult to watch the show they are trying to promote on the Fire TV. I did have a funny moment where the Fire TV read off the instructions for how to install the Alexa Skill and the Echo Dot accepted that as a command and installed the Alexa Skill. I’m not sure that was intentional on Amazon’s part, but it was funny. Long story short: If you say “The Grand Tour” you get the search results you want, but “Play The Grand Tour” will clash with the Alexa Skill for “The Grand Tour”.

All this Alexa stuff also works for music through Amazon’s music options, which I’ll explain, but I should mention that the Music section of the app is different from telling Alexa to play something. They draw from the same Amazon sources, but an Alexa query shows you a dialog with the song title and album art, and there’s no way to navigate on screen while it’s playing, or to pull up the lyrics (which are available to with some songs inside the Music app). So if you had been annoyed by that in the past, it’s still there. I also worry about burn-in on my plasma TV so I don’t love leaving that search result screen up, and instead prefer to play music on my Echo Dot. (Curiously, Amazon has introduced a feature that displays what’s currently playing on any Fire tablet you own, but it’s similarly useless. The Alexa app itself offers actual media controls.)

Music’s available through the Prime library, any music you’ve purchased through Amazon’s MP3 store, if you pay a fee you can upload your own music, or you can subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited for a large streaming library comparable to Apple Music. Spotify makes a TV app, but they also have the ability to use Spotify with Alexa as the default music source. Other skills are also available for other music services. This is different from Siri, which offers no audio integrations at all.

The new device features significantly improved performance over the previous model, but I still do not recommend anyone play a game on it. The first model stuttered with Crossy Road, and the new model plays it perfectly well, but it still stutters in Alto’s Adventure.

The new voice remote is, like I said, almost identical to the old one. That being said, It still has the same negatives as the previous iteration: Requires batteries, and there’s no IR or HDMI-CEC control for audio which means you need to keep at least two remotes near you. Because the stick has no IR, and has a microphone, you can’t replace it with a run-of-the-mill universal remote. This is pretty disappointing because audio can vary widely. Also hitting Home powers on the stick, the TV, and sets the input to the port the stick is in — but if you put the Fire TV to sleep the TV stays on, it doesn’t go into standby mode like when you put a 4th generation Apple TV to sleep. (Or at least this is my experience with my TV.) This is the same experience as the 1st generation Fire TV Stick with voice remote.

There’s also a new UI that’s on the way, but I don’t ever suggest that anyone get something because of unreleased software. I’ll leave reviewing unreleased hardware and software to real technology writers. I do expect it to be beneficial when it appears, but the current device is worth the $30 on sale, or even the $40 when it’s not on sale.

A lot of people get hung up on how aesthetically unappealing the current interface is, but I’ll take unappealing over pretty, but frustrating.

How the Stick Stacks Up

Google

The Chromecast has always seemed incomplete, because it’s design moves all the control to other, disparate places. I’m also 5,000 years old, because I like to have a remote. I do understand the appeal if you spend most of your time on your phone or tablet and only want

Roku

Roku makes a streaming stick in this price point, and I picked it up last week for comparison’s sake. I would also say that it’s snappy, but I found it incredibly frustrating to use. People often complain about Amazon pushing Amazon content, but Roku pushes different apps and services for seemingly no particular reason, so I can only assume there’s money changing hands. In the setup process they want you to install a few apps to get started, and they pre-select a few services, to be helpful. Even after disabling them, and not signing up for any trials, or other offers, I got an email today again, encouraging me to sign up for trial periods of Hulu, CBS All Access, and Showtime. I find this creepy and weird since I literally unchecked these boxes and showed no interest in their offering at all. I also don’t enjoy the remote (which only paired with the stick after I restarted the stick by unplugging it). There’s no voice search offered for this model, and typing in a search produces a list of places where I can watch something, but there’s no indication of whether or not the app or service in the result requires a new subscription, a cable subscription, or a direct payment. This is unlike what Apple and Amazon do with their Universal search which indicate when something’s free to watch right away. I’m considering holding on to it for future testing, but I can’t imagine any circumstances under which I would recommend this product. Also, I loathe their version of the Netflix client, which is a big strike against it.

The Roku does offer Amazon Video though, but I find it to be pretty lackluster. I would compare it to the experience you get out of many integrated Amazon Video apps on various TVs. (Which is kind of funny because Roku is providing their Roku interface for TCL.)

This Space Intentionally Left Blank

Apple doesn’t offer anything remotely in this price range. The 3rd generation Apple TV was discounted to $70, and then discontinued this September without any replacement, leaving the $150 4th generation Apple TV as the least expensive streaming device Apple makes. It’s also not as portable as an HDMI stick device. They’ve never made anything in that form factor. Apple doesn’t compete on price though, they rely on a premium experience to sell products. Since they don’t offer a premium experience I can only talk about the price.

What Do You Value?

I’m fortunate (?) in that I can easily justify purchasing multiple streaming units to have around, and can switch between them as needed, but most people probably want to stick to one thing, and they probably want that one thing to do everything they find important. No one has made that product, so pick and choose based on what seems the most important to you. I certainly think that if you’ve been frustrated by trying to AirPlay Amazon Video that you should purchase this, because I don’t think hell is going to freeze over any time soon.

If someone isn’t an Amazon Prime member, or they want to exclusively use iTunes media, then this isn’t a good option. If you want HBO, Netflix, and Prime video with voice search at a relatively inexpensive price-point, then this is the best option, and I would encourage you to consider it before the sale ends.

2016-11-27 17:10:00

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