Unauthoritative Pronouncements By Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ 2017-02-15T17:18:37.677020ZCopyright 2015, Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/2017-02-15-Planet-of-the-Low-Aspirations.html Planet of the Low Aspirations 2017-02-15T16:23:00Z 2017-02-15T16:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ 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.

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http://joe-steel.com/2017-02-09-Apple-Hires-Amazons-Fire-TV-Head-to-Run-Apple-TV-Business.html Apple Hires Amazon’s Fire TV Head to Run Apple TV Business 2017-02-09T15:23:00Z 2017-02-09T15:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ 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.

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http://joe-steel.com/2017-01-13-Apple-Increases-Resource-Caps-for-tvOS-Apps.html Apple Increases Resource Caps for tvOS Apps 2017-01-13T16:53:00Z 2017-01-13T16:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ 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.)

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http://joe-steel.com/2017-01-12-Apple-Music-Dramas-International-Netflix-and-Amazons-Anime-Channel.html Apple Music Dramas, International Netflix, and Amazon's Anime Channel 2017-01-12T16:53:00Z 2017-01-12T16:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ 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.

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http://joe-steel.com/2017-01-10-Defocused-Shirts.html Defocused Shirts 2017-01-10T16:28:00Z 2017-01-10T16:28:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ 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.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-12-13-First-Impressions-of-TV-the-App.html First Impressions of TV the App 2016-12-13T16:23:00Z 2016-12-13T16:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ 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?

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-11-27-Why-I-Recommend-the-Fire-Stick-2.html Why I Recommend the Fire Stick 2 2016-11-28T01:03:00Z 2016-11-28T01:03:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ 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.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-11-04-Last-Time-On-Apple-TV.html Last Time On Apple TV… 2016-11-04T16:53:00Z 2016-11-04T16:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The previous post on the Apple TV announcements at the October Apple event circulated a little more widely than I had originally anticipated. I’ve received some feedback on what was written, and more details have surfaced in the past week, so it’s worth revisiting.

There’s a section that compared certain features and prices in a very rough way to illustrate that Apple is positioned at a premium price point that isn’t justified. Apple, of course, does not compete on price, but there are typically ways of justifying the price difference against competing products. The streaming hardware is behind the competition, and the software that is run on the Apple TV is mostly just a way to get at media streams, so similar experiences are available on competing devices. Even compelling features like Siri search, which reduces the friction of using a remote to find something, have competition in Amazon’s Alexa or Roku’s Voice Search. Even TV the app will mostly resemble the interface of the Fire TV Home screen. That’s why the premium price lacks justification in either hardware or software. There’s the more abstract notion of a “premium experience” which could be used to justify the price, except I’d argue that I’ve experienced too much frustration with the using the Apple TV to say that it’s superior to anything but older generation hardware and software from competing companies.

Single Sign-On will be a big differentiating factor when it ships, if you are on one of the supported providers. It’s still late, and the list of providers is still very small. In the previous post, I had pointed to a line in Apple’s press release on Single Sign-On after the event to highlight the only two providers that were mentioned were both satellite TV providers.

In addition to the new TV app, customers in the U.S. will have a simplified way of enjoying their pay-TV video apps by using single sign-on. Starting in December, subscribers to DIRECTV, DISH Network and more will just sign in once on Apple TV, iPhone and iPad to enjoy immediate access to apps that are part of their pay-TV subscription.

Last night, Apple turned on Single Sign-On for developers on the tvOS beta, and the list was slightly different. As first reported by MacRumors the networks that are available are:

  • Dish
  • GVTC Communications
  • Hotwire
  • Sling TV

Absent from the current list is DirecTV, but since Apple named them in the press release I fully expect that to be available when Single Sign-On is in it’s final, shipping state. As for the other three providers: two are small, regional operators, and the third, Sling TV, is owned by Dish. It’s good to know that Sling TV is available because that wasn’t guaranteed from the way the press release was originally phrased. Sling TV is entirely provided over the internet, or over-the-top as the kids say, and it’s the most widely available way to access channels that are only available through traditional cable or satellite packages. Another notable one is Sony’s PlayStation Vue service.

There’s been criticism of Sling TV’s apps on all of the platforms that Sling TV is available on (including Apple TV, Fire TV, and Roku) so this is pretty good if you don’t want to use the Sling TV app to access on demand content that is available directly from a studio’s own app with authentication. Also, as I learned from listening to Susie Ochs on the Macworld podcast, the content of the official Sling TV app is opaque to Siri, so that’s another reason to authenticate directly with a provider — assuming they participate in Universal Search or Siri Live Tune-In. Apple offers a full list of participating Universal Search apps by region on their site, and a full list of Siri Live Tune-In. Someone with more free time should probably make a spreadsheet of which apps work with which Siri features, and we can all print it out like an old-timey channel guide for our living rooms. Well, in the U.S. anyway.

Serenity Caldwell at iMore has taken the beta version of Single Sign-On for a spin, but there’s not much to report at the moment. I am curious about why they chose to make the provider-selection a list of buttons, as that doesn’t seem like it will scale tremendously well if they continue to add providers. Also it handles Single Sign-On per-device, and needs to be authorized per-app, which is … (pinches bridge of nose) … it’s not great for people with multiple tvOS and iOS devices. It’s better than going to a website to enter a code presented on your TV, of course, but I still don’t understand why these subscription credentials, and authorizations, can’t be stored in iCloud Keychain, or a different iCloud service. Apple stores my credit card information and address in iCloud so let’s not pretend like this is for privacy reasons. It’s in beta, but it seems unlikely that would change before it launches in about a month, month and a half. That just goes back to my criticism of the Apple TV feeling like it was designed for use in a lab, where there aren’t multiple units, or family members.

Just to reinforce the idea of multiple devices, I had mentioned in the previous post skepticism of how well TV the app on the Apple TV will work with TV the app on iOS assuming a single-user experience of me, in my living room. I perhaps should have leaned more heavily on what happens in multi-user households where the Apple TV sits signed in to one account. There are FOUR fields where a person’s Apple ID should be entered on an Apple TV:

  • iCloud
  • iTunes and App Store
  • Game Center
  • Home Sharing

That’s the data stored in the cloud, your purchase history, and the ability to make purchases, the ability to log gameplay, and the ability to stream from your local iTunes library. There’s no single sign-on for all of these things together, which means there’s no easy way to switch who’s using the Apple TV, and what the Apple TV has access to, and tracks.

That means that in a household with two people using an Apple TV, and both of those people have iPhones, that TV the app is going to have recomendations based off of the viewing experience of one person in the house, or worse, one person gets their viewing experience contaminated by the other. This gets even worse if you scale up for children, and the programming children watch, vs. the programming that the parents watch. HBO, which will participate in TV the app has Sesame Street and Westworld, so good luck explaining why the Guests are so mean to the Hosts to little Jimmy.

Also in the news yesterday, is a rumor that Amazon is considering multi-user profiles, possibly for the Fire OS refresh anticipated before the end of the year. Very similar to Netflix’s profile switching, but for the whole TV experience.

Speaking of Netflix, there was some pushback that Apple could add Netflix before it launches, or that everyone loses their minds and Apple buys Netflix (which I would argue against). My criticism stems from what was presented, which is that Netflix is absent, and it is present for competing platforms that surface Netflix’s content. I’m not going to wishcast that Netflix will be there. If it materializes, then that is a great thing, but I wouldn’t change a word of what I wrote about the way TV the app was presented.

There’s no singular acquisition, service launch, app, price slashing, hardware feature, or deal that will tidy up what’s happening with Apple’s entertainment strategy for devices and services. It’s not a matter of a single piece out of place. That’s why I rhetorically asked who the device is for, because it’s not obvious to me, and that’s coming from someone who wants to see them succeed in this area.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-10-28-Apples-October-TV-Surprise.html Apple's October TV Surprise 2016-10-28T14:53:05Z 2016-10-28T14:53:05Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The accessibility video at the start of Apple’s October 27th event was the best thing in the event. That demonstrates Apple at its very best, improving lives in ways that other technology companies are not always conscious of.

My feelings about the remainder of the presentation are less rosy, and I will highlight my feelings about the Apple TV, because I simply do not have the time to discuss the MacBook Pro right now.

Great Expectations

I had suspected that the Apple TV would receive some kind of update at this event since Apple had done nothing for it so far this fall. However, it’s worth framing it with the expectations that I had.

Hardware

  1. I don’t like UHD “4K” because it is generally more of a marketing buzzword than a strictly defined set of rules. Sure, there are specs on resolution, but a lot of movies that feature effects (which accounts for hundreds, if not thousands, of shots in most films) are created in a realm that’s around 2048 pixels wide with whatever crop is applied for a particular aspect ratio. More modern films have started mastering effects in higher resolutions, but there’s a lot of “legacy” effects shots that are not the size you might expect.
  2. HDR - High Dynamic Range - a virtually meaningless term to most consumers. This means brighter brights, darker darks, and better color. There isn’t a single standard for HDR. The two main ones are HDR10, and DolbyVision. HDR10 is based on Samsung’s early HDR efforts and adopted by the UHD Alliance (no, I did not make that up). DolbyVision was around first, but only recently started making it out to consumers. Both of these competing standards exist as metadata passed along with the image data. That metadata tells the device how to display the image data that is provided. HDR versions of movies are relatively easy for movie studios to generate because that data is available in the range of the original, cinema releases. It’s stuff they already had, that they were leaving behind for home video.
  3. Many new TV shows are being shot in UHD, and with HDR mastering in mind. This is especially true for internet-based providers like Netflix and Amazon Studios which want to fill out a library with that content so they can market that feature. Some shows, like Netflix’s House of Cards, are even mastered in “6K” in the event that they might need it in the future.
  4. TVs have been on the market with UHD support for several years, and HDR support has been rolling out through TV lines over the past year as Blu-Ray players that can play HDR content have become available.
  5. The market for plain HD TVs has shriveled up as the cost of UHD TVs has fallen, so more people are likely to buy a UHD TV just because they aren’t choosing between HD and UHD at some price points.
  6. Chromecast Ultra ships in November with a library of UHD HDR content available through the Google Play store, as well as YouTube.

This means that if my plasma HD TV were to die today, I would replace it with a UHD HDR TV of some description if it was the right price. In spite of all of my cynicism surrounding the marketing of UHD, I know that HDR would be worthwhile, and that there are some TVs that support both HDR standards. I know that as TVs die, and get replaced, all over the globe that the trend will be toward UHD HDR. This isn’t like the adoption of 3D TVs where even if you didn’t want a 3D TV, you would wind up with one and just never turn on the 3D. There are no special glasses, it’s just on when it’s available.

Last year I argued that Apple was in no rush, and it wasn’t logical to lambast them for not including the feature. This year, however, as devices push more toward UHD, and HDR, the lack of any model in their lineup that supports it is slightly less excusable at the price point they’re in.

  • $30: Roku Express
  • $35: Chromecast
  • $40: Amazon Fire TV Stick 2nd Gen. (Alexa, universal search)
  • $40: Roku Express+
  • $50: Roku Streaming Stick
  • $70: Chromecast Ultra (UHD)
  • $80: Roku Premiere (UHD)
  • $90: Amazon Fire TV 2nd Gen. (Alexa, universal search, UHD)
  • $100: Roku Premiere+ (UHD, HDR)
  • $130: Roku Ultra (UHD, HDR, Voice Search)
  • $150: Apple TV 32 GB (Siri, universal search)
  • $200: Apple TV 64 GB (Siri, universal search)

That lists the major players in the market, and demonstrates where Apple sits in the price list. The only company selling an HD-only streaming media device above $50 is Apple. The only company selling a steaming media device without HDR above $90 is Apple.

There is no way to justify spending $150 to enter Apple’s TV ecosystem in the fall of 2016 on hardware alone. When Google is making a streaming UHD HDR player that costs LESS than a replacement Siri Remote, there is a problem with the hardware Apple is selling.

Taking all of this into account, I had assumed that Apple would unveil a higher-priced UHD HDR box to occupy the current price point, and discount the previous model to compete against the far less expensive HD solutions available. Last year, Jason Snell had conjectured that Apple might even introduce a less expensive model to replace the $69 3rd-generation, that he jokingly referred to as an AirPlay Express. Instead, Apple quietly killed the 3rd generation Apple TV in September, and only sells the $150 and $200 4th generation Apple TV models from last year.

The storage situation is still incomprehensible to me because Apple never made a solid case for gaming on the device, having waffled on input methods, and having introduced strict requirements about the size of assets on the device. It would be newsworthy if anyone had ever filled up their 32 GB Apple TV under normal usage conditions.

Software

Apple announced tvOS 10 this summer, at WWDC and Eddy Cue made a big deal out of Single Sign On. Single Sign On would do away with one of the biggest pain points for cable-subscribers using Apple TVs by providing a one-time authorization. It was billed as part of tvOS 10, and tvOS 10 was billed as coming in September. It never shipped, but it remained at the top of Apple’s product page for the Apple TV until yesterday with a “Coming soon” button under it. No timeline whatsoever.

Oh, do you know what bumped Single Sign On down to the number two position on the product page? TV. The app, called TV, not the device called TV. You can plug your TV into your TV and watch TV. If you can’t tell, I think the naming is ludicrous and I feel like I’m in some kind of sketch where the whole joke is that the words are the same.

So what is TV the app? It’s a row of what you were watching, called Up Next, and then a series of recommendations based on the apps you have installed on your device. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because you might have used an Amazon Fire TV in the last few months when Amazon rolled out the ability to see content from Netflix and HBO listed in recommendations. So Apple made the Fire TV home screen, as an app, except they couldn’t get Netflix onboard, while Amazon could. I’ve seen a lot of handwringing about the absence of Netflix and guesses as to why that might be, but you need to ask yourself how Amazon was able to broker a deal to display Netflix recommendations and while Apple wasn’t.

Apple knows that the largest video subscription service in the US is Netflix, and they shrugged them off.

Going back to the mechanics of this app: It also reproduces the TV Show and Movie storefronts inside of TV the app. It doesn’t move them in here, it just makes another place to access the store. If that wasn’t confusing enough, I’m not sure if it will show you the same recommendations in both places or not because no one mentioned how they work, or work differently.

Apps that require subscriptions, like Starz, can also be added based on recommendations — again, why is this duplicating functionality of the App Store on the TV’s home screen.

The function of the Home button, which confusingly had the icon of a 16:9 flatscreen TV, has been remapped to take you back to the TV app, since hitting the Menu button will take you into the app you’re currently streaming from, and not TV the app that sent you there. There was no mention of what would happen if you pushed the Home button if you had not launched something to stream from TV the app.

Why is TV the app an app and not the Home screen on the device? It’s obviously modeled after the same ideas that go into other streaming devices that expose content rather than app icons, so why is this a siloed launcher I have to navigate into and out of? Why is this bolted on to the bizarre springboard-like interface of tvOS when it reproduces so much of it?

You could argue that people want to have access to apps that are not for movies or TV shows, but I would suggest that that probably occurs less often and would be satisfied by a button in the TV app that showed you the inane grid of application tiles if you wanted to get at something else.

TV the app is also available on iOS. Given the way Apple’s other cloud services sync, or don’t sync in the case of Apple Music, I would be interested to see how well this experience works if you’re going between devices, and WiFi networks. Also the underlying apps TV the app kicks you to on tvOS and iOS are different, so there’s also another complicated area that will be interesting to watch for. Some services only work on your “home” WiFi network to combat password-sharing. Would you still see those recommendations in TV the app on your iPhone if you step off your property, or would the app know to hide those recommendations it had previously surfaced? What if you deleted an app on your iPhone, but had it on your iPad and your Apple TV? How will these things stay in sync?

We’re not going to know until “before the end of the year” and only in the US. Just in time for the holiday shopping seas— oh wait.

Single Sign On was also mentioned in this presentation on TV the app, even though it hasn’t materialized. Tunneling through the press releases after the event reveals it will be available, coinciding with the release of TV the app, presumably, but the only providers that signed on were DirecTV and Dish Networks, the two satellite providers in the US. They also say, “and more” in the press release, but if they had more they would have written them out. It’s not like the list was so long they had to omit them!

So that means that the top two reasons on Apple’s product page for tvOS are features that are listed as “Coming soon”, and when they do materialize they will only be for the United States, and one of them will only be for people that have TV programming packages from DirecTV or Dish.

There was no mention of gaming, or improvements for people who would be interested in gaming. That’s probably for the best since they still don’t make a first-party remote, and even though they rolled out the ability for games to require a third-party remote, no game that I’m aware of requires it. The only things they feature for games are things that launched for the Apple TV a year ago, or iOS-type games which are all much better to play on iOS.

Live TV

Apple was in dire need of some ability to surface live broadcasts, because it was completely opaque. You could open the Twitter app to watch football, if you knew that was something you could do, but you’d have no idea when something was on, and there’s no time shifting for live TV. I hate the Twitter app, I don’t want to see any of the commentary on my television that Twitter thinks I want to see, so prolonged demos of this do not stir up good feelings in me, but I understand that Watching The Game matters to a lot of people. Even putting that aside…

There’s still no timeshifting for live TV, but I don’t expect it at this point. At least including the ability to pause and fast forward cached material when an app is in the foreground would be a welcome thing.

There’s no “channel surfing” still. Not something I expect on streaming either because the streams have to cache. There are ways to mitigate that if Picture-in-Picture were a TV concept that Apple could include on their TV platform. I do however expect a guide to compensate for the lack of speed when switching between live broadcasts.

Instead Siri can be queried about sports events, or asked to turn on the news. I’m somewhat underwhelmed by this because it doesn’t satisfy channel surfers who want to browse a guide and see if something being broadcast appeals to them. I had put this on my wishlist for tvOS 10 before WWDC and that wishlist item remains. Not all television can be consumed on demand, and not everyone wants to figure out what words to say to Siri to conjure television browsing.

Give the TV Back to the Shareholders

Apple’s incoherent strategy on the Apple TV, and tvOS as a platform, needs a dire revamp. Even the revamping they are trying to graft on to the products in the form of TV the app is so poorly integrated, and partnered, that it raises questions about why people would even open the software feature that they bill as a primary reason to get an Apple TV in their very own marketing materials.

There’s a total lack of understanding about TV in homes, which has plagued the product since it shipped last year, and seems guaranteed to persist another year. Filling homes with $150-$200 black boxes that can’t integrate with the most popular on-demand streaming service in the market TV the app is available in? That can’t integrate with cable providers, only satellite (not for any technical, terrestrial reason)? Still making $80 glass sticks? No model that can meet the picture specs of devices that cost a third, or half the price?

Who is this product for?

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-10-03-iPhone-7-Plus-Depth-Effect-is-Legit.html iPhone 7 Plus Depth Effect is Legit 2016-10-03T15:10:17Z 2016-10-03T15:10:17Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Stu Maschwitz is a filmmaker (and VFX guy) who did his own testing with the iPhone 7 Plus and really loves it. It’s worth reading just for his technical breakdown of the defocus effect, something I mentioned in my previous post, but which is not as fully fleshed out as his examples. I am still not in love with many of the Portrait Mode photos I’ve seen, but Stu explains why he doesn’t think that’s such a bad thing.

I didn’t think the results would be this good. Apple, uncharacteristically, undersold them. And this created room for a delightful surprise when Portrait Mode turned out to be something I will most certainly use.

I don’t entirely agree as I feel like there’s still some low-hanging fruit for improvement in the area of the defocus effect itself, and noise-matching. It is still better than not having it, since this effect is not baked in to the only image that is produced when you take a photo.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-09-27-Full-On-Monet.html Full On Monet 2016-09-27T16:53:00Z 2016-09-27T16:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/

The one thing I’ve repeated over and over again since Phil Schiller previewed the “Portrait Mode” feature at the iPhone 7 event is that I have no philosophical issue with it. I don’t care that it is the phoniest of phony bolognas. That is absolutely fine with me because I work in visual effects and I do phony bologna things all day long. I don’t even care that it’s computer-driven, and not artist-driven. I feel I need to repeatedly stress this because there are people that do take issue with it because they need to protect Photography from those that would inflict harm upon it.

Having said all that, there are still some drawbacks about the current implementation of “Portrait Mode” (or fauxkeh) that should be discussed. It isn’t magic, but it is the intersection of art and science which produces fascinating work. Here’s a device that’s in the household budget for many (but not all) people that can fit in a pocket, and use software to generate a depth map, and use sophisticated image recognition, to do a realtime effect that simulates an element of photography that most people enjoy seeing but have difficulty producing themselves. It also works much better than I had expected in some areas, and about what I had expected in others. Last week, my cohost Dan Sturm and I discussed the iPhone 7 on our film and VFX podcast because he deals with shooting things on set with a camera, and I deal with measuring depth, and phony bologna stuff, in VFX.

“Portrait Mode” seems to work best when you are using it to shoot portraits — shocking, I know. Specifically, shots of people that frame the shoulders and head have behaved the most like they ought to. This is good news for the department in charge of naming things at Apple. Nailed it.

It starts to unravel a bit when shots are framed for most of the body (and the subject is farther away from the camera). Then it seems slightly more prone to error. This is just conjecture, but I assume this is because there’s better stereo separation when the iPhone is closer to the subject, and there’s less the further away you get from the subject. The iPhone 7 Plus does not have a tremendously large interaxial distance (distance between camera lenses), and the lenses themselves are different so even if the software is taking the differences between the two lenses into account (perspective and lens warp, it’s not just a crop), it’s not like it’s identical. I’m also assuming that luminance plays a large role just because I’ve also used luminance for fake-depth effects before. How that gets taken in to account, I couldn’t say, but it does seem that some of the artifacts in images that I have seen seem to be related to brighter pixels being sent to the far BG, but that could also be an issue with the detail of the generated depth map. It would seem natural to me to filter the depth map to remove small, sharp spikes in depth as they would likely be errors, so that could be why some white dog whiskers are on the background in some dog photos.

Dog photos! Cat photos! Dog photos and cat photos living together. Mass hysteria. No matter which pet species you follow on Instagram, you’re going to see a large number of shots with shallow depth of field. Thanks in no small part to Apple. The shots of animals are more error-prone than shots of humans though. DJ Jenkins, who follows me on Twitter, sent me this shot of his dog:

A close up view on the dog’s head shows a lot of smearing, and pinching around the edge of the pooch. Apple’s system prioritized the detail of the dog over the BG holding up. I’m guessing the system is trying to fill in for pixels that would be behind the dog, so you don’t see a blurry dog edge with a sharp dog inside of it. The highlight on the dog’s nose seems to have fallen between the BG and the FG too.

If anyone’s grumbling that animal portraiture is not what the feature was intended for, I have some bad news about the fact that people are going to shoot a lot of non-human, non-portrait shots with “Portrait Mode”.

Sharp Foregrounds

Some images have a touch of defocus effect applied to the foreground, but usually I only see that when there is an error. The images almost universally seem to favor a sharp foreground. This breaks the illusion right away. An image with a sharp foreground, subject, and totally out of focus background can still look pleasant, but I would prefer it if that was a conscious choice, rather than a shortcoming of the process.

Reflections and Refractions

Right after I saw, and read, Matthew Panzarino’s piece on TechCrunch about “Portrait Mode” in the beta, I wanted to see all the cases where it did not work. I had speculated that reflections on surfaces, and light refracted through water, or glass, would really mess it up, since those are things that are issues in stereoscopic VFX work. Sure enough, Matt sent me this image of a wine glass on Twitter:

Borked. Interesting, but borked.

Then Myke Hurley from Relay FM started posting shots he was taking in less than ideal lighting conditions, and of non-portrait subject matter. He was very happy with how the photos turned out and they were pleasing to his eye. They are quite helpful in illustrating issues with the Portrait Mode beta.

I scribbled around some of the obvious problems with the reflection of the light through the door on the coasters and table. The edge of the coasters is going in and out of focus based on how much of the bright reflection is on the coaster. That’s why there’s a very sharp increase in the defocus of the coaster edge. Not because the coaster is far away, but because it’s being defocused as if it was at the depth of the door reflection, which is the depth of the door. Here’s the difference between what Myke uploaded to Twitter as the original, and the “Portrait Mode” one (Twitter compression could cause slight variances on top of whatever was originally in the shots, but that’s not the point).

This illustrates the regions being altered by Apple between the composite image they produce, and the image that is exclusively from their “56mm” lens. The width of the altered regions on the coasters is the same as that of the width of the door. The system is also trying to blur out some of the coaster details that are immediately in front of BB8 but part of the reflection.

Jason Snell tweeted an image of his cat that has blurred out reflections on the floor as well. These stick out because they’re totally feature-less holes in an otherwise textured floor. (Also the floor in the foreground would be out of focus anyway, but my issue is with the holes.)

Make Some Noise

There’s also another thing that Myke’s photos were very helpful with and that was in illustrating how Apple was going to handle sensor noise.

In addition to some edge smearing and pinching in this hand shot Myke took, you can see a very visible difference in the sensor noise in the image between the “in focus” and “out of focus” regions. There is some noise in the “out of focus” area, but it seems as if it was designed for use only in more desirable lighting conditions. It doesn’t emulate the sensor noise present here at all. You could argue that no one should be taking photos under those lighting conditions, but so what? People are going to do it anyway.

Some folks might be confused about why you would want to add noise to something, but it is essential for making it look like it’s a cohesive image. The alternative — more aggressive noise reduction than Apple already does (and it is quite aggressive) would be undesirable because then you’re going to further mush what should be the sharp, foreground object.

I hope that as Apple progresses with their beta, they can fine tune the noise they’re adding to the blurred regions to produce a more integrated image under all lighting conditions.

Defocus

When Matthew Panzarino’s TechCrunch article went up, he had been told by Apple that the blur was a “gaussian blur”. That ruffled a lot of feathers because gaussian blur has nothing to do with simulating how light focuses, but it’s faster than any defocus method. Indeed, there’s a pervasive mushiness where everything softly blends together with very few exceptions. There isn’t the texture I would expect to see. Panzarino received clarification from Apple that the images in the Camera Roll are not using gaussian blur, but rather a “custom disc blur”. Using a disc means they’re convolving the pixels – the simplest way to describe it is that each pixel expands out into a circle. Really hot pixels produce very clearly defined circular patterns with sharp edges. If you’ve ever seen out-of-focus christmas lights at night, the sharp circles over a dark background are very pronounced. You can still perceive these details in situations with less contrast though. I don’t see anything approaching that in the images I’ve seen Portrait Mode produce. The closest are some highlights that seem to be convolving to cotton-ball shapes.

The iPhone’s camera, without assistance from Portrait Mode, even has some more texture in highlights so it doesn’t seem they are modeling their treatment of the image off of any specific characteristics, but rather attempting to create an inoffensive, soft effect.

It could also be that they’re applying their focus effects to clamped pixel values. For example: If you use a defocus treatment on a JPEG, vs. a RAW file, you’ll see that the JPEG doesn’t have high-high pixel values in the highlights because that data was cut off at a certain point after it hit “white”. However, that’s pretty unlikely because I’m sure Apple’s engineers are also aware of that, and that the softness in the highlights is an intentional choice they’re making.

Another Tool

I’m still where I was at the start of this post. I have no problem with the feature existing, or people loving the images they are producing with the feature right now in the beta. You do you. I do hope that Apple can improve some aspects of Portrait Mode to make it even better for people who are happy with the current results, and to make me less twitchy when I scroll through Twitter and see gapping holes and pinched edges.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-06-09-WWDC-Wish-List-tvOS.html WWDC Wish List: tvOS 2016-06-09T15:38:10Z 2016-06-09T15:38:10Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ 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.

Darker Interface

The team that designed tvOS valued light, open, bright designs. Unfortunately, in a dark living room, this is rather harsh on your eyes. This is something that the previous generations of the Apple TV had right, and I’d like to steer back toward it.

Picture in Picture

PiP is a fairly old concept, and not necessarily an exciting one. A video plays in a little box and other videos, or graphics, are available elsewhere in screen space. I don’t really wish for arbitrary video boxes to float around the interface, but there are many cases where the user experience could be improved by allowing a video to float while you navigate some menu hierarchy for another video to watch. The Apple TV is not really a snappy-multitasker, so offering that foothold into what you were watching while you look for something else would be very handy. As Jason Snell points out in a piece for Macworld, some apps even implement their own PiP to display multiple things, like the Major League Baseball app displaying multiple baseball games.

After all, PiP is a feature that came to iOS before tvOS, and tvOS is built on iOS … and iOS borrowed the idea from TVs … so it’s not the worst idea. It also happens to be a building block for more complex interactions like…

Interactive Programming Guide

I know you think I’m abusing an addictive substance, but let me assure it’s just pinot noir. Interactive programing guides are a familiar sight to anyone that’s used a TV in the last 20 years. An interface is presented to the user that’s like a spreadsheet, with a table of times, and channels, and what is currently playing on them. Most of these programming guides also embed the video that is currently being viewed so that people can browse the list of channels while still watching their show (either with the intent to switch channels, or to merely check information).

I’ve been trying to pitch this to people since last fall and no one is biting, but here me out, and bite away. The Apple TV actually does have “live” TV programming in some apps, but it’s totally invisible to the system, and to the user, unless that feed for that particular app is open and playing. This is ridiculous in 2016 because it makes channel surfing into some kind of investigative reporting simulation. You have to pop open each app that offers a live stream, then navigate to it, then open it and wait for it to load whatever might be playing. It’s hardly like hitting channel up, and channel down. This is a problem that TV solved decades ago, and it wasn’t even this slow for a TV to change channels.

Before the wave of skepticism pulls me out to sea let me assure readers that human beings do watch live, and “live”, video on TV by the millions. Live video is so important that YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are all trying to get in on it. Just because “live TV” conjures images of CBS crime procedurals for you doesn’t mean that’s the case for everyone.

Apple could offer a mechanism for an installed app to register that it offers live video, and to detail what the programming for that live video is. Only the applications that are installed would be present, and their programming viewable while watching another video stream. Potentially you could even ask Siri “What’s on?” to pull up the guide. Or ask “When are the Oscars on?” and get that familiar, linear bar of what’s available.

Let’s not forget that “live TV” isn’t typically live, it’s just an linear stream of shows and ads set to play at given times. That linear stream is a useful way (but not the only way) for people to find new shows thanks to the serendipity of turning on a TV during a certain time slot. Techies might scoff at such notions, but … like it’s a thing.

AirPlay(3)

There’s an incredibly irritating and very persistent bug (series of bugs?) with AirPlay where playback is interrupted and the stream is kicked back to the device it was streaming from. This occurs with a great deal of regularity, but AirPlay is still the best way to get audio and video to play in my living room in spite of it.

I hope that Apple has a more robust solution for AirPlay going forward that doesn’t flake on an all-Apple-device network.

A New Multitasking View

The original multitasking view for tvOS was a flat series of cards with excessive gaps between them. It presented a thumbnail view of what the app had last displayed. In the updates since launch, Apple revised the multitasking view to appear more like the iOS view. This is unfortunate because I have an enormous screen dedicated to showing me one card and the edges of two other cards, with a very blurry card in the background.

If the apps I’m switching between are TVML apps, then they look almost visually identical so you’re really looking at the name, and icon, which are in the top of the screen and take up the least amount of space. The multitasker only displays a single app title at a time as well, so all the blue and purple gradients really stick out. If the system has been restarted (either by the owner, or by the system just doing its thing) then the thumbnails for the apps are also medium-gray rectangles.

This is not suitable for me and I almost always switch apps by going back to the homescreen because it seems faster to mentally sort it.

I hope that there’s a new multitasking view that takes advantage of the screen real estate, and PiP, to allow me to move fluidly between applications and not between individually displayed, static rectangles.

Turn Folders Into Page Breaks

When I heard the rumor that folders would be added I laughed pretty hard. When I saw folders were added I let out a big sigh. Whatever is going on with the management, and development, of tvOS post-launch seems to be heavily skewed towards metaphors that work on iOS. Folders are implemented almost the same way where you hold down the touchpad until the parallax-icon wiggles, then you drag it over another icon and let go. It opens up a vast, white void where those two icons now live. This is… un-TV-like, and an inefficient use of screen space, and my tapping.

What I wish for is the ability to add a dividing line in the homescreen. Category dividers that section off the way apps are organized but leave the icons at the same size and don’t require “opening” and “closing”.

Amazon uses a category system in their Fire TV interface, which is not flexible for the user, but doesn’t burry things. The Amazon way of doing thing relies on the system to populate the app across multiple categories too, even in “recommendation” sections. This seems very, un-Apple-like, so I’d settle for a series of dividing lines and apps inside of them.

Take advantage of that ridiculous remote and let me exert extra swiping-force to move from line to line. News to Movies, etc.

Aliases for Content

The system doesn’t provide a way for people to directly access a favorite show in Netflix right from the home screen. There’s no way to bookmark something you’re interested in, and pin it right to the homescreen as if it were an app. Amazon treats content like apps on the Fire platform so they can mix movies, apps, music, games, and TV shows all in the same interface. Apple only presents the top-level of every app and nothing else.

Overhaul the TV Shows App and the Movies App

These apps are strongly geared toward someone buying/renting a video that is advertised to them as soon as possible. They are pretty unfriendly toward people that want to watch something that isn’t new. In the Purchased tab of the TV app, there’s a grid of shows, displaying a tile of artwork for the current season of that show. There aren’t any visual indications of what you’ve watched already, or what you were last watching when you used the app. Each show also arranges episodes as a series of narrow, horizontal tiles that needed to be scrolled through to get to what you want. I wish they overhaul this navigation.

The Movies app offers some sorting options by genre, but not by when you watched something. Also the genres are from the iTunes store and each movie gets a single genre designation. This is a problem if the designation isn’t right. The first six Star Wars movies are listed under “Action & Adventure” but “The Force Awakens” is listed under “Sci-Fi & Fantasy”.

These apps exist under the Videos app on iOS, and the iTunes App’s TV and Film sections on the Mac and PC. None of it is consistent.

Non-tvOS App Store Purchases

I want a unified storefront where I can buy an app on any of Apple’s platforms, even if it isn’t for the one I’m currently on, and push the app to any, or all, of my devices. Google and Amazon have solved this problem years ago. Apple currently bounces you around between several redirects before you land on some rather unhelpful pages. Then you can take that result, remember it until you get home, and ask Siri to find it in the App Store for the TV. It’s like sharing apps with semaphore.

Initial App Setup

When you fire up the device there is a very minimal homescreen. Opening the App Store initially shows a bunch of suggested apps. There’s also the “Purchased” tab which displays apps that the iTunes store backend knows that you’ve purchased, or “got”, on other devices and can sort the information by “Recent Purchases”, “Recently Updated”, “Not on This Apple TV” and by the App Store category the app is listed under.

This is very helpful, except there’s no “Download All” feature, and each app icon must be individually clicked on to bring up the info for the app and then download it. Then back to the menu. It would be nice to very quickly populate an Apple TV.

Unified Credentials with iCloud Keychain

I don’t want to sign in, or verify, every app that I download. Especially not if the TV version of the app has a companion app on my iPhone, or a website I logged into with Safari. Frustratingly, Apple already has a tool for this with iCloud Keychain, but it’s not used to unify this. Instead you’re entering codes from your TV into URLs on your computer — like an animal.

I’ve also seen a lot of Apple fans say that Apple doesn’t do this BECAUSE SECURITY but if that were the case than iCloud Keychain wouldn’t store my credit card info across devices on Apple’s severs, let alone what kind of video subscription services I have access to.

What to Watch

In the tvOS App Store, the “What to Watch” section features video steaming apps. Those apps are almost exclusively apps that require a cable, or satellite TV subscription only. I wish this section was devoted to apps for people that did not have cable and satellite subscriptions. That might make the area look pretty sad, but it would reduce the amount of investigative work I have to do.

Remote

The remote is still a frustrating instrument that should be outlawed, but it’s not going to go anywhere at WWDC.

Drag and Hold to Continue Movement

One of the more annoying aspects about using the remote with the interface is that the remote’s touch area is very narrow, but the swipe required to move between interface elements requires dragging from the center of the pad out toward the edge of the pad, then lifting your thumb back to the center of the pad and starting over.

Back when Marko Savic and I used to regularly podcast about the Apple TV this issue was discussed, and Marko (I think?) suggested a persistent drag, just like when you’re moving the playhead in the timeline in a video view on the Siri Remote. Siri would keep going in the direction your thumb moved, while you held your thumb on the edge of the touchpad you had hit. To stop, lift the thumb, or move the thumb back to center like an analog stick on a game controller.

I speculated that Apple probably didn’t want to do this because then no one would appreciate the Parallax Icons — I would gladly burn the Parallax Icons to the ground in exchange for non-repetitive thumb movement.

iOS Remote App

Apple was rightfully lambasted for completely skipping support for anything other than the Siri Remote. iPhones, especially ones released around the time of the 4th generation Apple TV, are far more sophisticated than the $80 glass and metal remote. Only the old, crappy app is supported right now, but Eddy Cue has announced a revised Remote App will be available this summer.

Games

Release a controller. Apple knows that they should. Every Apple Store I’ve been in has Nimbus controllers (plural) next to the Apple TV demo unit. The Siri Remote is better suited to stirring fondue than it is playing games. Perhaps the new iOS Remote App will be a decent controller, but there’s no real excuse for Apple to support the Steel Series Nimbus so heavily and abdicate any first-party responsibility for making a game controller, or insisting that games be playable on the Siri Remote.

The crappiness of the gameplay is a large reason I abandoned even trying to play games. If Apple would like to acknowledge that games are a traditional revenue source for them, then it would benefit them to make games something that people want to play.

A Message for the 64 GB Model

Right now, Apple’s stance is that you should buy the 64 GB model if you’re going to play a lot of games. That’s … not enticing. On tvOS, the app storage is capped so the storage seems like bizarre overkill. There really should be a narrative for why this model exists. If they’re going to allow record of live broadcasts, or preemptively buffering movies you’re watching, or buying, on other devices, than this starts to make a little more sense.

Streamlined Apple ID and Apple ID Switching

There’s an “Accounts” subsection of the “Settings” app in tvOS which details the 4 places where the same, exact account is signed in. Why? iCloud, uTunes and App Store, Game Center, and Home Sharing all have separate Apple ID logins. Clicking on iCloud gets you three different photo-oriented toggles: iCloud Photo Library, iCloud Photo Sharing, and My Photo Stream.

There’s also an option to “Manage Subscriptions” which will bring up the reviled horizontal keyboard and ask you to sign in to see what you’re subscribed to (something that might be given away by what apps are installed???). If you decline, that brings up an endless spinner (hit the menu button if you do this), because that’s not an expected behavior. Every time a login screen pops up, you should enter passwords and login info.

This is a TV let’s get a grip. There should be a single sign in, sign out, and switch user system. If holding a iPhone near a TV can let me set up my TV, why can’t I authorize it to jump to my account, or a guest authorize it to jump to their account? I wish this was a single profile that followed me, and not a series of separate wires that needed to be defused in the correct order.

Backup and Restore

I’ve been bothered by the lack of a backup and restore system since the launch of the platform. Not because I do that regularly, but because I know that I will eventually need it. Why can’t I setup a second Apple TV (other than I’m sane) that restores the same state as my first Apple TV? What happens if I need to replace this device because of a defect, or theft? What happens when I go to upgrade this Apple TV to the next model in X years? I have to setup everything from scratch again. I wish it weren’t the case.

Siri

There are several rumors about a major update to Siri, and a Siri API. I would hope that Apple plans on rolling out a consistent experience across all their devices, including the TV, and that Siri commands given to one device can affect your other devices you’re logged into. Like if I tell my phone I want to watch something on my TV, it should be able to show it on my TV. Google showed a concept video where their Assistant understood the context of questions and the devices it had available to it.

Due to the importance of Siri on the device, and Siri on all Apple’s devices, I feel pretty confident we’ll at least see improvements there, and it only makes sense for those improvements to be across the various Apple platforms.

I’m looking forward to WWDC because I imagine it will be a jam-packed update-stravaganza. I do hope that there’s something exciting in there to make my $150 Netflix box fell like a delightful component in my living room.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-06-02-Defocused-and-The-Incomparable-Memberships.html Defocused and The Incomparable Memberships 2016-06-02T21:18:00Z 2016-06-02T21:18:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The Incomparable is a podcast, which spun off a variety of other podcasts into a network of shows. Other podcasts have also joined, like Defocused. Jason Snell, who owns, operates, edits, and social-media-manages The Incomparable Network put a membership system in place last night. The membership is optional (we’re still making the shows regardless of membership sales), but it does offer some perks to listeners and generates some revenue for shows. There’s a blog post from Jason Snell which explains the details.

Dan and I haven’t run ads on our show – well, except for fake ones – not because ads are evil, we just didn’t want to for a variety of boring reasons. It’s a passion project (-$) which we love to do, and we’re both very grateful to our listeners that enjoy the show. If you don’t enjoy the show, then I don’t know why you’re reading the second paragraph of a blog post about the show, but you do you.

There’s no obligation to commit to the show financially, even positive iTunes reviews, and passing around links mean a lot to us. Whether or not you sign up, I’d also appreciate it if you would send me some links on Twitter to episodes of Defocused which you think new listeners might enjoy. (Please keep the, “start at episode one” tweets to a minimum.) I honestly struggle with how to pitch a 99 episode show to new people. In episode 100 (recorded before Dan’s wedding) we ran through our memories of all 99 of the shows and it took 2 hours.

If you do choose to sign up as a member of The Incomparable Network there are different tiers, but for all tiers you can select the shows on the network you wish to support and the money is divided up equally between those. It’s a network membership, not a membership Dan and I manage. (Good grief, could you even imagine?)

There are 16 shows on the network right now covering various topics, and sometimes the same topics with different hosts or panelists. There’s something for everyone. It’s like the Cheesecake Factory menu.

Thank you, listeners (and people who don’t listen to the podcast but kept reading this anyway for mysterious reasons).

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-06-01-That-Time-Straight-Men-Got-Upset-About-an-Elsa-Hashtag.html That Time Straight Men Got Upset About an Elsa Hashtag 2016-06-01T16:53:00Z 2016-06-01T16:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ There was a scattered piece from Devin Faraci that circulated rather widely the other day. It started with the premise that fandom is broken because fans demand things from the people creating the comics, movies, and games they love. He emphasized demand, but he conflates it with online petitions and requests (that seem absolutely benign), with harassment and death threats. A comparison (which he picks up from Jesse Hassenger at the AV Club) is drawn between fans on Twitter wanting Elsa to have a girlfriend in Frozen 2 with the negative reactions to Ghostbusters and GamerGate. He muddles through a bunch of stuff about how the internet makes it easier to demand things, and behave poorly, but he paints with a broad brush. After all, he wouldn’t have a job if he was a nice guy on the internet.

I’ve been fuming about this since I read it the other night. There is no place for death threats, at all. No one objects to that. Rolling that in with every other form of criticism, feedback, fan fiction, and conversation is entirely objectionable. A Disney princess hashtag that a teenage girl started! Don’t bully creators, go bully teens into silence? What?!

While I don’t personally want to see Elsa presented this way, or for Steve Rogers’ to be gay, people are allowed to say these things. People have been saying these things about fictional characters for a very, very, very long time. And honestly, retroactively making a character gay is a thing that happens in fictionalized entertainment, even if I think it’s generally handled poorly. Coming down hard on fans like this reinforces a negative view that people seeking representation in media are the same as those seeking to push change out of comics, and out of their lives. I don’t think these particular things are the best ways to address representation, but so what? Who does it hurt? Entertainment Tonight asked Idina Menzel about the campaign and she gave a supportive response, but clearly stated that she has no authority over that, and fans should pursue things with Disney. So far, the only “important” people freaking out about the fans are Jesse and Devin. The fragility of straight white guys never ceases to amaze me.

Later, after his post was circulated widely, Devin wrote a separate, thoroughly-confused piece about how people read his writing wrong, and they should definitely be demanding a “queer princess” from “decision makers” but they shouldn’t petition “creators” of Frozen 2. You see that he separates creation from decision. Work-for-hire writing, and directing, from intellectual property. Then he says that the filmmakers have power and it’s not just Disney, also he says he was really tired when he wrote it and didn’t think it would be a big deal, so… There we go with people not understanding his writing.

Why bother asking for people of color, and women, to rally around him if he’s just going to make insulting comparisons to GamerGate that demonstrate he doesn’t understand any of these issues? Why write a follow-up piece about how the pressure needs to be applied to get the representation he’s fighting for? He also thinks everyone should be nice to creators – but still critique things like he does and presumably get in internet-fights with screenwriters? Perhaps the real issue is that he wants to be a gatekeeper controlling what constitutes an appropriate reaction to media.

Unfortunately, the cord for the mic Devin tried to drop got all knotted up around him.

As I wrote earlier, I was fuming all day about this because it basically gives a bunch of assholes free reign to be jerks. Go look at the winning comments on Devin’s posts, and the responses to his tweets.

105 votes in agreement with ‘Samcvb’ over his comment that he can’t wait for “the death of Nerd Culture” because people feel too entitled. He then goes on to lay out the reasons why “The Force Awakens” wasn’t really that good because it appealed to entitled fans, and wasn’t like “Old School George Lucas”. Cognitive dissonance is aaaaaaaamazing! Devin, and the people that support him, betray that they really object to people who don’t agree with them, and those are the entitled ones.

Here the Elsa fans are, lumped in with that. And the Star Trek fan fic writers, and even me.

I wrote about how disappointed I was to see Midnighter get cancelled because he was the only gay man leading a comic book from DC or Marvel, and it lasted 12 issues. He is not included in the slate for the DC Rebirth event, but all the safe, comfortable choices are. “Please come back, straight white men, we love you.” My negative reaction to this can be easily categorized as entitlement. I demand to see my interests reflected in the work of these artists. Only that’s not the whole truth. I want to see a diverse world that we are all part of represented in these works. Part of that is ego – wanting to see someone you sympathize with represented – part of that isn’t – wanting to see other characters as fully developed people so I can empathize with experiences that are not my own. What gay men are straight readers, and movie-goers, empathizing with in Star Wars, DC, Marvel, Star Trek? (Good luck with this question!) Also if a reader doesn’t think that they can empathize with a gay character because they’re not gay, then they should double-check the meaning of the word empathy.

The free market is also brought up often when rallying against inclusion. According to some, stories are written a certain way because it will sell. Then it sells, and it reinforces that the story sells. No one ever got fired for writing about a straight white male lead. You’ll see lots of these writers talking about the importance of diversity, and how they shouldn’t be criticized because they support the idea of diversity. You know, if someone else can make it work. Blowing up planets and multiverses is hard enough without having two dudes express, “I love you, bro” to each other. No one should have the temerity to campaign for diversity because that’s up to the creators who are making sacred art.

What about creator-owned works? Indie film? People that don’t see themselves in the world, and aren’t employed by these massive companies can certainly take matters into their own hands. Those works can provide an outlet but not a lot of satisfying watercooler talk. They also usually lack the polish of corporate works so it’s a trade-off.

We collectively want to share experiences, which is one of many reasons why corporate-owned characters are so appealing (another big one is capital to pay for high-quality product, and the almost mythic longevity of the product). Is it so surprising that desires are unmet? That people connect on the internet to talk about their wishes with others? It shouldn’t be so shocking that the yearning is bounced back at the product, and the creators. “Wouldn’t it be perfect if this was the way I imagine it?” (Not always! Really! But that’s fine!)

It’s ridiculous to meet every request and expectation – of course it is. Artists have been managing feedback since art was paid for so I guess it’s a thing artists can live with.

“Hey, can you do this thing? I want this thing.”

“No, that’s not what I’m doing.” Or “I didn’t have that in mind, but there’s something else I’m working on.”

That’s a little idealized, of course, but is that so terrible? Would it be so terrible? Are things really so broken that the unwashed masses should be shouted down because we’re all the same as those who go to reprehensible extremes? I certainly don’t feel any kinship with those that would speak about harming others, and I deplore Devin misusing his position to lash out at a Disney princess campaign.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-05-26-Intelligent-Assistants-and-Restaurant-Web-Pages.html Intelligent Assistants and Restaurant Web Pages 2016-05-26T16:00:00Z 2016-05-26T16:00:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Recently there has been a great deal of discussion about software that can converse with people and then present information or accomplish tasks in a natural way. Even in an advanced demo, when Google Assistant was demonstrated on stage at Google I/O 2016, it’s not like talking to a person. It is pretty similar to talking to the Enterprise Computer in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and subsequent shows. That’s also what Amazon’s Lab 126 strives for with Alexa. One of the programmed responses to, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is” I want to be the computer from Star Trek!”

Google Assistant has the added advantage of working in demos, and not as a real-world product yet. I don’t doubt their technical prowess but it’s pretty easy to put an intelligent assistant in front of someone and find all the flaws.

How well these assistants will work for each individual will also depend on the context they are being used in, and the contexts that are covered by devices around them. Google demonstrated an understanding of this by talking about the different contexts that Google Assistant will operate in, including the home, car, and on the phone. Amazon hasn’t integrated their Alexa products in the way Google has outlined. It’s pretty strange that owners of an Amazon Echo (or any other Alexa enabled device, including the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick) can buy the Amazon Echo Dot as another Alexa device in the home, but the devices have no understanding that there is any relationship between them. When Dan Moren got his Dot, I asked him on Twitter how it dealt with being in the same room as his Echo. The answer is that they both take queries and respond. That’s not very intelligent.

A key part of Google Assistant’s demo was that it could order things for you through services Google has partnered with, like GrubHub or Instacart. Since this is a platform that permits third party developers, competitors like Postmates or Amazon Prime Now could theoretically integrate the same way and users could select the integration they want from the available options. (Amazon Prime Now seems like a stretch!)

Recently, on an episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast, host John Siracusa criticized Amazon for sticking you (and Casey) with Dominos, and said it all had to do with paid partnerships. That’s not the case. Alexa can’t order pizza. If you ask her to, she will look through your Amazon order history for pizza, and if she doesn’t find anything, she will inform you that she’s added “pizza” to your shopping list.

Alexa added pizza to my shopping list.

There’s no integration with Domino’s or suggestion of Domino’s. You get that when you add the Alexa Skill for Domino’s. A third party skill (like an app) that is added and configured through the Alexa app. When you add the skill you are prompted to login with a Domino’s “EasyOrder” account. Alexa is a thin layer between you and Domino’s, like grease, or dignity. The commands are “Domino’s” and not “Pizza” because no one owns the word pizza on the platform, Domino’s simply makes the only Skill for ordering pizza. Any Domino’s competitor can make an equivalent skill and they wouldn’t be impaired by Amazon any more or less than Domino’s. Domino’s just does weird tech stuff.

If these assistants take off, then having a Skill — or whatever the Google Assistant equivalent is — could be as valuable as a restaurant having a web site. And not just any web site, a modern, up-to-date website that loads. Perhaps we’ll see SquareSpace add these Skills to their plans? Or there might be some horrible Wix variant that offers the same? Viv, a Silicon Valley startup from the people that brought us Siri, seems determined to use a paid development platform which is, at best, nebulous.

Amazon makes a big deal out of making an Alexa Skill in 15 minutes with Node.js so maybe there will be a small market for web developers to add this to the list of services they provide when making websites? Certainly seems less cumbersome than an iOS or Android app.

However, users need to add these integrations ahead of time, not in a moment of pepperoni-pineapple-pizza pique. That can be as discouraging as saying you need to download an iOS, or Andorid, app for every restaurant. (A problem Google wants to solve with Instant Apps.) Viv seems to solve this by not really giving you any options.

Not all restaurants bother with online ordering infrastructure and instead rely on an intermediary company, like GrubHub or Postmates, filling that role. That can be beneficial for consumers because they can rely on a handful of Skills instead of one-off Skills. It will leave consumers wondering which Skill they use to order their pizza. Is that restaurant on GrubHub or Postmates? Are they on Uber Eats? Amazon has no universal search across their Skills to allow for comparison shopping for delivery. Google Assistant doesn’t appear to either. I say “appear” because Sundar told the “car” to order “curry” and that’s so abstract that it simply seems unlikely that it operates in that way.

What about Siri? It has no third party integrations aside from companies Apple selectively partners with. Yelp is a partner and handles almost all food-related queries. If you tell Siri, “Order Pizza” she provides a list of nearby restaurants with pizza on the menu and their Yelp star ratings. That’s it. Tap them to go through a maze of ordering things. Even if you have a favorite restaurant, and a usual order that you want to trigger, she’ll never understand any of it. Food is just a list of Yelp results. I would argue that Apple’s approach here is the worst. I hope that WWDC in June will bring some news about Siri integrations being offered so we can at least elevate Siri to the same level as the other assistants, as imperfect as they are.

And at that imperfect level we can start to wonder where it was we last ordered pizza from, and what it even was that we liked so very much. If we even have to consider the context, the hardware for the order, then this brave new world has so far to go.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-05-02-Sony-Settles-in-Suit.html Sony Settles in Suit 2016-05-02T16:43:00Z 2016-05-02T16:43:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Yesterday, news broke on Deadline Hollywood’s site that Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks have settled for $13 million. This is not an admission of guilt on Sony’s part.

In September of 2014, a class action lawsuit was filed by Robert Nitsch against DreamWorks Animation, Pixar, Lucasfilm Ltd., The Walt Disney Company, Digital Domain 3.0, ImageMovers, ImageMovers Digital, Sony Pictures Animation, and Sony Pictures Imageworks. The lawsuit was based on things turned up during the DOJ anti-poaching case that affected other Silicon Valley companies like Adobe and Apple.

Here’s the 27 page filing from September of 2014 about the alleged general level of involvement of each company.

On March 31st of this year, BlueSky was the first to break ranks and settle for $5,950,000. This is also not an admission of guilt.

Deadline’s Dominic Patten guesses that DreamWorks Animation will likely be the next to settle, if only to move along it’s acquisition by NBC/Universal. I agree, but it’s also likely they’ll settle next because I don’t see Disney settling soon. Disney managed to acquire most of the conspiring companies (Pixar, Lucasfilm), or found them (the defunct ImageMovers). While Digital Domain 3.0 is sued, it might be protected by the various legal shell-games that transpired to found it. If they do settle, they’d also likely settle before Disney.

I’ve previously discussed my feelings on Ed Catmull, and on Tim Cook defending Steve Jobs – They were not warm feelings.

Ed Catmull and George Lucas have statements on record that this was essentially for the greater good. That with the low margins of the industry, this was the way things needed to be done to keep costs from getting it of control. Ironically, almost all of the studios in the suit have suffered, not blossomed, with the exception of these ringleaders’ own enterprises. Perhaps the real cheat was getting all the other studios to stop competing by enticing them to hamstring themselves? Where would Sony Pictures be if they hadn’t joined with Ed?

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-04-28-Can-the-Fire-TV-Stick-Hold-a-Torch-to-the-Apple-TV.html Can the Fire TV Stick Hold a Torch to the Apple TV? 2016-04-28T16:18:00Z 2016-04-28T16:18:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I just wanted to have a clever title, but the short answer is that it depends on the amount of money you’d like to spend, and what you will have the device do. I didn’t say what you expect the device to do. I expect unicorns, and rainbows to shoot out of either device, but they don’t do that. You also need to be an Amazon Prime subscriber in the United States for the device to be worth anything at all.

Why even? I know, I know. The device has been around for a while, but I didn’t have one because I had read all the reviews about how inferior it was to the Apple TV. It’s a great time to look around, especially since there are so many software, and services changes (like the monthly Prime options, and add-ons) since those initial Fire Stick reviews were published. In fact, as I write this, the Fire TV Stick went on sale for $5 off, so maybe you should try it to?

If you buy your Fire TV through Amazon it arrives partially configured for you, like a Kindle or Fire tablet purchased through Amazon. The device comes with a power cable that’s only slightly longer than the one Amazon includes with their Fire tablet — which is to say that it’s too short.

Voice Remote vs. Siri Remote

The Voice Remote Amazon sells with the Stick is slightly different than the one that Amazon sells with the full Fire TV box, but the difference is material quality. The remote is a triangular prism with rounded edges. Even though the bottom of it is “point” of the prism, it’s blunted and sits flat on surfaces. The whole back panel slides open to reveal the battery compartment. This is not a fancy, rechargeable remote, but the compartment opens and closes solidly, and because it’s the whole back of the remote, you’re not left with a wobbly panel like many other plastic remotes.

The top face of the remote has a microphone button, a circular D-Pad with an inset selection/click button in the middle. There are two rows under the D-Pad with a back button, a home button, a button with three lines, a fast backward button, a play/pause button, and a fast forward button. There’s nothing mind blowing about this, and with the exception of the three lines, it’s all completely obvious what each button does. (The three lines usually pull up settings, or a list, but it’s dependent on where you are in the interface.)

A small notch in the top of the remote is where the microphone is contained, but you don’t need to hold it up to your mouth in order for it work.

What really struck me about the remote was that there was no way to adjust the volume. After using the 4th generation Apple TV since October, I had become accustomed to having volume buttons. Let me tell you that not having them is really, really, really, annoying. A tiny little IR blaster in the top of this could have fixed that issue. Alas, it’s not meant to be.

Funnily enough, I can change the volume with my Apple TV remote, which will kick me to the Apple TV HDMI input, and then I can hit the Home button on the Amazon remote and it’ll kick me back to the Fire TV. The joys of modern technology.

Long-pressing the home button pops up a small menu with options like “Sleep”, similar to the Apple TV. Otherwise, you just wait for the horrible screensaver to come on (they have animated transforms on the still images they use but the filtering produces a visible grid effect.)

Bluetooth Keyboards are supported, as well as virtual keyboards inside the Fire Remote apps Amazon makes for iOS, Android, and Fire OS. Failing that, the onscreen keyboard is a breeze with the D-Pad. I am of the opinion that Apple missed the mark with their onscreen keyboard row, and narrow touch surface with the 4th generation Apple TV, but some people enjoy the sensation of wiggling their thumb to skip over letters more than I enjoy it.

The “back” and “home” buttons are unambiguous with the Fire TV interface, because back always goes back, and home always goes home. Compare this to the Apple TV’s “menu” and “TV screen rectangle” buttons.

One point to Amazon for ergonomics, one point to Amazon for not making it out of glass, one point to Amazon for unambiguous device orientation, one point to Apple for Volume, one point to Amazon for mostly unambiguous buttons, and one point for Apple for a rechargeable battery.

But what about the complicated motion sensors and the touchpad? The motion sensors are superfluous because they only come into play in games which are horrible to play via the motion sensors. The touchpad is great for precisely placing the “playhead” for video, but also punish you with the virtual keyboard row, and no clear sense of direction when compared to a D-Pad. I don’t find the touchpad on the Siri Remote to be preferable to the Amazon D-Pad, but everyone’s just going to yell at me for that, so whatever you like is the best thing ever.

Home on Fire

The initial boot process is funky (there’s a warning not to touch anything, which isn’t friendly). There’s also a video with an animated guy introducing you to the features of the device. I don’t typically enjoy tutorials, but it’s short and very directly communicates functions, as well as where to find certain things in the interface. Sadly, it’s possible that something like this might help with the unintuitive process of setting up an Apple TV. (Here’s a screen with almost nothing on it. Have a nice day.) The video is also present in the system if someone feels like they need to rewatch it.

As for the interface: The left side of the screen has a vertical menu to switch between different views on the right side of the screen. It defaults to “Home” which contains:

  • A thin banner ad that doesn’t stick at the top, and you can only select by purposefully navigating up to it.
  • Featured Apps & Games
  • Prime Originals & Exclusive TV
  • Featured Subscriptions
  • Prime Recently Added Movies
  • Prime Recently Added TV
  • Prime Recommended Movies
  • Top Free Games
  • Recommended Apps & Games

Fire TV Home Screen

So when you turn on the device the easiest thing for you to get to is whatever you were last doing, or something Amazon is promoting. It’s a mixed bag, depending on your tastes, and it rotates. You might see the 1989 Batman movie, Veep, Bosch — or anything else. About half of what it presents to you is already included with your Prime membership, and the other half is an upsell. Unlike the Kindle, and Fire tablets, the overt advert at the top is not a “Special Offer” you can pay Amazon to remove. It’s there for everyone.

Tapping on down from “Home” to “Your Videos” shows you layers of your video library interspersed with the same Prime Originals, and Recently Added fare. There’s also “TV Shows” and “Movies” which offer other mixes of Prime “Recently Added” and “Recommended” entries.

Next up is “Games” and first time Fire TV users will see Crossy Road highlighted as a free download for them to enjoy. Only you won’t enjoy it on the Fire Stick because it’s not powerful enough to run the game smoothly. I’m baffled why games are even offered since they are mostly unresponsive.

In the “Apps” section you’ll find apps that Amazon has added to your cloud library, but didn’t download on to the device. Think of it as a starter pack. Netflix, Sling, Showtime, Hulu, Vevo, Bloomberg TV, Crackle, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn Radio, and whatever “WatchESPN for Fire TV” might be. Unlike most bundled applications you can remove these from the device, and from the cloud. They can be added back to your cloud, and device, at any time through the store if you change your mind in the future.

If you have a Fire tablet, and get an app that’s also available on the Fire TV, you’ll see it in your cloud library too. For example: Disney Movies Anywhere has a Fire tablet and Fire TV app and is present on either.

There’s a YouTube app, but … it’s blue. This threw me off since it didn’t share the same branding as the iOS YouTube app and I initially wrote it off as some third-party client I wouldn’t bother with. Turns out, it’s actually the YouTube app.

If you hit the D-Pad and pass over an app buttons to download or look at details appear, and the detail screens offer up info for the developer, a warning if guidance is suggested, a review rating, and which input devices the application works with — like the Fire TV Remote and Game Controller. You can also see something you can’t find in Apple’s tvOS App Store and that’s what permissions the app will need. “Access coarse location” for example, or “Record audio” in the case of CBS All Access (WHY?).

Unfortunately, games are also displayed in the “Apps” view so you’ll see repeats here. I do wish they had actually separated them completely since they’re separate categories of the interface.

Lastly, in the main column, are Music, Photos, and Settings. All of these are populated with what you have purchased, or uploaded to Amazon. Because the photos, and music are not stored on the device, you may notice lag while the contents of the view populate, but the device is still responsive. It doesn’t lock up every time you pass over a category it needs to pull down album art for. I do wish it was more aggressively cached.

The Future of TV is Content

You’ll notice that I kept referring to seeing many things over and over in the interface. That’s a benefit, or a weakness, depending on how your brain is wired. It can be nice to see the same information displayed under different categories, much in the same way Netflix might display a movie under both comedies, and their recommendations for you. This isn’t like the Apple TV home screen interface where every application sits in a spot, all the time. That’s the only place it exists, and it can be organized into a folder. Amazon’s approach is very much about putting content first, and getting you going with it.

Unfortunately, Amazon’s only content-first about content that is available through Amazon. Anything from inside of a third party app is not available to you as anything other than that app’s icon. For example: You’re watching an episode of Transparent, and you decide you want to take a break and an episode of Friends on Netflix. You open the Netflix app, watch your show, and close the Netflix app. In “Recent” you’ll see the Netflix icon, not Friends, next to Transparent.

This is a different approach from Apple where TV and films that Apple wants to promote are displayed at the top of the interface where you’re hovering over those icons, but the interface isn’t inserting those recommendations to live with the application icons.

In terms of applications though, I’d say that both Amazon and Apple offer a comparable selection of media applications. You’ll see similar brands present on both platforms, and offering similar experiences. Apple offers media companies the chance to make TVML applications, where they only need to specify a few options and a standard interface is populated with it. Amazon doesn’t offer that, and every application has to provide for itself. Think of it like an apartment complex that offers furnished apartments, and an apartment complex that doesn’t. One apartment complex will have very nondescript furniture identically placed throughout, and the other apartment complex will have everything from apartments with only an inflatable mattress, to pads bedecked with designer decor. That’s a little what it’s like poking around in the apps.

Both Apple and Amazon have the annoying issues surrounding authenticating applications. It’s a familiar process of going to a URL, and entering an alphanumeric string to grant the TV access to services.

Amazon does have a neat trick that Apple does not, and that’s the presence of additional services that can be tacked on to your Amazon Prime bill for a fee. This is similar to paying for Showtime’s monthly subscription through Apple, except you don’t need the Showtime app to see the content, it’s in your Amazon library, interspersed with all the other stuff, and accessible in all the same ways. The app is optional. Amazon’s made a big deal out of adding on more, and more of these services over time. This makes interface inconsistencies, or authenticating things, unnecessary as long as you’re logged in with your Amazon account.

Second Screen Mirroring Fling Cast

I just don’t know what to say when it comes to Amazon’s efforts to ape Apple’s AirPlay, and use Google’s Cast (née Chromecast). There’s no unified Brand that assures you, “Hey all this stuff works together!” You can’t even reliably count on Amazon to support services across all of Amazon’s devices. For instance: I can mirror the Fire TV to a Fire tablet, but not the entry-level Fire tablet. I can, however, use Second Screen from that same tablet to play Amazon’s videos on my Fire TV while the Fire tablet shows IMDB info, scenes (chapter markers), playback controls, and a draggable playhead. That’s only the Fire tablet though, the Amazon Video app for iOS doesn’t offer Second Screen. Confusing? Yes.

The other trick is finding applications that support any of this. Some of those applications use Amazon’s Fling branding from their Fling SDK. This is not exactly taking the world by storm.

However, the things that use Google’s Cast seem to work with Amazon’s Fire Stick as long as you have an app on both the sending and receiving device. Netflix’s iOS app does work with the Amazon Fire TV, and YouTube’s iOS app works as well. Hilariously, Amazon Video for iOS can’t stream video to the Fire Stick, only to the Apple TV. Though none of this is really obvious since you have to install these apps that don’t use any Amazon branded terminology. It’s not the almost-any-app ability of AirPlay.

The Lady in the TV

The entry-level Stick does have voice services, but you either need to buy a voice remote separately, or use the iOS, Android, or Fire OS remote app for that voice functionality. I opted for the model that includes the voice remote, a $10 premium over the entry-level device, but well worth it so you don’t have to fish out the phone, or tablet, app every time you’d like to use Alexa. (Just spend the $10.) This gives you quick and easy access to Amazon’s Alexa — it can do almost everything that the Echo, Echo Dot, and Tap can do, except set timers and pair Bluetooth. You can even use Alexa here to order the much sought-after Echo Dot.

While Alexa is very speedy at processing my requests once I’ve said them, there’s an occasionally a lag of a few seconds for the Fire Stick to get in a state where you may give the voice command to Alexa. You might hold down on the button for 1-3 seconds before the screen changes over to the dark overlay with the blue line indicating you’re allowed to speak. If you start speaking right when you push the button, the first 1-3 seconds of your command won’t be recorded.

Alexa has search functionality, and can search things outside of the Amazon library, but only certain things … The notable exception is that Netflix is not present in voice search results. This is a huge oversight and Amazon should swallow their pride to entice Netflix to participate. Almost everyone buying one of these is certain to have a Netflix subscription, so it would be in Amazon’s best interests to see that the Fire TV is the preferred device for accessing Netflix.

Using the Alexa interface to play music has a peculiar shortcoming in that it pops up a modal dialog over the screen you’re on with the album art, title, etc. for what you asked it to play — and then it just stays there. There’s no button to jump to that song playing in the music interface, and if you navigate away from it, it’s gone. I do wish that playback occurred in the music section instead of here. A feature Amazon offers, X-Ray Lyrics, shows a karaoke-style list of lyrics that scrolls in sync to the music — but only in the music interface, and not in Alexa’s music playback dialog box.

Sorta Kinda

If I don’t sound extremely enthusiastic, it’s because I’m not.

At the end of the day, the device you use might come down to where your content lives, or the quirks of how you like to browse. It might also come down to your pocketbook, because at $160-200 the Apple TV is a very expensive box to stream non-Apple shows and services on. At $40-50 you have the same “channels” at the same rates as Apple, in addition to a bunch of other stuff. Also? If you need access to iTunes and AirPlay, it’s less expensive to buy the 3rd generation Apple TV (which Apple still sells!), and a Fire TV Stick. I don’t really recommend you do so, that’s a hypothetical.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-04-27-Canonical-Pizza-Toppings.html Canonical Pizza Toppings 2016-04-27T15:38:00Z 2016-04-27T15:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ These are the canonical pizza toppings:

  • Any item you want to eat on top of a pizza.
  • Repeat as necessary.

Also:

  • 🍍
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http://joe-steel.com/2016-04-18-Amazons-Standalone-Prime-Video-Plan.html Amazon's Standalone Prime Video Plan 2016-04-18T15:47:27Z 2016-04-18T15:47:27Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Todd Spangler, writing for Variety:

The e-commerce giant is now offering its video-streaming service in the U.S. independent of the Prime free-shipping program. Purchased separately, Prime Video will cost $8.99 per month — one dollar less than Netflix’s most popular plan.

[…]

In addition, Amazon is offering a new payment option for full Prime membership of $10.99 monthly, with no annual commitment. That’s 33% more than than the $99 annual Prime membership, but Amazon said many customers have been asking for month-to-month flexibility with the program.

I was pretty confused by this move, at first, because it’s a greater expense for the customer. A year of Prime Video is significantly more expensive than a year of a full Prime membership with all the benefits that entails. Indeed, if you go to your Amazon account settings, it provides you with a helpful spreadsheet about how you probably don’t want to downgrade to a Prime Video membership.

Comparison Chart

“Hey, bro, are you sure you want to do that? C’mon, bro.”

There is a different story to tell, of course, and that’s the story about people who are on the fence about making a yearly commitment for $100. That’s a big risk for customers to take, where is $8.99 a month is a smaller risk. Because a full Prime membership is such a deal over the Prime Video membership, it’s also easy for Amazon to encourage those people trying Prime Video to upgrade for a savings. Lower barrier to entry, and an up-sell that’s actually a discount. No one Amazons like Amazon.

This is not a Netflix replacement. Even though Todd Spangler’s piece references the cost of Netflix and Hulu several times, the services are different enough that they don’t overlap as much as one might think. I’m not sure anyone will buy Prime Video because it’s a dollar cheaper than Netflix. They’ll buy Prime Video in addition to Netflix.

Amazon also has those add-on subscriptions that can dramatically increase the cost of this Prime Video rate. Consider the Showtime add-on, which is $8.99 a month as well (compare that to the $10.99 a month rate for Showtime’s standalone app). If you get Prime Video with Showtime, than you’ve doubled your rate. Starz is also $8.99, Sundance Doc Club is $6.99 … Anyway, these add-ons add on. However, like the Prime Video monthly plan, you can cancel any, or all, of the add-ons and they won’t renew for the next billing period, and many offer seven-day trials.

The biggest problem with this Prime Video push is that Amazon still doesn’t offer anything for the Google Cast (née Chromecast) or for the Apple TV. Their mobile, tablet, and web apps all work, but it does seem that their efforts to get into your TV could be improved. The Fire TV Stick is fine for video, but it has severe non-Amazon-Video shortcomings.

I even wonder if part of the reason for the %33 markup on the Prime Video service might be to cover the cut Apple would take of any in-app subscriptions on the Apple TV? That’s not so far fetched, but the markup might just be coincidence. If that was really the plan wouldn’t they have rolled out a tvOS app with the announcement? Though it might be something they have room to pursue later.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-02-20-Sunsetting-Midnighter.html Sunsetting Midnighter 2016-02-21T00:53:00Z 2016-02-21T00:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I go through comic buying cycles where I buy them, or I don’t buy them. Peaks and valleys of poor and plenty. Comics that are available to purchase electronically, and don’t create unsightly stacks on shelves in my living room, make it very easy to buy when the mood strikes me. When Amazon acquired ComiXology, they immediately removed the ability to purchase comics from within the app and the whole thing was just a little more annoying. Instead of getting to the end of an issue for a series I was catching up on, I’d go to a browser, find it, and buy the next one. Time heals all wounds so when I got my Fire tablet, I could very easily purchase comics again and I set about doing just that. One of the series I bought was Steve Orlando’s run on Midnighter which started last June. The trade paperback for the first volume is available in stores now, and it collects issues 1-6. For some reason it’s not available via Amazon until the end of the month, and it’s $2 more expensive to get it digitally than to have a book printed and shipped to me. The economics of comics publishing are totally lost on me. I just bought each issue individually, including the rest of the run not included in the first volume.

The Rave

One of the reasons I picked up Midnighter is because he’s gay. It’s still pretty unusual to see gay men in comics as anything other than side characters, or 1/16th of an ensemble cast. Being about a gay character doesn’t give the comic a pass on being good. In fact, I’m quite critical when it comes to the way gay characters are written, because it can turn into limp stereotypes, or be such a “non issue” that it feels divorced from the rest of the character. Steve Orlando’s writing did not disappoint.

The art comes from a variety of artists for the first few issues, but ACO is definitely the main artist, and his layouts work really well at depicting Midnigher’s process as the fight is progressing. Anticipating and planning each move.

Fork

The character of Midnighter had almost always been paired with his husband, Apollo. They were on a superhero team roughly analogous to The Justice League, where they stood in for Batman and Superman. Although the creators have said Midnighter is more like “The Shadow meets John Woo”. This run of Midnighter put him all by himself, his relationship with Apollo seemingly over — or on hiatus. The character now had a whole book to himself, and lots of room for character development, and some humor.

Goat

In a comics podcast I listened to about Midnighter, he was compared to Wolverine from the X-Men (and every other Marvel book ever) in terms of his disposition. I think that’s more apt than just calling him “gay Batman”. When Midnighter is doling out justice, there is a slightly higher body count.

Midnighter is also not coy about his identity and uses it on his online dating profile. This does lead to some issues that Bruce Wayne doesn’t have, where Midnighter has to tag everyone he interacts with with a subdermal communicator just in case someone tries to get back at Midnighter through them. You know, well-adjusted dating stuff.

Dating Profile

While the book references events that have happened to Midnighter outside of the series run (like working with Dick Grayson, who is a super-spy now, or something) I never felt lost. It’s easy to just accept the info and move forward.

Grayson

The one thing I wish they hit a little less hard was the fight-computer in his brain. He talks about it a lot. It’s like, we get it dude, you can predict everyone’s moves. I wonder if that was leaned on so heavily because new readers might be picking up the book during the run.

The Rant

Unfortunately, the same week Volume 1 came out was also the same week DC Comics announced “Rebirth” their “don’t call it a reboot” reboot of the DC Comics titles. This is, like, the 5th or 6th time DC has retconbooted their entire line. Part of that reboot includes dropping titles, like Midnighter. It seems there will be a couple issues to round out his run, but it’s not coming back. By pure happenstance, all the comics with LGBT title characters are also gone. No more Batwoman either.

Midnighter is the only DC Comic I’ve read in years. I followed everything having to do with Green Lantern: Rebirth, and the subsequent books and Green Lantern events, until Brightest Day when everything started to unravel and I realized I was just buying a book where all the drama came from the Wacky Prophecy of the Year. So it’s a good thing there’s going to be 4 Green Lantern books a month now.

According to some of the comics nerds that are way more knowledgable about these things than I am, Midnighter didn’t sell well to store owners, who were not stocking it. However, it sold comparably to some other titles in the direct market.

Midnighter #8 sold 10,400 copies to the direct market and it BOGGLES me. How many retailers just didn’t order it at all??

Deathstroke, a character I have no particular connection to, is going to get his 3rd comic in 5 years, even though the sales for that have been hovering around Midnighter’s. I guess it’s easier to pitch conservative, longtime readers on trying something they know they feel tepid about rather than a title with a gay guy?

Aggressive Sausage

Marvel doesn’t have prominent gay men leading comic titles either. DC won’t have one much longer. Here’s a list of all LGBT characters in comics in DC and Marvel books. If you’re surprised by some of those names, it’s because the characters have been retroactively changed. This is frustrating when you realize that these comic pages are what the studios mine for movies and TV shows these days. I’ll admit that I was fantasy-casting a Midnighter TV series. Why not? Greg Berlanti, the guy behind DC’s TV series, is an out, gay man. Fortunately, DC Comics’ announcements this week nipped that fantasy-casting right in the bud.

It’s certainly possible that Midnighter, or Apollo, or another gay guy, will show up as a background character in one of the Rebirth titles, but that’s not very appealing to me. I’d be very put off if he was canceled and one of the titles they’re keeping recasts a straight character as a gay character. “Hey, we found this character from the 50s on the floor that no one liked so we made him gay, here you go. Nominate us for some GLADD awards.”

When Midnighter concludes, DC and I can go back to ignoring each other.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-02-12-The-Talk-Show-With-John-Gruber-146-They-Might-Be-Giants-With-a-Spanish-Accent-With-Special-Guests-Eddy-Cue-and-Craig-Federighi.html The Talk Show With John Gruber 146 ‘“They Might Be Giants” With a Spanish Accent’ With Special Guests Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi 2016-02-12T22:38:00Z 2016-02-12T22:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ That is a long title. Anyway, this is a surprise second appearance from Craig Federighi and a first for Eddy Cue. I recommend listening, since this sort of thing is still pretty rare, but I wouldn’t go into it expecting much in the way of answers, just some additional information. This seems like Apple responding to Walt Mossberg’s post on The Verge. Which … Well, it’s not like they lost Walt Mossberg’s number (if anything Contacts would have left them with several duplicates of Walt’s number).

Gruber can’t really press them to answer things or he would lose access to these VIPs. Eddy and Craig take this opportunity to explain away software quality concerns as mostly just the rumblings of a loud minority. Numbers of subscribers, transactions, and users are cited by Eddy to refute quality issues.

Quoting an install base, and number of users, isn’t really a good way to examine whether or not a product is good. Services, and software, are a subset of the total package that Apple provides. The total package might be the best, but not all of the component products. Especially in the case of the iPhone where Apple’s 1st party solutions can’t always be worked around, or are too much of a hassle to work around. Internet Explorer 6 had an enormous install base and tons of active users, but that did not mean Internet Explorer 6 was a good piece of software. It was part of that package.

Craig says that the metrics don’t show these problems. As the guys on Accidental Tech Podcast pointed out, metrics are no guarantee everything is working. The wrong things might be measured, or omitted, and then it looks like things are fine when they are not.

A minor example that doesn’t even seem worth sharing: The audio stopped working on my 4th generation Apple TV. No clue why. No audio on the videos or in the interface. I restarted the box and it worked. That was not a crash, and the system showed no awareness that it had lost it’s audio abilities. So is that logged as a metric, or does that not even register? It isn’t reproducible, and I have no reporting capability for it. That’s an example where it is possible to have a problem fly under the Radar.

Frankly, I’m a little confused they chose to do this. It draws more attention to the issues that people have been complaining about, particularly amongst tech journalists and Apple enthusiasts, and denies the problems exist. It might have been better if they stayed silent and worked to address concerns without having to deny them.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-02-12-Firebug.html Firebug 2016-02-12T16:53:00Z 2016-02-12T16:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The recent post about my frustration with Apple’s Music app for iOS, and my preliminary observations about Amazon’s solution have had some ups and downs since then. I have not necessarily resolved all of my problems (more on that later), but I am having a bit of fun. I’ve shared some of these thoughts with Marko Savic in Unhelpful Suggestions 13: ‘MarkoGyvering the Situation’.

Have You Heard About Cesium?

Until the post went up, I had not heard about Cesium, but several people that read my post reached out to ask me what I thought about the application. I’ve since looked into it, and it won’t resolve my underlying issue of the library on my iPhone losing, and altering data, because Cesium accesses that same library. Cesium is a different kind of player, so it may comfort people that are not having library problems, but would like a different player solution.

Amazon or Amazon Prime?

I didn’t have Amazon Prime at the time I wrote the post. I had a free trial from aeons ago, but I only have Prime shipping benefits through my boyfriends Prime account. That kind of benefit sharing didn’t allow me to access any of their digital content so I mostly relied on people telling me that it wasn’t very good in order to feel like I wasn’t missing out on anything. I also found out there is a “household” program where certain benefits beyond shipping can be shared by adults, and kids, in the same household. Instead of going down that road, I upgraded my account to a full Amazon Prime account. $99 seems like a lot, until you realize that you’re spending $8.25 a month, and I estimate I’d easily get that level of value out of the membership.

This prevented me from evaluating Amazon’s Cloud Music Library — where you can upload 250 songs to Amazon, and they’re available to you through their player, either streaming, or as a download. For an additional $25 you can upgrade that 250,000 songs. What the hell? I took the plunge on that too. It’s roughly analogous to iTunes Match — a service I didn’t pay for — or Apple Music’s iCloud Music Library during the trial.

Anything available on Prime Music is also available for streaming or download to my library (as long as I maintain my subscription, similar to Apple Music). This opened up elements of the Amazon Music iOS app that were not previously available to me. Without these membership levels, you only have access to your Amazon MP3 purchases, which was enough for my initial post — but I was feeling the urge to see a little more.

I found the utility of the app increased dramatically. Playlists, recommendations, stations, etc. I have to say that recommendation systems are often derided in favor of the human touch — at least that’s a narrative that Beats started — but all of these music services use recommendation systems to some degree. There are playlists in Prime Music made by people, and radio stations, all that you would expect. Apple Music tried to do this pairing as well (matching you up to a list an editor crafted by hand using only the finest vellum), but I found their recommendations to be complete misses. Amazon has even less data about me than Apple does because I’ve made far fewer purchases with Amazon, and almost everything I’ve listened to for over 10 years has been through iTunes, or the Music app. Yet, here’s Amazon, with two twigs and a piece of gum, and they nailed the indie-electro-synth-pop I was in the mood for.

However there was a drawback: Uploading my library. I downloaded the Mac app and installed it. While I find the iOS app to be beautiful and responsive, I can’t say the same about their Mac app. The app feels like an Adobe Air app. Gray, blurry, compressed graphics — just generally weird. There were also bars all over the place instead of the paging interface I appreciated in the iOS app. I very quickly decided that I would be spending as much time with the Mac app as I spend with iTunes these days. I opened the tab to upload my personal music and dropped my whole iTunes Library folder on it. Perhaps that was not the way to go, because it seemed unhappy with trying to add some elements which were not music tracks. Any Amazon MP3s I had previously purchased also turned up as a red “duplicate”. This onboarding process could really be improved, and is not even remotely polished. Once the upload completed, I was left with many albums where one album should be. Albums featuring multiple artists had been split up by “album artist” which … is wrong. Editing the “album artist” field to “mixed”, like iTunes had them listed, combined the albums. iTunes, and the iCloud Music Library, both have similar problems trying to figure out where music from an external source goes on import. I’d call it a wash. As long as changes stick, unlike what’s happening with my iPhone’s media, then I’m fine with putting in a little elbow grease. At least it feels like I’m doing something and not just throwing my hands up in the air.

I’m still evaluating what’s up, but I remain more positive about Amazon than Apple for music right now.

Kindling

What started as a small exploration of Amazon’s Music app for iOS spiraled wildly out of control and I ended up not only buying an Amazon Prime membership, but an Amazon Fire tablet as well. Whoops.

What’s even more worrisome is that I used Prime Now to get a Logitech K480 BlueTooth keyboard shipped to me so that I could try typing on it. I’m typing on it right now. Yikes.

Why in the world would I want to do such a thing? I’ve owned an iPad (3rd generation) since it came on the market and I’ve never once bought a special keyboard to type on. I haven’t bought a special subscription service to fill it full of media. Even though that’s an old clunker, it can run circles around this Amazon Fire tablet. I could even be using this keyboard — the one that I am using with my Fire tablet to write this post — to write on my iPad. I could be in Editorial, or Byword, flicking my fingers over the keys. Why am I using what is essentially a plastic toy? Am I regressing? Is this the 1990s PDA I wanted when I was a teen and couldn’t have? Bring me the finest Sharp Zaurus in all the land!

It’s all pretty inexplicable. I have to assume that most of this is tied to using something that is new. A mere novelty to do something novel with. Heck, I can even read novels on the novelty.

The build quality and hardware doesn’t warrant any in-depth review. It’s a sub $50 consumer electronics device with a touchscreen, two cameras, an SD card slot, and a battery. That means every part of that is compromised, even the power cord it ships with is a joke. It’s not an iPad, or iPad-like device. Think of it more like a thin-client for cloud media services, and storefront for digital or delivered goods. Low price barrier to entry, you can chuck it around or give it to people, etc. It’s lack of best-in-class ambition allows for this. If you want an iPad than save $50 and don’t buy this.

You can, however, live the Picard dream and do this to your desk:

Is any of this better than iOS? Better than using my iPhone 6 or my iPad? Not really. Amazon’s Fire tablet is a device designed to service Amazon’s ecosystem and provide an easy way to engage with Amazon so that you’ll hopefully buy more things through Amazon. I have already done that. I joined my ComiXology account to my Amazon account, and I’ve installed the comics app. I’ve read a “trade paperback” of The Wicked and the Divine that I bought through a Goodreads recommendation. It all just builds on top of itself. One layer after the other.

That’s something I do think is missing from my iOS experience. Well, “missing” — like I desperately need more ways to spend money. In the same way that Amazon’s stuff feeds into the ouroborous of Amazon, Apple feeds into next fall’s Apple hardware. Unfortunately, I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with the content solutions Apple is providing for me on their very nice hardware.

Almost every book I’ve read in the last 4 years has been in iBooks. I stopped buying comics on my iPad when Amazon bought ComiXology and killed in-app-purchase, but I didn’t replace that with any Apple service. Every movie I’ve purchased digitally has been in iTunes, and nearly every rental as well. I’ve bumped into all the awkward parts of those exchanges. Books that refresh, or lose my place. An iBooks app that opens to my library and slowly animates a book toward my face has lost all its magic. The iBooks app sticking red badges on books I’ve already read. A movie rented on the iPhone not appearing on the Apple TV and requiring me to AirPlay from my iPhone to my Apple TV like an animal. The changes to the Music app pushed me over the edge to finally try some other vendor for these things.

The other day, former analyst, and former Apple employee, Michael Gartenberg asked this on Twitter:

Services I use. GOOG: search, mail, photos, music, voice MSFT: iPad Office AAPL: everything else. Facebook: none you?

I wedged a response into 140 characters but here’s a better one:

  • Google: Search, mail, maps.
  • Microsoft: Work email through Outlook for iOS.
  • Dropbox: Cloud storage.
  • Adobe: That menubar thing that crashes.
  • Apple: Music purchases and playback, movies, apps, Siri (to set timers), iBooks.

And now:

  • Amazon: Kindle, comics, Prime Music, Prime Video.

Does that mean it’s a good idea to type up a blog post on a Kindle Fire tablet? No, of course not. Would I go scrounge around eBay for a Fire Phone? HA. HAHAHA. HA.

No, I’m just exploring new things I had previously dismissed because they weren’t Apple. “Only Apple” is something that the Apple executives like to say in presentations, but the thought of only using Apple services doesn’t make me feel excited. Instead I worry about what will go wrong with them. What data loss I will experience? What media will be unavailable when I reach for it? What service will behave differently on one Apple device than another?

If I have an iPhone in my pocket, a flaky Apple TV, and the cheapo Fire tablet to throw around than that’s really something I can live with.

Firestarter

I’m the trouble starter. Several people in my life were poking fun at me for buying an Amazon Fire tablet, including one of the cohosts of my podcast, Dan. Dan also puts HFCS pancake syrup on his waffles and I can’t abide it. So I sent him something.

Punkin’ instigator. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

All this Amazon talk, and the ridic Fire tablet purchase seems to have inspired Apple collector Stephen Hackett to evaluate the Fire tablet. This made me laugh quite a bit. Stephen is someone that appreciates craftsmanship and design and … I’m not sure he’s going to write up anything pleasant about it. His hands-on, first impression seems to bear that out:

BREAKING: the $50 Kindle Fire feels cheap.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-02-08-Unhelpful-Suggestions-13-MarkoGyvering-the-Situation.html Unhelpful Suggestions #13: MarkoGyvering the Situation 2016-02-09T07:28:00Z 2016-02-09T07:28:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Marko and Joe talk about frustrations with Apple’s iOS Music app, and Apple Music. Then some experiences with Amazon’s Music products, the Fire tablet, Soylent, and cupcakes.

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-02-04-Sour-Note.html Sour Note 2016-02-04T16:23:00Z 2016-02-04T16:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I mostly listen to podcasts in Overcast these days. I banished Apple’s Music app from the iPhone’s dock row to the folder for seldom used Apple apps. If I want to listen to something, I pop open the “Oubliette” folder and jump through menus, or use Spotlight. Siri’s natural language abilities yield mixed results in finding things, though I occasionally give it a shot too. Every now and then — seemingly at random — I get a full screen advertisement imploring me to sign up for Apple Music. I’ve even disabled Apple Music in the Music preferences. For the love of all that is good, leave me alone. I know Apple knows I tried the Apple Music service and canceled it before the free trial was over due to bugs.

Get thee back, demon!

iCloud Music Library, which was a requirement of Apple Music, caused data loss where it would randomly delete my playlists that predated Apple Music. That was also disabled. I even filed a bug report with Apple, which was closed as a duplicate, so I have no idea if it’s even fixed.

That was all supposed to be old news, but then I wanted to listen to a playlist yesterday. All of my playlists were gone, except for one playlist of Star Trek film scores, and the automated “Purchased” playlist. How could this happen? I haven’t had iCloud Music Library enabled, or Apple Music.

Fortunately, my Mac’s iTunes Library never had Apple Music or iCloud Music Library enabled, so I can get the playlists back. But … That’s the fifth time I’ve done that (several times for testing back when I did the bug report) so … what keeps my data safe?

My Queen Platinum Collection set is showing the album art for “A Night at the Opera” on my iPhone, but the correct gray and black art in iTunes where it originated. Why?

Naturally, I assumed that I must be back in iCloud Music Library, so I went to disable that. To my chagrin, there is neither the option to enable, nor disable, it my preferences on my iPhone or in iTunes. Schrödinger’s Music Library Setting.

I started spelunking around Apple’s support pages and the “Apple Support Communities”. These forums are full of people struggling with iCloud Music Library and Apple Music issues. Missing custom radio stations. Even playlists. There’s also some advice I’m skeptical of, like deleting your web history in Safari to restore your playlists.

A cursory glance through the forums seems to indicate that either the 9.2 or 9.2.1 update is when most of the people in the forums think they lost their playlists. Some had Apple Music enabled, some did not (like me).

Extricating myself from the human suffering and bad advice, I decided to just try to sync with my local iTunes Library again and cross my fingers. The sync didn’t copy over any music, album art, or playlists, in spite of the boxes all being checked in iTunes. I’m going to need an old priest and a young priest.

A Glossy Magazine for Your Ears

Going down this rabbit hole of fuckery just made me realize how much I absolutely loathe the Music app. What was once a major strength of Apple — a simple-to-use music player and digital storefront — turned into the kind of garbage software that runs on cable company set-top-boxes. The experience has been turned into something more akin to a website for a print publication. You’re constantly jumping in and out of various things, which slide in from different directions, the stuff you want is buried several taps deep in hierarchical menus, and it’s centered around getting you to sign up for Apple Music. Full page ads are for morally-bankrupt growth-hackers. UI chrome that functions if you pay for something is a gnawing reminder of this. Even with the option to show “Apple Music” disabled, you still have have to deal with a hierarchy of icons that devotes half the persistent navbar to “Radio” and “Connect”. Radio is useless without a subscription now, and Connect is useless even if you had an Apple Music subscription.

Infuriatingly, Apple Music even contaminates simple things like sharing. Nearly every aspect of the interface as a share button buried somewhere in it. That’s wholly dedicated to generating links to music in Apple Music. If you try to share something purchased on iTunes, but not in Apple Music, it doesn’t generate an iTunes link, it generates nothing. It succeeds at generating nothing, which is the really wild part, since obviously, I wanted to send a completely empty tweet. That’s been like that since the beta. Brilliant work. Kudos.

A Better Way

I don’t typically say anything nice about Amazon. They don’t exactly inspire passion. They are the cardboard they ship things in. When I wanted to listen to my copy of the Tron Legacy track, I realized that it wasn’t in iTunes, because the smart playlist that’s supposed to sync it over was missing, and I purchased it on Amazon. If I wanted to listen to it when I was at work, I was going to have to download the Amazon Music app for iOS. I’m quite glad that I did because it has really changed my opinion of Amazon, and Apple.

You sign in, and you have everything you’ve ever purchased through Amazon, or if you have an Amazon Prime subscription, you have access to their streaming Prime Music service. I mooch off of my boyfriend’s Prime membership, so my Amazon account does not qualify for Prime Music. Still, I made many Amazon Music purchases in my rebellious years, and I have access to all of them.

The application is dead simple. Black, with elements of transparency like smoked glass. There’s a simple, sliding interface where you move your thumb left to right to shift from album, to artist, genre, etc. Then vertical scrolling. A bar with controls is a persistent element at the bottom of the screen, with better tap targets than iOS. Everything loads fast, and smooth. I experienced no hiccups on cellular or WiFi. There’s offline playback as well, but the default is to stream everything.

Playlists created on my iPhone are also instantly available on the web client. There’s seemingly no lag at all. Maybe they self destruct like Apple’s playlists, but there’s only one way to find out.

A fascinating addition is the X-Ray Lyrics feature available for some tracks. Not every song on an album is guaranteed to have it, but those that do have a small badge to the right of the track name. While playing the song, you can see a banner on the bottom that displays the lyric that’s being said while it’s being said in the song. If you expand the lyric view, you can see all the lines before and after the current line with the current one highlighted. It’s like a tiny karaoke-machine in my pocket. Apple thinks I want to look at magazine-spreads of band members, and Amazon thinks I want to know about the music. I’ll let you guess who nailed it.

There’s no option to share music, or generate links to buy music on Amazon’s store, but Apple executes that so poorly that it’s not something I miss. Another major downside is that it doesn’t integrate with things like Siri, and there are no Amazon apps for the Apple TV. The app does include an AirPlay button (if there’s an AirPlayable device near) in addition to the one in iOS’ Control Center. If you want to purchase music, you have to do it through a web browser, not through any Amazon app. That could be a huge setback for some people, but with the way the iTunes Store App is it’s like six of one and half dozen of the other.

If you do certain things in the interface you run into paywalls for Prime Music, where it nudges you that a certain feature — like uploading music not purchased on Amazon — is only available to Prime customers. I didn’t find it egregious compared to Apple’s nonsense. Even comparing the cost makes it seem more than equitable.

Amazon Prime is $99 per year, with that you can upload 250 songs from anywhere, and you have access to all music in the Amazon Prime Library. 250,000 may be uploaded for an additional $24.99 per year. That’s $100 or $125 and Apple is $9.99 a month, so it’s $120. Amazon and Apple have different libraries, but Amazon’s membership covers a wider array of services that Apple’s does not. Many people are already Prime subscribers that don’t use those features (if you are, give the Amazon Music app a shot, and let me know if you’re more or less satisfied with it over Apple.)

Amazon is routinely criticized for their grotesque, and difficult-to-use software, but comparing Apple’s and Amazon’s music apps is like night and day. How did Amazon manage to out-Apple Apple on Apple’s own platform? The application is not only slick, but it’s considerate.

Amazon Music is like, “Hey bro, you probably just want to listen to music. The lyrics are pretty sweet, so I’ll leave them here if you want those too, bro.” and I’m all like, “Oh wow, I didn’t know it could be like this.” and Amazon Music is all, “Totes.”

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http://joe-steel.com/2016-01-04-Defocused-2015-Year-in-Review.html Defocused: 2015 Year in Review 2016-01-04T16:03:00Z 2016-01-04T16:03:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Last year, Dan and I decided to do a short sketch of a fake awards show with some clips. We modeled it after The Incomparable’s radio theater efforts, and their clip show, though it is unique to our … sensibilities. This year, we repeated the process. We didn’t receive many responses for end of the year clips, so the show is a relatively short 19 minutes.

There is some vulgarity (clutches pearls) so the version in the show feed is censored:

Defocused 78: 2015 Year in Review

That’s sort of distracting though so we have a version that is not bleeped:

Bonus Track d78: 2015 Year in Review (explicit version)

There are also some outtakes from the recording session for the sketch:

Bonus Track d78b: Who is Anne Pancakes?!

The sloppy outline for the show is available in PDF and Fountain if you’re super bored.

Thanks to the guests that were on in 2015 for providing some very entertaining moments. I hope we will see some return guests in 2016, as well as some new ones.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-12-30-Sad-State-of-What-to-Watch-on-Apple-TV.html Sad State of What to Watch on Apple TV 2015-12-30T15:53:00Z 2015-12-30T15:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The Apple TV has been out for two months so let’s look at the bold changes the device has made to the media landscape. On the 30th of December, in the U.S., the What to Watch section of the Apple TV’s App Store features 30 apps. 19 explicitly mention unlocking content through a participating TV provider. 21 have no privacy policy. Only 5 explicitly mention closed captioning, but many more offer it.

These are featured. These are What to Watch. I did not randomly select these applications.

A company that is very concerned about privacy does not make it mandatory to mention what data is being collected by their featured apps. What is there, is something you have to research by manually entering the URL on another device. They do not make it mandatory to include closed captioning, or even offer any kind of visual token that it is available in the app in the store interface.

Only four apps offer an in-app-purchase for a subscription, and two of them have counterpart applications in the same list which work with authentication from a TV provider. If I include the two PBS apps which require an account be created on a computer — That’s one-third of the apps that use a participating subscription, or membership, which you can’t get from the Apple TV to actually get full functionality in the apps.

If you don’t have a participating, traditional, subscription then you download apps that have frustrating, poorly defined barriers. Some episodes open, others prompt you to sign in. The exact behavior of each application is a crapshoot.

This is the featured, what to watch viewing experience for a $150-200 box from Apple.

  1. HBO NOW - Free Month. I.A.P. subscription $14.99 per month, or participating broadband provider. No privacy policy.
  2. Netflix - Free month. No pricing details. No privacy policy.
  3. Hulu - I.A.P. Subscription. Privacy policy URL.
  4. Showtime - Free Month. I.A.P. subscription of $10.99 per month. No Privacy policy.
  5. YouTube - No disclosure about ads, or privacy policy. No mention of YouTube Red or how to subscribe.
  6. CBS - 1 week free. I.A.P. subscription of $5.99 per month. Privacy policy URL
  7. PBS Video - Activation is not detailed. No privacy policy.
  8. PBS KIDS Video - Activation is not detailed. No privacy policy.
  9. NBC - Watch Now and Stream Full Episodes - “If you don’t have a provider, you can still watch — most new episodes are unlocked 8 days after airing on TV.” The app’s selection is challenging if you do not authenticate. No Privacy policy. Mentions Closed Captioning.
  10. ABC - “The ABC live stream and the most recently aired full episodes [sic] require you to authenticate with a participating TV provider account. Show and episode availability are subject to change. Live streaming available in Chicago, Fresno, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham and San Francisco.” Privacy policy URL.
  11. FOX NOW - Authenticate with “applicable” provider. Restrictions on availability too fine to print here. No privacy policy.
  12. Comedy Central - Authentication requirements are not disclosed. “For more information about this app and online behavorial advertising, check out http://srp.viacom.com/sitefaq.html.”
  13. MTV - Authenticate with your TV provider. “For more information about this app and online behavioral advertising, check out http://srp.viacom.com/sitefaq.html.”
  14. Nick - Authenticate with your TV provider. “The Nick app collects personal user data as well as non-personal user data (including aggregated data). As needed, Nickelodeon and/or a third party may generate an identifier that is unique to the application as downloaded to a specific device, known as the Core Foundation Universally Unique Identifier (CFUUID). User data collection is in accordance with applicable law, such as COPPA. User data may be used, for example, to respond to user requests; enable users to take advantage of certain features and services; personalize content and advertising; and manage and improve Nickelodeon’s services.” Additional privacy policy URL included.
  15. HGTV Watch - Authenticate with TV provider. No privacy policy. Closed captioning.
  16. Watch Food Network - Authenticate with TV provider. No privacy policy. Closed captioning.
  17. Made to Measure - Free. No privacy policy.
  18. Watch Travel Channel - Authenticate with TV provider. No privacy policy. Closed captioning.
  19. FXNOW - Authenticate with TV provider. No privacy policy.
  20. USA NOW - Authenticate with TV provider, but some, select episodes are available without sign-in. No Privacy policy.
  21. HBO GO - Authenticate with TV provider. No privacy policy.
  22. Showtime Anytime - Authenticate with TV provider. No privacy policy. Closed captioning and parental controls available.
  23. WATCH Disney Channel - Authenticate with TV provider. Privacy policy URL.
  24. CNBC TV - Authenticate with TV provider. No privacy policy.
  25. WATCH Disney XD - Authenticate with TV provider. Privacy policy URL.
  26. WATCH Disney Junior - Authenticate with TV provider. Privacy policy URL.
  27. A&E - “The A&E app is free to use. If your TV provider is supported you can sign in and get access to even more content. More TV providers coming very soon.” This is nebulous, but in testing most content appears to be freely available with ads. No privacy policy.
  28. Lifetime - Similar restrictions to A&E app. No privacy policy.
  29. HISTORY - Similar restrictions to A&E app. No privacy policy.
  30. WATCH ABC Family - Authenticate with TV provider. Privacy policy URL.
  31. The Nat Geo TV - Authenticate with TV provider. No privacy policy.
  32. Bloomberg TV - Free. No privacy policy.

Below I’ve included excerpts from Hulu’s privacy policy to demonstrate what a company will willingly mention they collect and monitor.

This app features third party software which enables third parties to calculate measurement statistics. To learn more about digital measurement product and your choices in regard to them, including opting out, please visit our privacy policy.

We may work with mobile advertising companies and other similar entities that help deliver advertisements tailored to your interests both on and outside of the Hulu services. For more information about such advertising practices, please visit our privacy policy at www.hulu.com/privacy

There’s something unsettling about the privacy policy.

Social Networking Data. If you choose to log-in, access or otherwise connect to the Hulu Services, or contact Hulu, through a social networking service (such as Facebook), we may collect your user ID and user name associated with that social networking service, as well as any information you make public using that social networking service. We may also collect information you have authorized the social networking service to share with us (such as your user ID, public profile information, email address, birthday, friends list, and pages you have “liked”).

Also check out third parties, including the disclaimer:

The Hulu Services may be provided through third-party websites, applications and other means of access operated by other companies (collectively, “Third-Party Access Points”). For example, you can access the Hulu Services through websites of our distributors. In addition, you may launch a Third-Party Access Point using various devices such as gaming systems, smart TVs, mobile devices, and set top boxes. The Hulu Services also may contain links to third-party websites or applications. None of these Third-Party Access Points, devices, websites or applications are operated by us, even if they contain our name or logo, and we are not responsible for the privacy practices of their operators. Accordingly, we recommend that you review their privacy policies.

Just for funsies, maybe go to their page for opting out of their data collection practices. Be aware that anyone not logged-in, is opted-in.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-12-21-End-of-the-Year-Defocused-Updates.html End of the Year Defocused Updates 2015-12-21T15:53:00Z 2015-12-21T15:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Time is just flying. Dan and I just finished 7 episodes about Star Wars films. Last year, around this time, we were doing Christmas movies, but we’ll won’t manage to squeeze one in this year because we ran out of space. (Get it? Because Star Wars is in space? Get it?)

We covered Star Wars in the order it was released, and we also evaluated the very latest changes that George Lucas had made to the original three.

We also finally pulled the trigger on a t-shirt campaign that we’d been kicking around since before we joined The Incomparable Network (TIN — Jason Snell’s just going to have to run with that). The funds from the campaign are currently going towards paying the person editing the podcast (almost always Dan). For anyone curious: It takes 1.5-2.5 hours to watch a movie, 1-2 hours to talk about, and about 4 hours to edit it. The show is a fun hobby, and I really enjoy it, but it would be nice to modestly support this hobby. Our most sincere thanks to anyone that buys a shirt. They’re available until January 4th through Teespring. Dan and I also haven’t run a shirt campaign, so feedback is appreciated. We also know that people probably have too many podcast shirts, so don’t feel obligated to purchase one if you don’t want it, we’ll try and devise other things besides a shirt at some point in the future.

Don’t worry, it’s also in charcoal.

The last piece of business is the End of the Year show. Dan and I did a little, fake awards sketch last year with clips of the show. The initial idea was that it would save time to record just a few snippets of dialog and then fill with clips. Hilariously, it consumed the most time of any episode. LOL. HAHA. TOTES HILAR. We think we have the kinks worked out for this year.

We do need to hear from listeners about what their favorite moments of the show have been in 2015. We have a few so far, so keep ‘em coming. Episode numbers and timestamps are appreciated. If we can’t track down an exact clip we might have to forgo using the recommendation.

Thanks!

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-12-09-Point-One-Better.html Point One Better 2015-12-09T16:23:00Z 2015-12-09T16:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Yesterday, Apple dropped a slew of physical products, and software updates. One of the updates was for tvOS 9.1. Like the update from 9.0 to 9.0.1, this update offered no release notes. Unlike that update, this one did include features that many felt were missing from the initial Apple TV release. The Apple TV now supports the Remote app for iOS, and Siri support is available for Music.

Remote App

For me, the Apple TV was recognized by the Remote app on my iPhone 6 and I was able to use direction, menu, play/pause, and —most important of all— the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. This does not cover the full range of features that the Siri Remote can handle, and there are interface bits that the 4th generation Apple TV does not support (the options element does nothing).

There was no update at all to the Remote app. Not even for branding. As Robb Lewis pointed out on Twitter, this is rather absurd and unhelpful. Instructions for pairing are different for the fourth generation, and the icon for iTunes is even 3 years-old.

Curiously, I didn’t have to pair mine, it just worked. When I went to check the remote settings (“Settings” -> “Remotes and Devices” -> “Other Devices” -> “Remote App”) it displayed the text “Pairable Devices” and a little spinner next to it. No listing for a paired device. To test if this was some weird fluke, I hit “Edit” in the app and removed all the entries, except one Apple TV entry that was greyed out. That undeletable Apple TV still worked as a remote, and I saw my iPhone listed under pairable devices on the TV. When I pair it, it adds another Apple TV icon. That means I have one “Paired Device” listing, and two icons that launch functional remotes. If I hit “Edit” again, there’s still an Apple TV I can’t delete. If I go to “Paired Devices” and delete the iPhone listed there, it removes one of the Apple TV icons, but the remaining one launches to a blank, white screen. If I pair them, I get two icons back. This is pretty perplexing, particularly if you are a first time user that thought you needed to pair it.

Also, since it’s not an updated Remote app, there are several things it can’t do that your Siri Remote can do:

  • Use Siri to do searches or control the TV.
  • Scrub timelines.
  • Flick through lists.
  • Scrub.
  • Control the volume through HDMI-CEC
  • Use the iPhone in a game that does not implement it’s own convoluted game pairing setup (Crossy Road, for example).

There’s a degree of overlap between the Siri Remote and an iPhone that made it very strange for Apple not to have supported the iPhone — their most popular, profitable product — as an input device when designing and launching the Apple TV.

This is when Eddy Cue dropped a bombshell on John Paczkowski at BuzzFeed News:

“We’re working on a new Apple TV remote app that will give you the full functionality of the Siri Remote on your iPhone,” Cue said. “We’re hoping to ship that in the first half of next year.”

That is a horse of a different color. Was this never part of the plan for the full product? If it was part of the plan, why was it never mentioned before now? Why mention it half a year from the release of the app instead of at the unveiling?

Siri Search for Music

This works even if you are not an Apple Music subscriber, but it can do weird, and unexpected things. Particularly when you compare it to what the text based search does, or when you compare it to what Siri does on iOS. Jason Snell made these observations as well. Since so much of Siri is really on datacenter servers, I was confused why the same hooks for iOS were absent from tvOS when the TV shipped. How Siri and Music worked together was mostly a known quantity for months prior to the TV shipping too.

Query Comparison:

  • “Video killed the radio star”
    • iOS Siri: “Here’s what I found on the web for ‘Video killed the radio star’:” (“Top Hit” is a link to the iTunes store for “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles.)
    • tvOS Siri: “Hmm, I’m not finding anything for ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’”
  • “Play video killed the radio star”
    • iOS Siri: “Sorry, I can’t play videos.”
    • tvOS Siri: ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’
  • “Play total recall soundtrack”
    • iOS Siri: “Here’s ‘Skyfall’ by Adele”
    • tvOS Siri: ‘Total Recall (The Deluxe Edition) [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]’
  • “Play total”
    • iOS Siri: ‘Total Recall (The Deluxe Edition) [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]’
    • tvOS Siri: “Playing album ‘Total Recall (The Deluxe Edition) [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]’
  • “Play star trek soundtrack”
    • iOS Siri: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)’
    • tvOS Siri: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)’
  • “Play star trek the motion picture soundtrack”
    • iOS Siri: ‘Star Trek The Motion Picture (20th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition)’
    • tvOS Siri: ‘Star Trek The Motion Picture (20th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition)’
  • “Play star trek six the undiscovered country”
    • iOS Siri: “I found this on the web for you…”
    • tvOS Siri: Search results page for versions of the film to buy or rent.
  • “Play star trek six the undiscovered country soundtrack”
    • iOS Siri: ‘Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)’
    • tvOS Siri: ‘Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)’
  • “Play Alan Menken”
    • iOS Siri: “I don’t see Alan Menken in your collection, shall I play Alan Menken radio?”
    • tvOS: “Sorry I couldn’t find ‘Alan Menken’ in your music.”
  • “Play Jerry Goldsmith”
    • iOS Siri: ‘Star Trek: Insurrection (Music From the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) — Children’s Story’
    • tvOS Siri: ‘Alien — Acid Test’

It’s kind of weird to think about how Siri handles the same question differently depending on the device you’re asking on. iOS doesn’t have a unified video search page, and tvOS doesn’t have a web browser fallback. They both have radio, but only one prompts to see if you want the radio. (Also, both were wrong about Alan Menken, I was literally looking right at ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ when I asked.)

Titles with keywords like ‘video’ also throw it off in really surprising ways on both platforms. If I was on the Apple TV team, the very first thing I would do is make sure that Buggles song worked. That’s the team anthem.

Still No Backup and Restore

I’m getting a little concerned about the lack of these two very important features. Not because I want to restore my device from a backup, but because that sort of thing happens. As I was downloading the update I wondered if I’d have to start over if there was a failure in the installation. It’s not that I have a lot of irreplaceable material on my device, but I do have it set up in a specific way, with apps logins, and settings, and I would like to not redo all that in the event of an emergency. This device’s state needs to be preserved somewhere, preferably before the next Apple TV hardware ships and people set it all up from scratch.

All the other issues regarding integration with Apple services, logins, etc. all still stand. Shipping with these things does improve the experience, but this still isn’t a fully formed device with a clear vision.

Dropped For Time

Jon Gruber interprets Apple’s opaque 9.1 release as intentional tardiness.

I think it’s a safe bet these were things that were planned for the new Apple TV all along, but simply were dropped for the 9.0 release because they ran out of time.

I don’t see anything to indicate they ever intended to ship support for the Remote app. An Apple representative flatly told Jason Snell that the Remote app would not work with the new Apple TV, no elaboration provided. No “coming soon” featured. However, Eddy Cue gave that interview to John Paczkowski and teased a new, better Remote app. That had never been mentioned before, and no official announcement exists other than what Eddy Cue just said.

Something doesn’t sit right with me about the time-crunch narrative either. Sure, they obviously seem to have rushed this out the door, but that doesn’t mean it needed to be rushed out the door. This was not on a yearly update cycle. No service was announced to launch with it. Eddy Cue seems intent on pushing people to make their own apps, rather than offering up any over-the-top service indications. No other product requires an Apple TV, let alone this specific model.

What started the crunch time that they couldn’t meet? What were the goals they didn’t meet, and are still trying to meet — other than a completely new Remote app? The parts that have been released in 9.1 have bugs, and seem unfinished, are they going to be “good enough” so other things can be added, or will they be improved at the expense of adding more? I could go on.

I’m left with more questions than answers every time there’s an update.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-11-25-Captain-Avenger-Avengers-War.html Captain Avenger: Avengers War 2015-11-25T16:03:30Z 2015-11-25T16:03:30Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I’m pretty disappointed with the first trailer for the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Franciseverse. Civil War was a controversial story arc in Marvel comics which pitted superheroes against one another in a fight over personal freedom, and security. Taking away rights to insure safety for all. As written, it would not translate to the big screen, but that’s for the best. Instead, what they have adapted appears to be “Cap and Tony fight” and it appears to be over Bucky Barnes — the Winter Soldier.

That seems substantially less ambitious, in either the political climate of 2006-2007, or in our political climate today.

There’s every possibility that it’s just the way the first trailer was cut, but “it’s a trailer” isn’t an excuse because it is the pitch to communicate why I should see a movie. Maybe it’s a bad pitch, but it’s the one Marvel Studios is making.

I did like Captain America: The Winter Soldier a good deal, and I think the Russos did a very good job directing it. Hopefully this particular project didn’t spiral out of control.

Lastly, I would like to draw your attention toward this hilarious tweet from Freddie Wong:

lol captain america trailer aka a movie in 2016 where a guy suddenly and dramatically disappears from behind a vehicle wiping frame

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-11-24-The-Expanse-Surprise-Premiere.html The Expanse Surprise Premiere 2015-11-24T17:16:30Z 2015-11-24T17:16:30Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Followers of the blog might know that I’m a big fan of The Expanse series of books written by the team of writers under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey. The books have their ups, and their downs, and they’re certainly not highfaluting tomes. I was quite reticent when I heard that the SyFy channel would be adapting it to a television series. Despite the involvement of the original writers, I was pretty sure that the money SyFy would spend would not create what I had in my mind while I read. The production stills that were released certainly gave the impression of Babylon 5 (lights shining through colored gels and grates onto gray-painted MDF).

Then, over the weekend, there were some rumblings on Twitter that the first episode might come out very soon. Turns out, it was Sunday night. You can go watch it online, for free, on YouTube right now. I only mention this because I hadn’t seen any marketing about this happening at all. It appears that it’s still going to premiere on TV, but that’s not until December 14th. So … Weird, right? Surprise, it’s online, you can watch the first episode for free, and it’s not broadcast for almost a month. That’s certainly the most unusual television show premiere I’ve ever heard of. Typically science fiction shows have a very difficult time getting nerds to watch broadcasts when shows air because nerds use time shifting services (or other services) to watch things on their own terms. Fans of series like Stargate Universe might recall the cast on Twitter basically begging people to tune in when new episodes came out so that they could stay on the air (they did not).

I can only assume that a month worth of watching the first episode for free will only harm their premiere numbers. There will be a new episode out the following night, December 15th, but I have no idea how that will shake out either.

It’s a bold strategy, Cotton, let’s see if it pays off.

Now I’m going to start blathering on about the episode, so if you haven’t watched it yet, then don’t read this. After that, I’ll have spoilers for people that read the books, and have seen the episode. Seems pretty fair, no?

Spoilers for the First Episode of The Expanse

The episode starts with a pretty nice title sequence, and we get the general impression that people might have ships that have explored places and stuff. Then there’s a lot of exposition that fades in. Turns out there’s some political tension with belts and stuff. But you know how belts are.

Then we have a montage of a woman with CG hair floating around. She’s locked up in a thingy, and would like to be let out of said thingy. I found the hair really distracting. I get that they wanted to convincingly portray that she was in zero gravity, but it’s moving more than it should. Go watch videos of astronauts with long hair in space. It’s more like she’s underwater in a pool. Don’t worry, they save money by having her tie her hair back. Then they also save money by having magnetic boots.

She has a jump scare and then finds a room full of totally harmless-looking blue stuff that might be absorbing someone. This will all be fine, I’m sure. She screams and we cut away to some ships being maneuvered around in some sort of time-lapse sped-up way.

Ceres station, as the narrator informs us, is kind of a bummer of a place to be. Earth and Mars took all their ice and stuff. Which seems like a pretty lame thing for them to do. The camera fly0through is really, really, really, distracting. I know they wanted to make it feel big — expansive, one might say — but there’s only so much CG space station you should really fly through. Particularly air shafts which are too shiny.

We land on the guy giving the big speech about what jerks planets are, and we see the crowd the man is addressing. Thomas Jane is enjoying a shot of booze, and he’s addressed as a “badge” so we can tell he’s an edgy cop. We can also tell he’s one of the belter people, and his buddy is not.

We start to get the idea that Thomas Jane, as Detective Miller, is maybe a corrupt cop. Maybe. Also his handheld device has a crack, which is a nice touch. He’s going to go find Julie Mao, who looks suspiciously like the woman from the beginning of the episode. Almost like these stories all tie together or something.

We meet the Canterbury ice hauler. A guy gets his arm casually chopped off, and then we cut to a zero gravity sex scene. Hello, James Holden’s ass. Then we get a guy who’s very casual about that missing arm. Really, really casual.

I’m not sure how they got Adam Lisagor to agree to be the captain, but he does a pretty good job. The X.O. is … unwell, and Holden is trying to get out of getting promoted to his job.

Then we go to earth and have a nice family moment.

This is about the time when you realize that no matter where we are in the solar system, you’re going to be looking at blown-out highlights and crushing color correction.

Granny is not super-nice.

The crew has to go respond to a distress call, and there’s a very dramatic high-G maneuver they execute. It bugs me a little because the blacks of the ship are blue against space. They should be the same value as space. Holden and Naomi have a little chat about the distress call they’re responding to.

Back on Ceres, Miller is being Millery and he’s talking to someone about the missing person he was tasked to find.

When they approach the Scopuli, the ship is having some moire issues. It might just be something YouTube’s doing to the image, but it’s crawling when I checked it on my computer and on my Apple TV.

They board it and find … nothing. A suspicious amount of nothing. It’s not like it was at the beginning of the episode, and there’s a hole in the hull. They also find the source of the distress signal. They do some helmet cam stuff, but it’s a little strange because it’s not supposed to be helmet cams that are actual cameras in their world, just cameras for us as the audience. There’s also an error just above the bridge of Holden’s nose where we lose data. So… that’s kind of unfortunate. If you watch the “well it wasn’t pirates” you’ll see the flickering rectangle.

They realize this is a trap and there’s another ship that was using some sort of stealth tech.

Back on Ceres, Miller comes across a father and daughter. The daughter is playing with a bird. The bird is animated and rendered. They probably wanted to make it move like it was a bird in a low-G environment. It wouldn’t need to flap as much, and would basically be a little floaty. Unfortunately, the result is something really unconvincing as a bird. The unconvincing bird, and the coughing kid, inspire Miller to go beat up and suffocate the guy he took the bribe from earlier.

We go back to the Cant, shuttle, and mystery ship. The mystery ship fires torpedoes! They’re way too blue and saturated! Blue without a white core isn’t really how things flare. Then there are a couple torpedo shots where it has a white core and it’s a little more purplish. Not sure if these were divided up between different artists, but they’re not quite the same. This is particularly weird when the Cant blows up we get a strange mix of things including super-saturated anamorphic flare lines.

The effects are better than I thought they would be but while I can excuse the bird as potentially being an issue with time and money, the stuff with the black levels of the ship, and the weird hyper-saturated flares have very little to do with time or budget.

Hopefully we’ll find out what happens to people with the things and the stuff.

If you haven’t read the books, but have watched the episode, get in touch with me on Twitter and let me know how you feel about the episode. Was it clear what was happening, or was it disjointed?

Spoilers for the Book

Some of the casting decisions are not what I had pictured. Naomi in particular is very polished from what I had envisioned from her description in the book. Amos also doesn’t seem quite as rough, and thug-like as I had pictured. It’s not really throwing me out of enjoying it, but it is strange.

Also Chrisjen isn’t in Leviathan Wakes, so I’m not quite sure what her character will be doing for this series. I don’t outright object to it, but I’m curious to see how they’ll integrate her. I haven’t read any spoiler sites, so if you know, don’t tell me.

Are there any changes people felt were egregious? I don’t see any.

I still think I prefer the big-budget epic in my head more than what I see on the screen.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-11-20-Starting-at-Sixty-Nine.html Starting at Sixty Nine 2015-11-20T16:38:00Z 2015-11-20T16:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Let’s leave out the Bill & Ted jokes and instead talk about the third generation Apple TV. It’s still in many stores, like Target which displays a 4”x5” price tag for $69 and a tiny, little shelf-edge-sized tag for the $149 one. Apple’s site has “TV” in the bar across the top, and devotes almost all of the page to the new model, but at the bottom there’s a link to buy the previous generation, and a link to a comparison chart. The chart is entertaining because Apple couldn’t make it any clearer that they do not want you to buy the third generation model.

That is the Bezos graph of comparison charts.

Why Keep This Thing Around?

A few possible reasons, in no particular order:

  • They don’t want to say “Starting at $149”.
  • They want to continue offering a sub-$100 AirPlay video experience.
  • They want to use the large install base of the previous generation as a bargaining chip in negotiating content deals, potentially for their OTT service as well.

Remember that they made a big deal out of this price reduction in March at the same event when they made a big deal out of HBO Now. It’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that while the device will never see a significant update, it might still receive “channels” of content.

It’s still possible to argue that those arrangements could be done without selling the current device at all, but maybe those content partners are skittish about deals for a $149-199 box?

Let’s not forget that Apple has the second-most expensive streaming media box. Only the Sony FMP-X10 4K Ultra HD Media Player is more expensive at $699.99, but no one’s really buying that one so we’ll set it aside.

The Next-Year Discount

Many have made the case that next year, the fourth generation Apple TV will receive a discount to $99, when a fifth generation premieres. Everyone pulled $99 out of their butts, but it sounds like a good number. We don’t actually know if the device is even on a yearly refresh cycle at this point though since there’s no pattern. It is still conceivable that it may be the case, but that’s still a 40% price increase to the entry point.

Regardless, that still means they’re selling the third generation TV for a full calendar year until that happens. Does that seem absurd to anyone else?

AirPlay Express

On a recent episode of the podcast Clockwise, Anže Tomic posed the question about why Apple doesn’t have something more like the Chromecast, or like the streaming sticks of Amazon or Roku. If there really is a customer that just wants to stream stuff to their TV, then they’re currently best served by the third generation box — as sorry as that sounds. Jason Snell coined the term “AirPlay Express” as a half-joke to describe such a thing, and I agree that it would certainly help make the lower end make a bit more sense than the current situation.

My cohost on Unhelpful Suggestions, Marko Savic, has argued against such a thing because he doesn’t think Apple needs to compete in the low-end space. Apple doesn’t make $200 netbooks, so why sweat it? Why not just drive those people toward spending a little extra? The merit of spending any time or effort on an entry-level streamer is debatable, I just happen to fall in favor of Apple doing it. A large volume of streaming-only service devices that aren’t 4-5 years old seems like a decent thing to do to appeal to many people.

Let’s not forget people live in homes with more than one TV set, and while people like Bradley Chambers and Zac Cichy buy up fistfuls of fourth generation devices for every TV, there’s a market of people that will only buy one $149 device for the household. Why not fill every room a fresh Apple scent?

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-11-13-Thank-You-Alex.html Thank You, Alex 2015-11-13T16:13:00Z 2015-11-13T16:13:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ As I detailed in the Release section of my Apple TV post, I had some problems with the way the initial launch went. The package that I didn’t want, but needed to return once it arrived, never got into my hands. Where that package is, I don’t know. I repeatedly tried to get in touch with OnTrac, only to be referred to Apple’s customer service line. If I was out the money for the TV, then I was out the money for the TV, I just wanted to make sure OnTrac put it on the landing in front of the door to my apartment, and not anywhere else in the universe. If some unscrupulous thief made off with the package then that’s not OnTrac’s fault.

After briefly bouncing around some automated phone tree branches I was on the line with Alex. He was sorry to hear about my issues, and said they had been having some problems with OnTrac. He had the same tracking info I had, and said that they would open a service ticket with OnTrac and talk to them about the delivery. He did mention that if they found there was an issue they’d send me a new one. I didn’t think much of it at the time, because why would they ship me a new one? If I had, maybe I should have explained I was going to return it anyway.

Well, they shipped me a new one with FedEx. It arrived at the bottom of the stairwell, not the landing, but at least it was the right stairwell, and at least I had it.

I’m not sure what the specifics of Apple’s policies are here, or what happened to the first Apple TV, but it sure goes above and beyond at making me feel better about Apple as a company. Thanks.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-11-12-Pushing-for-Controllers.html Pushing for Controllers 2015-11-12T16:23:00Z 2015-11-12T16:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ When the Apple TV was announced several games were demoed on stage. Disney Infinity, and Guitar Hero were two of those games that require novel input. The developer docs even said that games could specify that they required a controller — a policy that was very quickly changed to mandatory Siri Remote support for all games.

Disney Infinity the app, not the hardware, was available as a free to download game with a level for the “Battle of Yavin”. Siri Remote support is there, but when I tested that for manipulating the flying ship, I just kept crashing into everything. It really did not feel like the Siri Remote and game were intended to work together at all. The other day, Disney announced the actual physical component of Disney Infinity for the Apple TV, a platform that allows special figurines placed on it to unlock content on the device. The platform is similar to the other ones that Disney makes for other consoles, except it’s black. More importantly, it comes bundled with a game controller. The SteelSeries Nimbus game controller that Apple recommends, but does not include. This is the only console Disney does this for.

Con: You must pay extra for the package with the controller regardless of whether or not you need a controller if you want the portal/platform.

Con: It is the most expensive edition of Disney Infinity at $100, and the other consoles at $65. If you had another console, there seems to be very little reason to pay extra for this version.

Pro: Discounted controller for the Apple TV.

Pro: You can unlock the characters with codes instead of buying a portal/platform for any of the Disney Infinity console or PC versions.

I’m inclined to believe that Disney knows the game is terrible to play without a controller and is trying to fill the gap Apple left here.

On MacStories, Federico Viticci hopes that more game studios will offer these sorts of discount bundles on controllers for the Apple TV. I don’t agree with this because the Apple TV only supports up to two controllers, so if you bought two games, that’s it, you’re good on controllers for forever. In the case of Infinity, there’s the whole code redemption instead of hardware platform, but I’m fairly certain people actually buy these things or they wouldn’t make them.

Skylanders, which has the same physical figurine component (predating Infinity) will allow people to use their existing “portal” from the iOS version of the game. In fact, it’s one of the featured apps in the “Games” category of the TV App Store. Right along with Disney Infinity and Guitar Hero.

The really interesting game is Guitar Hero. They’re the only game on the TV App Store that can require hardware other than the Siri Remote. Just them. Now, the primary reaction is to say “Oh well, duh, you totes need a guitar.” There is a version of Guitar Hero for iOS that doesn’t require a guitar controller. I don’t disagree that you need that sweet axe, it’s just strange that they are the singular carveout for this requirement. I have no idea why that is, other than they might have been wooed to the platform before the Siri Remote mandate and worked out a deal to avoid it.

Activision Publishing, Inc. Games [9+] ★★★★☆ [Editor’s Choice] PLEASE NOTE: Guitar Hero Live REQUIRES the Bluetooth GUITAR CONTROLLER to play (available at your local or online retailer).

Offers In-App-Purchases [Bluetooth] Accessory Required

Just them. Weird, huh? Not like world-ending-panic weird, just weird.

Keep in mind that you can’t even use a Bluetooth keyboard with the Apple TV, even though it’s based on iOS. Last night, Steve Troughton Smith (an iOS developer) uncovered keyboard support for the TV’s focus-switching in the iOS 9.1 beta, so it’s either in there, and off, or it’s coming. It’s unlikely that we’ll see apps that require a keyboard, but hey, if You’re Activision, you can require a guitar.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-11-09-Crossy-Remote.html Crossy Remote 2015-11-09T22:53:00Z 2015-11-09T22:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ One of the things that confuses me about the lack of a Remote app for iOS that’s compatible with the 4th generation Apple TV is that 3rd parties can make their own iOS remote controls that work inside their own tvOS apps. Take Crossy Road, for example. You start the game on the TV, and after a series of non-obvious steps you get the iOS app to see the tvOS app game and function like a second controller. You don’t see a mirrored screen, or anything, but gestures and taps work as if you had another Siri Remote to play the game.

So if these frameworks exist, and existed before the September event when Crossy Road developers demoed it on stage, then why no Remote app? Why leave it to third parties to build their own remote functionality into their tvOS and iOS games?

I have no answer, but there doesn’t appear to be a technical limitation holding it back. I also find the common excuse that Apple hasn’t had enough time to implement such a feature implausible since it’s easy for third parties to implement per app.

Tim Cook even mentioned he used his Apple Watch to control his Apple TV (3rd generation) during the watch unveiling in 2014. Seems like it hurts the Watch to remove functionality from that device.

Is it an intentional omission because they don’t want people using a Remote app instead of the Siri Remote? That’s strange since it won’t hurt device sales. You can only use one Siri Remote per TV, and each TV comes bundled with one remote. It wouldn’t hurt accessory sales under those conditions unless we’re supposed to be buying game controllers, but then why let games build in their own controls?

Maybe it’s coming, maybe it isn’t, in this great, unfinished rush that is the Apple TV product launch. For now, it goes in my stack of questions.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-11-08-Negative-Criticism.html Negative Criticism 2015-11-09T05:38:00Z 2015-11-09T05:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I received a lot of feedback from people that they enjoyed hearing me on Upgrade last Monday, and appreciate my subsequent blog post about my experiences, and thoughts, surrounding the Apple TV. I’m grateful for that feedback. Apple’s film/TV efforts are of paramount interest to me. I really do want them to do well in this space, and I’m personally invested in their ecosystem.

However, there’s been another vein of feedback, mostly regarding Tweets where I share quick thoughts, that I’m too negative. I dismissed that feedback, and then had doubts about what I had said, and typed. I’ve reconsidered everything, –also taking in other podcasts and reviews, and I’ve gone back to my initial conclusion. My criticisms are valid.

As I’ve repeatedly said: I like the new Apple TV, and it is better than the old Apple TV, but that is not what I’m measuring it against. I’m measuring it against the time since the last Apple TV iteration. I’m measuring the completeness of the platform. I’m comparing it against other devices and services on the market. Add to that that many of the comments and criticisms are all very similar and I’m being perfectly reasonable.

There is one area though where I could have been clearer in communicating though; D-pad vs. touchpad remotes. I’ll try to break that down again:

  • The entire interface is made to work with either a D-pad or a touchpad. All of it.
  • Any other TV remote, Universal remote, or compatible game controller with a D-pad can be used.
  • D-pads allow exact precision for certain things like entering text, or making a selection on a grid.
  • The touchpad is better at scrubbing, and allows for certain interface effects like pivoting tiles, and parallax in the tiles.
  • A replacement Siri Remote is $80.
  • At $160, or $200, a large percentage of the cost appears to be tied up in this remote. (We don’t know the material costs, or margins, but the retail value of these two things is known.)
  • Other than scrubbing, and parallax effects, is it worth the added cost to the device?

To some that’s negative. That’s been repeated back to me as if I want the old aluminum stick. I don’t, it’s a pragmatic thought excercise. They didn’t go far enough distinguishing its function so a D-pad could not be used, but they felt it was better than the touchpad and worth the expense.

As for the symmetry? Everyone agrees. Even people that are “positive” feel like it was a mistake.

The buttons? The most “positive” podcast episode about the new Apple TV, The Talk Show (with Adam Lisagor) was even named after how they wish there was a way to distinguish the buttons by touch.

As a game controller? No one likes, or recommends, playing games on the remote versus third-party controllers. There are a few people on Twitter that say it’s good, but then say they use a game controller anyway. In that case, it’s perfectly valid to question why Apple thought it was suitable to do so with the remote, and why there is no first-party game controller. It’s not negativity. (Also saying you’re not really planning on playing any games with it in your review doesn’t excuse any of this, it just doesn’t personally impact you.)

Apple decided to release the device, as it is, on a schedule they selected, with the R&D they chose. They said the future of TV is apps. It is far too generous to merely compare it to the old Apple TV and say it’s better than that one. (A device they are still happy to sell!) Ask yourself why they did what they did for every feature you see, or don’t see. Some things seemingly have no logical answer, like Bluetooth keyboard support, where it could be anything from a lack of development time (unacceptable answer), or an intentional omission to prevent word processor apps. I even saw someone suggest it was a security issue, which is the kind of excuse that doesn’t stand up to basic scrutiny.

I also feel as if I need to disclaim where my criticism is directed. It’s directed at the abstract entity of Apple, and the key executives that approve the product. I am not writing about device shortcomings to make the engineers and designers feel bad. I’ve worked on many film and TV shows and I know that criticism of the film is not criticism of my work on the film. Nor do projects I’ve worked on deserve glowing reviews based on how much effort I put in. If that were the case, I would have only worked on films, and TV shows, that bowed to rave reviews. So no, it is not ever a personal critique of the people putting blood sweat and tears in.

I know that the project will continue to improve. That no matter what you may think of the Apple TV, or the remote, or the App Store, or game controllers – we can all agree improvements will at least start to happen. Let’s just all be honest that it needs improvement, and not all of it is a software tweak.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-11-04-Apple-TV.html Apple TV 2015-11-04T16:23:00Z 2015-11-04T16:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Anyone that reads this blog knows that I have some passionate feelings about Apple’s media ecosystem. Seems pretty natural, since I work in media, and I quite like Apple. This does lead me to be critical when I see some shortcomings. If you just want to feel happy, and smile, then read my overall summary here, and no further: I like it. I do not love it. I wouldn’t draw a little heart next to it. We are not sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. The device would benefit greatly from some more work. I also would only recommend the device to people that own a previous generation Apple TV, or earlier. I am not going to buy one for everyone I know, or tell them to do so.

(Rolls up sleeves)

OK then.

Release

This was not the most elegant release of an Apple product ever. They announced that it would be available in October in September. Then, at the end of October, it was available for order on that last Monday in the U.S. Free shipping would get you the device as early as Monday, November 2nd. Paying extra could get it to you on the 30th of October. In store availability was listed as “Coming Soon”. Fearing that meant the supply was constrained, I picked the free shipping option. I typically prefer to pick up in store because I work long hours and don’t like the thought of a box sitting around for many hours on a weekday.

Of course, Wednesday there were rumors that stores would have the devices on Friday, the 30th. This is sooner than my estimated shipping time. I could not cancel my order because it was in a stage referred to as “preparing for shipment”. I contacted customer support, and there was nothing they could do. It would be shipped, and delivered, and then I could return it if I wanted. Knowing this, I went to Century City Mall’s Apple Store and bought an Apple TV Saturday, October 31st. Happy Halloween. The sales process in the store was smooth and pleasant. I was not offered an HDMI cable, but didn’t need one. I planned to return the shipping device.

This is pretty far from a graceful product launch. It just shows up Monday. No availability for stores is listed, and then by that Friday, it’s available in stores before it’s shipped for people that might have bought on Monday. Crummy.

Even more annoying is that as I write this, that delivery TV unit was marked as “delivered” by the company Apple contracted with, OnTrac, and is nowhere to be found. That’s my fault for putting any faith in getting something delivered when I’m not home (first time in 10 years anything’s gone missing). I really should have waited and not ordered at all on that Monday. I was too excited to have one, and now I’m out $163 — unless it turns out it’s been misplaced. (OnTrac wouldn’t return my calls or email, and I had to send a public-shaming tweet on Twitter before a representative got in touch. They let me know that I can’t deal with them, I have to call a special number for Apple and talk to them.)

UPDATE: This shipping situation was resolved.

Initial Setup

When connected to your TV, and to power, the Apple TV prompts you to get started with the install process. You’re offered the opportunity to load data from your nearby phone to assist with the setup process. As Jason Snell, Myke Hurley, and I all detailed on Upgrade 61, this process is a bit of a mixed bag. The Bluetooth setup didn’t work at all for Myke. The setup worked for Jason Snell and I. Also, when I moved my new Apple TV from my boyfriend’s apartment to my apartment it wasn’t automatically on my WiFi network. I’m guessing it only copies WiFi credentials from your iPhone, but I listened to Dan Benjamin say that it worked for him when he took his from his office to his home. I’m not sure why that worked for him and not for me, but I would need more data, and I’m fresh out of WiFi locations and TVs.

There’s no mechanism to trigger the pairing again, from what I could tell, other than a device reset, I assume. The only reason this is even worth mentioning is because it is an absolutely terrible experience to type passwords on the Apple TV. The whole alphabet on a row, and a narrow touchpad, lead to a lot of frustration as you try not to overshoot or undershoot letters. Unlike previous Apple TV devices, this is the only way to enter text.

What’s in the Baaaahhhhhhhcccksss?

As Myke opined on the episode of Upgrade I was on, the new TV doesn’t include an Haytch-DMI cable. Jason Snell relayed a story that he was asked if he had a cable by the Apple Employee he picked up his device from. The employee I collected my device from made no such offering/warning. It didn’t take me by surprise of course, because… well I wouldn’t be writing these blog posts if it took me by surprise. Myke was concerned that many people would assume the cable would be included. If you do need one, get Amazon Basics, or Monoprice, or whatever. No rose-gold-plated HDMI cables for me.

Apple does include a Lightning cable, which they charge a pretty penny for when you buy one by itself, so it’s not like they’re worried about the expense of a cable. Also, I have a lot of Lightning cables at this point, and I’m willing to bet all Apple TV customers do. The remote even comes with a charge, which is the only reason to use the cable. Since there are minor variations in HDMI cables, it seems like it would be better to include that and exclude the lightning cable for a comparable cost.

Remote Possibilities

The one thing I had wondered about for many months was whether or not the Apple TV would support an updated version of the Remote iOS app. Then all the press reviews started to come in, and the app is not supported, much to my chagrin. When I talked to Jason Snell on Upgrade, I was surprised to learn that he had asked about this back at the first product announcement and had been told by an Apple representative that it would not be supported at all. Not a “maybe” or a “later” but a “no”.

The new Apple TV also dropped support for Bluetooth keyboards.

I feel like this is an enormous mistake. The process of text entry is like sliding your thumb back and forth over the width of a ruler. This makes no sense to me given the number of times that you can enter text during the setup process. Even after a successful Bluetooth pairing, you’re still entering iCloud and iTunes account passwords (almost always the same) and at some point you’ll be prompted to either enter your CCV number from the credit card associated with your iTunes account, or to use iTunes on a computer to update your payment info. Jason Snell experienced the later and detailed it a bit on Upgrade, and in a post for his site.

It was far easier to enter passwords using the old Remote app for iOS. I didn’t even like the Remote app but I’m even less in-like with not having one at all.

Not only that, but the capabilities of the Siri Remote match those of most iPhones — in fact most iPhones surpass them. One particular area that most modern iPhones excel is in securing your identity and verifying your purchases. The TV doesn’t care one lick about that. Even when they know that entering the password over and over is annoying, the solution is “ask every time”, “ask once every 15 minutes”, and “do not ask again”. Which is not a secure solution when you think about what people are going to select after having to deal with entering passwords through the setup process.

Also consider the number of people that will be using the device in a household.

Sensors

The new remote comes with many of the sensors the iPhone has. It even has a touch sensor that uses glass. Although the touch sensor is more like a very tiny trackpad than a screen. Very tiny.

I feel like they aren’t of much use. You see, tvOS doesn’t use them for anything other than the parallax effects. That’s it. The rest is all for games apps, which are terrible to play with Apple’s remote. I’ve been told that the games are better with third party game controllers, but that’s not what the TV ships with, and Apple doesn’t offer their own.

Sensitive Issues

The touchpad calibration seems slightly off for me. I’ve tried the options for adjusting the touchpad sensitivity in Settings, but even at it’s highest sensitivity, I frequently skip one past, and go one short. It’s not as precise as a directional pad — a D-Pad.

Confusingly, the whole Apple TV interface works with the previous generation remote, or with a universal remote of your choosing. That makes it feel like there’s even less of a reason for all the fanciness of the remote. A part of me wonders if it would have been better to target a lower price point by using a directional remote with a microphone. A substantial portion of the device’s expense seems to be tied up there. Offload the gaming experience to a real controller, since I think the remote is an absolutely terrible game controller in every game I’ve played.

Disney Infinity 3.0 - Battle for Yavin, is available for the device, and it was something Phil Schiller was very excited about at the product launch. However, this is the worst game I tested. The remote needs to be held sideways, and it’s far too small for that. It’s like I’m trying to hold a doll-sized teacup and saucer to play a game. The buttons also don’t have the right responsiveness for a game controller in this configuration, and the touchpad is, again, too small.

Siri Pros and Khans

Siri has functioned much better on the TV than I had assumed it would. Most queries, and commands, work as expected. I don’t like to use it to command the TV, but that might be because I’m not used to talking to the remote. The few cases that seem to trip it up have to do with words that sound the same. Unfortunately, when I asked for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Siri transcribed it as “Star Trek two the wrath of con”. No results, of course, because no movie is named that. Unfortunately, it’s not smart enough to use context to resolve a situation like that. Jason Snell had some similar experiences when he was looking for something with a very generic name, Spy.

It’s worked for every actor, and character, I could think to test so far. It’s also nice that you can phrase your command to only return Netflix results. I knew that Netflix would be in Universal Search but I am elated that it can be used as a filter for searching.

This works as advertised. Netflix is returned first for any titles where it’s present, over iTunes, which isn’t free. A really positive experience. One strange thing is that when your Universal Search result loads a movie up, you get a screen that is very similar to the iTunes store screen, only with the icons for other services in a bar below the description. I wish that the search results were distinguished a little differently from the store pages, or that the store pages just were the same as the search result pages.

App Store

One of the nice things about setting up the fourth generation Apple TV over the previous one, is that you’re left in complete control over what you want to have on the home screen. No more cricket channel! You do need to open the App Store and start populating the screen with all the usual suspects though. Netflix, YouTube, Hulu (if you’re into that sort of thing) etc. Broadcasters also have apps, and the App Store team has highlighted all the major things you would want. You do need to do a bit of initial downloading, but most of the media apps are relatively small compared to the games.

For people just starting out, I recommend going to the Purchased Apps section of the App Store. Many of the iOS apps for media companies will have tvOS support. Same for games. This is a quick way to get all the things you’ve already bought elsewhere. It won’t remember passwords, or authorizations, or anything, so you have to go back through and do that for every app that requires one, on every device you own.

Most of that activation consists of going to a URL on your computer, or iOS device, and entering a short code that the TV gives you. There’s some wrangling with service providers for some apps. Cord Cutters and Cord Nevers will find this really frustrating because there isn’t any warning in the app store that you’ll need a cable, or satellite, subscription for many of these. Even the broadcasters that you can pick up using an antenna put their content behind walls, and they do it differently, and for different kinds of content. NBC has a section in their app where they make it clear you can watch some programs below without needing to be signed in to anything. Some. The CBS app is useless without a CBS All Access subscription.

When you start to add up all the content subscriptions, it gets quite expensive. You know what would be great? A single sign-on through Apple that gave the apps the appropriate authorization and let you just watch TV. That would be swell. I am assuming that when Apple launches their OTT, it will basically just be that. However, with the way the TV is right now, it might be a service you log into in every app individually still and then authorize your account on another device…

Sharing is Caring

Apple has launched a new platform, in 2015, and it has no social component. Sure, you’re signed in to Game Center through your Apple ID, and you’ll see a little message notification in the upper-right corner welcoming you when launch a game, but that’s it. There’s no Game Center interface or app. It just makes a note of your game progress which you can see on other platforms.

While it’s fun to joke that a Twitter client would be terrible, the ability to share a link to what you’re doing in an app, or a link to an app, or piece of media, would be a huge improvement. There’s no concept of sharing services at all. Remember, this is 2015.

AirPlay

I’ve had some peculiar things happen with AirPlay. The parentheses problem is still on the device, which is super annoying, and sometimes when your AirPlay connection drops, you’re greeted to multiple Apple TV instances to pick from. The other issue is that while I was listening to audio in Overcast, AirPlayed to my TV from my iPhone, and I opened the Photos app on my iPhone, Overcast stopped playing and my Photos app was mirrored to the TV. I have AirPlay mirroring off. I left photos, hit play in Overcast, set one of the two Apple TV instances as my source and waited for it to start playing again. Same thing. Mirroring was off when I was outside the Photos app, but once it was launched, it overrode my setting and mirrored my photos. I also tested with the Music app on the phone. With that I got long pauses in playback, but they would pick back up again.

Anyway, this is not so good.

4K

Just go read the thing I wrote about this before. Same. I think it’s awkward that the iPhone records in UHD, and they’re making a big deal about the iMac Retina displays (not 4k UHD). Also it’s a marketing tool for Amazon and Roku to use against Apple. Other than that? Inconsequential.

No Backup

One of the really strange omissions for a device built on top of iOS is that there is no way to back up the device at all. Not to iTunes, nor to iCloud. This didn’t even dawn on me until most of the way through the week. You can’t restore your device from a saved state at all. Your purchases are all intact, but that’s not the same thing. Hopefully they roll something out, and certainly before next year (maybe?), when people upgrade devices.

The Future

The device feels very unfinished. Surprising, given the amount of time between the last model and this one. Rumors are that the team working on it stopped and it sat there while Apple tried to work with outside parties. Then they gave up and had to resume. Apple picked when to ship this device though, just like every other thing they make.

There’s also the issue of “Starting at $69” — that’s not true. Selling the other Apple TV is bizarre. It functions as a cheap media streamer but it has no direct relationship with the current TV. On a recent episode of the Clockwise podcast, Anže Tomic asked the panelists why there wasn’t a cheapo streaming dongle like the Chromecast, or Fire TV Stick. There was an ensuing discussion and Jason Snell coined “AirPlay Express” which I will use to refer to whatever they replace the $69 unit with. I do not think it’s a good experience to continue to sell the old one, and I don’t think it’s acceptable to retire it and leave a $159 price umbrella for the competition. Maybe an entry level device couldn’t play games, or came preloaded with streaming apps?

I do have some hopes for the future, like a unified content strategy, single sign-on experience, picture-in-picture, and some sort of guide view that displays all the live streaming media from installed apps. Oh, and Touch ID…

Last November, Dan Moren wrote on SixColors that his wishlist item for the next Apple TV was Siri integration. I saw Dan’s post and argued that it would be better to have Touch ID integration. Well everything’s coming up Morenhouse! The Siri integration is there, and Touch ID is not. Good thing no one hates entering passwords, because the new Apple TV certainly doesn’t make you enter passwords. OH WAIT IT TOTALLY DOES. Maybe next time, you will all clap louder at my ideas.

It’s pretty typical of Apple Product launches to already talk about what we want to see in the next one, so I didn’t want to bring this up on Upgrade and derail us.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-10-16-Defocused-on-the-Incomparable-Network.html Defocused on the Incomparable Network 2015-10-16T07:53:00Z 2015-10-16T07:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/

The podcast Dan Sturm and I do has joined The Incomparable’s network of shows this week. A while back Jason Snell had suggested that our show would be a good fit with what they do, and I took that as a huge compliment because I have always admired the shows that he produces over there. From the main “The Incomparable” which started it all, to the spin-offs, and sub-spin-offs that populate the site. There’s a little something for everyone. That includes us now too.

For anyone unfamiliar with our show, but somehow reading this blog (How? Why?) I’ll briefly explain the podcast. Dan has a background in directing commercial projects, and VFX compositing. He has strong opinions, and he hates space.

I have a degree in computer animation (chillax, it’s a BFA and I’m not even a good animator) and I’ve worked for 10 years doing lighting and compositing (told you I wasn’t a good animator). I have different opinions, and I love space.

Together we spend as little time talking about the industry we work in as possible, and most of the time talking nonsense about movies we watch.

What kind of movies? I would describe the assortment as “eclectic”. Everything from modern action movies, to 80s comedy, to 80s action, to 90s comedy, to… Hmm. Maybe it’s not that eclectic.

New listeners might enjoy the episodes with guests they’re familiar with:

And since it’s October again, there’s all the Halloween (ish) themed stuff from last year:

Ghostbusters II was just recorded, so expect more spoooooooky stuff this month.

Also, my love of The Incomparable Radio Theater specials (the series wasn’t out yet) inspired me to write the fake award show episode. That’s a terrible place to start as a first time listener, but Dan spent like 40,000 hours editing it, so I want to demonstrate that our audio podcast isn’t just about our pretty looks.

Long Time Listeners

We (Dan) updated the show art for the new network bug, and Greg Knauss imported all of our episodes and setup the redirects. Since Dan ran the original site, and owns the domain, he got to do all the real work. (Like usual, I am a parasite. (But I did composite together that Zeppelin gif! (That’s the kind of thing a parasite would point out.)))

Oh, and if anyone needs to transform some podcast files1 from “ep#-YYYY-MM-DD-v###.mp3” to “defocused#.mp3”:

import glob
import os

src = glob.glob("*.mp3")

for s in src:
    os.rename(src, (src.split("-")[0].replace("ep", "defocused") + ".mp3")

Dan and I work pretty hard on this hobby of ours, and we have worked on it for over a year. The show is still going to be run the same, and still just as bad/good as ever.

The announcement went live when I had a work deadline so I basically just faved things as they came in. I do really appreciate all the feedback from listeners, and I know Dan does too. I also appreciate all the work Dan, Greg, and Jason Snell put in to get Defocused rolling.


  1. This section is for Dr. Drang.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-10-13-40666K-Retina-iMac.html 4.0666K Retina iMac 2015-10-13T17:23:00Z 2015-10-13T17:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The 4K iMac came out. When this resolution was originally mentioned in the rumors, I was a little confused. 4096 x 2304 is not what all the TV people call 4K, or even what the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus shoot. That 4K is the UHD resolution of 3840×2160. Apple doesn’t ship any display, on any device, that is 3840x2160.

We all watch scaled video, all the time, and that’s no sin. But it would be nice if Apple would ship something that was 1:1. If you watch “4K” video on your “4K” iMac, every pixel is being resampled to scale up by 1.0666.

I am excited about the updates to the range of colors that can be displayed. From Jason Snell’s review for Macworld:

Apple says that the display in this 4K iMac, as well as the revision to the 5K iMac that was announced the same day, offers an expanded color space. Thanks to new red-green phosphor LEDs, the displays can display a wider range of red and green light than before, allowing them to display 25 percent more colors.

In a demo at Apple, I was able to detect subtle differences. The new displays can offer more color detail and more vibrancy than the display on the older 5K iMac models. I’m a little red-green color blind, and even I could detect the differences. If you work in graphics or video, you’ll probably be happy to have access to a display that’s capable of displaying 99 percent of the P3 color space.

P3 is DCI-P3, which… Well, go read this, and then this.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-10-05-I-Once-Was-in-Maps-but-Now-Im-Found.html I Once Was in Maps, but Now I'm Found 2015-10-05T08:38:00Z 2015-10-05T08:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I was very excited about Apple Maps when the rumors surrounding its launch circulated in 2012. The Google contract for map data was going to expire but the company that deeply respects its customers would have something amazing. I cautiously updated my iPad (3) to iOS 6 to test it out, and didn’t update my iPhone 4 to iOS 6 until the following January, when the Google Maps app was available. There’s no denying how bad it was, because Tim Cook even wrote a statement apologizing for it.

I keep testing out Apple Maps every few months to see what’s happening with it – Usually when major updates are announced, or when some tech-pod-blog-ocaster mentions a positive experience. I would like to be pleasantly surprised, and then remove Google Maps. They are a company that specializes in personalized ad tracking, and here I am, shoving my location in their face.

Instead, here we are, three years later. Still working around Siri, and working around apps that integrate Apple Maps (like Yelp), and copying and pasting addresses in to Google Maps.

Works for Me

When I have discussed my issues with Apple Maps in the past I’ve received feedback that was not entirely helpful. Informing me about how well Apple Maps works in places I am not has done very little to improve how Apple Maps works here.

Telling me that I can report issues from inside the Maps app is something I already know, and have talked about in the past. It is safe to assume I have reported the complaints detailed below. Expressing my disappointment is not mutually exclusive to reporting issues. They’ve spent three years working on Maps, and made a big song and dance number about it at WWDC in June. I am not being overly critical of some just-launched beta from a startup.

However, I must apologize for ignoring the earnest advice to move somewhere else. I’m sure if I moved somewhere my job wasn’t then the quality of a maps and directions app would be unimpeachable.

Location, Location, Location?

There have been several improvements to location data both in the map view itself, and from the various iOS features which hook in to apps. Certainly this is much better than when the service launched with multiple, conflicting addresses for locations, and conflicting Yelp reviews. Even last year, when I bought my iPhone 6 with iOS 8, the location data was still pretty wonky. One particular test I conducted was asking for directions to “City Hall”.

The Maps app now correctly lists the city hall for the city I’m in right now (Los Angeles) as the first suggestion when I type the query, and follows it up with the other halls that are closer to me, but not the city hall of the city I’m in. For some inexplicable reason, “City Hall” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is still listed as a suggestion. At least it is no longer the primary result.

However, if I hit “search” without selecting one of the suggestions, I receive “City Hall, London”. Not to spoil any surprises, but if you click the little car icon for driving directions the app will regretfully inform you that it could not determine a route.

Confusingly, when I ask Siri for directions to city hall, I am presented with a list of locations that’s completely different from those suggestions the Maps app generates, and one of them is a gospel hall.

I don’t understand why these results are all different. Even if it’s struggling with the generic term, it should have the same struggle everywhere.

What about “Downtown LA”?

No, Apple Maps. I can’t even.

On a more positive note: Someone at Apple accepted one of the many reports I’ve been sending about my apartment address. I check every six to eight months, so I’m not exactly sure when they fixed my address. I no longer need to get route guidance to my neighbors’ buildings, and I can use Siri commands like, “Give me directions home”. This is a very exciting development for me.

The other location improvements have less significance to me, but I do still miss Google’s Street View. If you tap on an address that has no Yelp data you get a spartan, white page with a slowly rotating satellite view of the street, which is useless.

Categories for nearby locations are very nice, and I haven’t come across anything miscategorized, but I have a nit to pick about it all being radial to your location, and you can’t build a route. This is tricky, I know, but gas stations along my commute are more helpful than a radial cluster of pins from wherever I am along that commute. Waze has these sorts of features, but I had poor performance from their app and removed it in frustration. It would be nice if Siri could leverage the categories, and the route I’m on, as if it was some kind of virtual assistant.

LA Transit

(Update: I took Apple’s announcement at WWDC that iOS 9 would have transit support in LA to mean it would be included when iOS 9 launched. According to a page buried on Apple’s site, they have not rolled out Los Angeles support yet.)

Transit directions are of academic interest to me, but I have no real ability to test them other than trying a few random queries. While Apple has made arrangements for public transit data in LA, it seems to be very incomplete. No bus routes are available when I conducted some searches on the Westside. I also conducted a search from Culver City to the Los Angeles Convention Center, which should have shown me the Expo Line light rail route, but instead I got the same error as the buses. “Transit directions are not available between these locations. View routing apps.” I can select the installed Google Maps app and I’m presented with the Expo Line. It doesn’t even flinch. Maybe there are some routes that function in LA, since Apple listed LA as a city they would have this data for, but I can’t think of any.

Perceived Slowness

Since the Apple Maps app was introduced, the slow, whimsical animations have bugged the crap out of me. You don’t always see them, sometimes it just snaps directly to the relevant view. Other times it involves a lot of slow pans and zooms. I don’t need to see all of North America while the app slowly zooms in to where I am. I am pretty aware of where North America is in relation to me.

3D also seems to add some processing weight to the situation, which I don’t really need. Building height is one of those metrics they got from their aerial mapping that’s neat in demos, but doesn’t serve any purpose in the real world.

The flyover stuff… I mean, I guess it’s cool? But I don’t use it. It’s always in Apple’s marketing, but why? It doesn’t help you do anything. And it still has weird spots that … I just don’t know why this is a marketable feature.

Glancaeble

It’s important to keep your eyes on the road. Glancing at certain elements of your console for vital info is a necessity. Using thin weights for the display of information in a navigation app is just dumb. At a glance, you can see the number of miles to your next turn, or decimal value thereof, and an icon representing the kind of turn you will need to execute. White bars float over streets, but you can’t read them, and the street you’re turning on to is so tiny and waif-like that it might as well not be there. A thicker weight is used for the time, but again, a small size makes it hard to read clearly in a split second. Things also wouldn’t need to be so small if they weren’t all crammed in the top bar.

Even the icon for the turn you need to execute can be comically wrong.

Google Maps does a much better job at communicating at information at a glance. The top shows you an icon for the turn you need to make, as well as icons for lane guidance, and the name of the street you are approaching, instead of putting the emphasis on the number of miles you’re traveling to the turn. An estimate for the remaining time to travel is also available in large, thick numbers across the bottom of the display.

Google also changes aspects of the display based on traffic information, but more on that in the next section.

Traffic

One of the things I’ve found puzzling about the design of the Apple Maps interface is that you can see traffic, and travel estimates supposedly influenced by traffic, in the route overview, but no traffic information is provided when turn-by-turn is on. All the roads are tranquil, neutral tones, and a serene blue path flows before you. It’s as if you’re in a kayak, on a river, being gently pulled along by the flow of water.

That’s not true, of course, because why would there be that much water in Los Angeles?

At heavy intersections, like Highland Ave. and Franklin Ave., you see no information about the flow of traffic in any direction. Instead of blue, you should see the streets run red with the blood of the Traffic God. Woe betide thee that commute on his most sacred of poorly designed intersections!

Tonight, Apple Maps routed me down Cahuenga to Highland. That sent me past the large, somewhat famous, amphitheater known as The Hollywood Bowl. Not a big deal, unless there’s an event at The Bowl. Guess what? There was an event! Van Halen! There were orange, safety cones and traffic cops directing at intersections. Apple Maps just herp-derped me through that. The only difference in the display was the estimated arrival time slowly ticking upward as I crawled.

On exactly one occasion I had Apple Maps present me with a yellow bar across the top, and Siri’s voice notified me that there was a delay due to an accident. (No alternate routing was provided on this occasion.) Waze has a leg up on Apple and Google when it comes to accident notifications. You even get notified about which lane the accident is in. Google sources some Waze data, but isn’t as specific. On the 101 N last night there was a very sudden slowdown, without warning, at a time of night when there shouldn’t be traffic at all. I waited patiently for Apple Maps to let me know what it was, and Apple Maps was oblivious to it. There was apparently a car accident that closed two lanes, and the car was being loaded on to a flatbed truck, so it wasn’t recent. Why Apple Maps kept silent about it, I don’t know.

Google Maps, in contrast, indicates traffic in several places. When cars are moving slowly, the road is red, as well as the estimated travel time. It serves as an appropriate cue that Google knows the street I’m on is slow, and thus I trust that Google is correctly monitoring the flow of cars. When Apple Maps has an unchanging interface, and an estimated arrival time that keeps ticking up, I have no sense that they understand the clusterfuck I’m stuck in. It’s not that Google Maps clears traffic, but it reassures you that it knows of it.

Google also provides alternate route suggestions as traffic conditions change. Sometimes there’s a prompt for a different route that will save X number of minutes. If I don’t accept the change, then I putter along on the current route. Far more often, I see the little gray paths with estimates of how many minutes faster, or slower, the route is.

I must ding Google for those little gray routes though. Often times the minute-by-minute fluctuations of traffic change on those paths so they are not always improvements. Also, Google’s app will occasionally lay several of the route suggestions on top of each other. For instance, you might be on Melrose, and the original path is to make a left at Highland, you see a suggestion to stay on Melrose and it will be 3 minutes faster. You tap it, and get a slower route. Zoom out and you’ll see that there were two routes it was suggesting that coincided at Melrose, so you got a route, but not the fast one you thought you were seeing. Why this behavior has persisted is beyond me, but it’s been there since they put these branching suggestions in.

Lanes

Lane guidance is a feature present in Google Maps, but not found in Apple Maps. I find it invaluable when I am traveling in a congested area and unfamiliar with where turn lanes, or exits, will split and join. Some exit lanes might quickly expand in to three lanes with turns in different directions, and Google Maps will tell you which ones you can be in, or even that you will be fine in the lane you’re already in. It’s a comfort, but not a requirement. If you miss a turn, or can’t get to an exit lane, then any map app will reroute you. It’s just nice to reduce the rerouting.

It’s not flawless though, and Apple could learn from Google’s mistakes if they ever implement this feature. Google notifies you of the lane arrangement as it will be when you need to change lanes, not in terms of the lane arrangement you’re currently in.

An irritating example of this is traveling through Downtown LA. The Google Maps issue is that the number of lanes on the 110, heading toward Santa Monica, changes rapidly. You’ll be notified to get in the exit lane to merge from the 110 to the 10 around the 7th avenue exit. If you immediately maneuver to the lane, in the freeway as you currently see it, then you’re in the wrong spot. Two more lanes will merge on to the right of you before you get off, and Google Maps was including those lanes in the guidance it gave when they weren’t there. Ugh.

It took me a bit to wrap my head around the way this guidance gets delivered, but I still prefer it to Apple Maps, which cheerfully asks you to exit right, sometimes with little warning.

Apple Maps also seems blithely unaware of where special turn lanes start and stop, unlike Google. On a major roadway, it is not unusual to have a left turn lane start a significant distance from an intersection, and feature a solid, white line to deter people from making last minute lane changes. When making a turn from Santa Monica Blvd. to Beverly Glen Blvd., Apple Maps verbally alerted me to make a left after it was no longer legal to do so.

I have it on good authority that the vans Apple is driving around have lidar, and that lidar can be used for figuring out lanes. The more light will bounce off the reflective paint than off of anything else, even reflective cars. They might just be throwing away all that data and using the lidar to make really neat, really useless flyovers, but I hope they are using it to determine lanes.

Until We Cross Paths Again

I’m not even remotely on the fence about this decision. I am very disappointed because it would be the most convenient, OS-integrated, privacy-focused application for me to use. I simply value efficiency too much to rely on it in high-traffic LA. I hope it continues to improve, and that they continue to build in features that help it better estimate, and communicate, road conditions, and provide me with an interface that demonstrates that.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-09-30-Your-Apple-Music-Trial-Membership-is-Almost-Up.html Your Apple Music Trial Membership is Almost Up 2015-09-30T16:08:00Z 2015-09-30T16:08:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/

That was the headline of an email that Apple sent to me yesterday. I checked around with a few people and Apple doesn’t send a similar reminder to people to remind them that they have auto-renew on. Not that it’s the worst thing in the world, but I got a little chuckle out of it.

I turned off auto-renew back when I discovered the ways in which iCloud Music Library was broken for me. I figured I would see how things went with updates and the Radar ticket that was open.

It’s September 30th and while several updates to iOS have been released (and god knows how they version whatever’s on the server backend) I still don’t have a functional iCloud Music Library. My Queen albums are still jacked, and my playlists created before joining Apple Music still spontaneously — and simultaneously — combust. They did close my Radar ticket as a duplicate, so I suppose that counts for something.

Someone might think that it’s sort of silly to obsess over a few broken things. I have access to all the Queen catalog in Apple Music, even if it isn’t ordered and rated the way I had it. I could rebuild all my playlists, manually, as totally new ones. It isn’t impossible to do these things, I’d probably loose many hours, but it would probably work. Probably being a key word there.

There are all the other problems I was having with the interface, Connect, For You, Beats One, and discoverability. So it’s not like it was perfect for me.

Since I never spent $9.99 a month on music to begin with (monthly average is several dollars lower), and it basically doesn’t make my life any better, then it makes no sense for me.

The part that does make me a little annoyed is that I’m not sure how things are going to shape up for non-Apple-Music subscribers in the future. When major iOS revisions come out, are the engineers even going to check and make sure non-iCloud music syncing works? Will they make sure widgets draw correctly? Will purchasing music in the iTunes Store iOS app get buggy and weird (I mean, worse than now, obvi.) I may be back to using Apple Music if the balance of frustration, and neglect, tips the other way. It’s not like I’m switching to Android.

Your Music may vary.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-09-09-The-Apple-TV-Countdown.html The Apple TV Countdown 2015-09-09T09:53:00Z 2015-09-09T09:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I am on vacation and haven’t been writing about all the TV stuff I would ordinarily have been. I have kept an eye on Twitter, and read an article here and there. Apologies for not listening to all the podcasts, and reading all the things, but there are a couple words I would like to arrange before the event.

Content

The most surprising part of this is the rumored focus on gaming. I had guessed early on that TVKit would more likely be for creating media apps than for games (this still might be the case, and GameKit could be expanded to include the TV functions, but that’s splitting hairs). The noise makes it seem very likely that there will be several games demos. Mea culpa.

There is some strange trepidation in the tweets I’ve read from people who are serious about games, along with some outright denial, and defensive posturing, over whether or not Apple “can” and “should” do anything games related. I have to assume these reactions are mostly tied to fears gamers have over people that aren’t serious about games entering the game space. Whether that’s Apple as a company, or common folk buying an Apple TV to play games. I’m just going to outright dismiss those concerns. Almost nothing Apple demos on stage, game wise, ever really turns into anything huge. Developers usually find fun games to make much later. Infinity Blade, and cherry blossoms, and fish, etc. Humorously, Apple occasionally ropes EA into showing off some garbage. I assume they feel it helps lend credibility to their game demos.

None of that has ever inhibited people from playing games on iOS devices, or served as much of a prediction about how games would work even a few months after hardware and software releases.

People coming down hard on whether or not the Apple TV will work as a games console should read this terrible piece in Variety where the writer discounts Apple’s abilities because there is no OTT service to prove how serious Apple is about content. That kind of writing is mostly how all the gamers writing about Apple read to me. (That might be an extreme example since that Variety piece is just so bad.)

It’s worth circling back to the video content discussion, and that Variety piece, because it’s worth highlighting how myopic it is.

Launching a box without a new content service offering doesn’t surprise me at all, given that I’ve been arguing that for months. (Seriously, Tim, get in touch.)

I still expect third party apps for content streaming services to be demoed at the event. Perhaps a mention of HBO subscriptions? It is inevitable that someone will demonstrate something sports related. MLB runs many of the streaming services for other companies (including non-sports HBO, as well as other sports like the NFL). I don’t much care for sports, but they are undeniably a significant force, especially when it comes to adopting new technology. So while there’s no OTT with ESPN bundled with local broadcast affiliates, there will likely be something.

I don’t know if Apple will demonstrate anything for international customers at the event as I’m not sure how global the initial device launch is.

Leverage

Why launch without every little thing? Why not wait forever for OTT? Because selling devices that can use an OTT service later makes for great leverage in the neverending negotiations. The networks and studios have no real deadline to adopt Apple’s terms. No urgency. They will continue their slow, downward spiral because it still seems like the most stable option to them.

Chicken and egg. There aren’t enough Apple TV customers to make Apple’s OTT terms worthwhile, and you can’t sell Apple TV’s that only offer non-existent OTT as a selling feature. You offer gaming and other media apps, sell the Apple TVs, then you have enough customers to make OTT worthwhile.

4K Video

I had already guessed there would be no 4K video way back when because there simply isn’t the inventory of available UHD remasters, and studios would likely demand increased prices. I do expect an eventual shift in the iTunes Store, just not now.

The next iPhone recording “4K” video presents an awkward little dance since the TV won’t have 4K playback, and nothing Apple makes actually has 1:1 pixels with UHD. Even the theoretical 4K iMac would scale the video up. All other models, beside the 4K and 5K iMacs will scale the video down. Including home movies played back on the new Apple TV.

Siri

I appear to also be wrong about Siri. Many moons ago, Dan Moren wrote a piece for Six Colors about his wish for Siri on the Apple TV. I was, of course, uncharacteristically pessimistic about Siri, and wrote how I’d rather have a remote with Touch ID. Guess I owe Dan Moren a drink or something? Or pistols at dawn? I can never remember which.

The event, which will transpire before anyone probably reads this, will surely be interesting.

Event Space

Did it occur to anyone that the space is so big because offering hands-on TV demos takes a lot of room? Especially TV demos with Siri which necessitate some level of noise control? The place is probably full of little rooms with TVs.

I wonder what TV panel Apple will have on display? I doubt it will be Samsung. It would be pretty funny if they went through a lot of trouble to obscure the manufacturers with some black tape. Hehe.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-08-21-Media-Stocks-Tank-After-Analyst-Says-TV-Business-is-Broken.html Media Stocks Tank After Analyst Says TV Business is Broken 2015-08-22T06:08:00Z 2015-08-22T06:08:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Mathew Ingram writing for Fortune:

Disney (DIS -1.18%) alone lost 6% of its value, ending at its lowest level in six months, and has now lost more than $30 billion in market cap in a little over two weeks. Time Warner (TWX -1.62%) was also down about 5%, to its lowest level in 2015, and 21st Century Fox (FOX -2.65%) was down a little over 4%. CBS (CBS -2.04%) and Discovery Communications (DISCA -0.81%) were both down by about 5%, and Viacom (VIA -0.95%) dropped by more than 6%.

The stocks recovered a little bit today but they’re all still down.

The analyst comment that set this all off:

“The market is now valuing U.S. ad-supported TV businesses as structurally impaired assets,” Juenger said. “We believe this is fair and warranted, because: a) we believe TV advertising is undeniably in secular decline; and b) affiliate fees are now also being put at increased risk. When an industry is undergoing a massive structural upheaval, one major revenue stream is already impaired — and now there are signs the second one may be as well — investors won’t wait for final conclusive evidence to reevaluate how much they are willing to pay for the existing status quo cash flow streams.”

In plain English: ad sales are going down, and fees collected from satellite and cable subscribers are declining. It really isn’t so jarring if you’ve been paying attention to media reporting. The media reporters just usually frame it as slight downward trends. Wall Street frames non-growth as death. Those guys are so fun.

As Mathew notes, Netflix and Google are also down. He speculates that “The Market” has taken it’s anger out on all media. Those guys should sacrifice a small animal, or something.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-08-20-Studios-Gamble-on-Untested-Directors-for-Big-Movies-With-Mixed-Results.html Studios Gamble on Untested Directors for Big Movies With Mixed Results 2015-08-20T08:53:00Z 2015-08-20T08:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Josh Rottenberg wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times comparing Colin Trevorrow to Josh Trank. The first few paragraphs make it read like it really is about the two of them, but then the piece goes in a more interesting direction and speculates about why studios want someone inexperienced for these big tent-pole productions.

Both directors were caught up in a trend that has gathered steam in recent years, as studios have been increasingly looking to untested directors to helm high-stakes tent-pole movies. Most recently, in June Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios hired Jon Watts to take over the “Spider-Man” franchise on the strength of his minimalist thriller “Cop Car,” which Watts shot in his rural Colorado hometown for just $800,000.

Sony did something similar already, when they hired Marc Webb to direct the Amazing Spider-Man reboot, and brought him back for the sequel. Sort of a mixed bag there. If you scroll down to the bottom of the LAT piece there’s a “Nine young directors who’ve made the leap from small films to blockbuster projects” list that even highlights Marc Webb in spite of the text above discussing the new fresh-face being brought in for the Spider-Man franchise.

So many factors but one that doesn’t typically get brought up is the fact that many films are made after the footage has been shot. The old joke “we’ll fix it in post” is something everyone’s heard before.

“The studio executives and marketers want to control the movie so badly, they don’t want a visionary director,” says one high-ranking talent agent. “They want to basically make the movie themselves. So much of it is made in CGI now anyway that you can fix it if it’s messed up, so they can get away with a lot more mistakes. And they don’t really care about deep performances from the actors — that’s not really what they’re looking for.”

I can’t speak to this from any tentpoles I’ve personally worked on, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that this is a possible explanation for entrusting unknown directors. Re-editing sequences, flopping plates, stitching two plates together, omits, reshoots, and completely animated shots that can be tweaked until 1 month before release.

Colin notes that he didn’t experience that on Jurassic World but Trank, in his deleted tweet, does lay the blame at the feet of studio meddling. It’s possible the executives at one studio don’t intervene like they do at another, or that they only step in if they (the suits) perceive a problem. (Whether it’s warranted or not.)

As an audience member, I frequently wonder how a studio went along with a director’s impulses, but I also condemn a studio interferring with the artistic intent and making a movie by committee. It’s kind of hard to reconcile these opposing views.

The article even touches on gender for a bit. Noting that inexperienced men are getting these offers, and there doesn’t seem to be the same happening for women. Colin chimed in with a theory that the many women are turning down the opportunities offered to them — LAT highlights Ava DuVernay turning down Black Panther. I’m not sure that I would really focus on her turning that down as an example that women just don’t want these jobs.

In any event, it’s worth thinking about what’s in Rottenberg’s article.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-08-16-Hows-Your-SIGGRAPH.html How's Your SIGGRAPH? 2015-08-17T07:45:00Z 2015-08-17T07:45:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ This past week was SIGGRAPH, a yearly event held in different cities. The last LA one was in 2012, so it’s been a while since I’ve been.

I half-jokingly suggested to Dan that would we meet up at SIGGRAPH and tour it like other podcasters do with CES or WWDC. One of our favorite podcasts (we’re podcast fans too) had a comedy bit poking fun at people constantly asking other people, “How’s your CES?”

Then, before I knew it, we had plans in place and Dan was coming to LA, I was taking a day off work, and we were making silly jokes.

It was such a busy week I haven’t even had the chance to reflect on it until now.

Tuesday, I had to drop off my car (some jerk hit it when it was parked) and pick up a rental, work a day, drive to downtown (turns out there was a Dodgers game causing traffic!), go to a Ringling College of Art and Design event, stop by the bar Dan and I selected for the meet up, and then meet Dan in person in Little Tokyo. I found out at the bar that they had a membership policy, so I got to worry about that, and I had a nasty aftertaste from a margarita and a mojito, so I took a little travel-sized bottle of Listerine I had with me to meet Dan. I spit the mouthwash into a planter just in time to turn to Dan waving to me. I’m not sure how the day could have gone any smoother.

The next day, I met Dan again, picking him up from the LA Hotel (weird name, right?) I put Dan in charge of getting us to the downtown Blue Bottle Coffee (formerly Handsome Coffee). This didn’t work out because Dan’s phone thought he was in Arizona still. Good thing we were in Downtown Los Angeles where the streets are so easy breezy. Ha. We got there, got our coffee and headed back to The Los Angeles Convention Center.

The LACC is a sprawling complex of buildings, with various halls and parking garages. The LA Auto Show uses up the whole thing and there’s frequently plenty of people parking in the private lots around the center. Not for SIGGRAPH this year. Everything was closed up except one garage. Hardly any foot traffic around the building. If you were passing by the buildings, you would assume it was closed.

Making our way to pick up or passes was also strange. In years past, the registration has been in rooms, or in the lobby, downstairs. This year they crammed it next to the “Art Gallery” section. Dan and I had “Exhibition Only” passes which didn’t include the brightly colored, VR-tastic area so we walked back to the main show floor.

So small. Not only were there fewer companies on the floor, but each company dialed back their elaborate booths. Areas had little stands with cloth curtains to sort of shrink in the space (so it didn’t look like a void with a few stray booths). It was pretty depressing and it took hardly any time to walk the show floor to survey what was on offer. Some booths were just a table, others had tables and some demo stations of different products, like Image Metrics which would track bloody wounds, or makeup, on to your face in real time.

A few booths had space for presentations, with some chairs or benches, and large screens. Dan and I witnessed a few of the presentations, but it was all fairly auto-piloty, with slideshows, or sped up movies of workflows.

The Foundry hosted some nice ones for Mari with two texture painters from a video game studio, and another with a presentation from Tippett Studios about how they used Katana and Nuke to quickly execute a sequel project in half the time as the original. (Videos of the booth presentations are available on The Foundry’s site, but it does require creating a login to view them.)

There were some presentations in little rooms upstairs, but the schedules weren’t posted anywhere Dan and I noticed until we wandered up there. By then it was mostly for topics we did not have an enormous interest in.

Even though it was Wednesday, of a week long convention, it seemed to be winding down. Most major things seemed to have happened Monday or Tuesday. I certainly wouldn’t book a week to attend, unless I was some big head-honcho. A Renderman “Art and Science Fair” was scheduled for that night, but it ran for several hours and would have consumed the limited time Dan and I had (besides, neither of us use Renderman these days). Renderman did seem to be the biggest draw, but mostly because people are interested in Pixar (the line for the walking teapots was so long).

We went back to Dan’s hotel, recorded half of a podcast episode wrong, and then half of a podcast episode right. Listen to Episode 59 here.

We grabbed some dinner at a pretty lackluster restaurant (rounding out a full day of pretty unexceptional dining) and finally sorted out how to get people in to the membership-required bar (Dan and I are both members of a rum bar now.) One of the podcast listeners that came to the event even went to SIGGRAPH, but I continue to be fascinated by the listeners we have that enjoy the show regardless of all the inside-baseball stuff about VFX nerdery. Very thankful for all the listeners, even those that could not make it.

Reflecting on the whole thing, I came away with a pretty negative impression of SIGGRAPH 2015. It doesn’t seem to service artists a whole lot, and seems like more of a corporate networking event. Even the job fair section shriveled up and tumbleweeds blew through it. Although Imageworks had a big booth, they were hiring for Vancouver, which still hurts. I wish the people I know there well, but I’ll never be able to work there again. Seemingly none of the other companies were all that interested in LA either. Dan got a free mint though.

Incongruously, there is a ton of cool stuff that comes out of SIGGRAPH. Papers, presentations, software, etc. It mostly affects you if you’re lucky enough to work at a company that can take advantage of these advancements. Or even companies that have R&D budgets. I encourage everyone, regardless of their chosen discipline to check out the work. Stephen Hill from Ubisoft in Montreal is collecting links and putting them up on his blog.

How about a demo of OTOY’s path-tracing, physically-based renderer that streams right to your desktop browser? There’s even a real-time subsurface scattering demo that works in WebGL in your friggin’ phone’s browser.

Seriously, go look through all the amazing stuff people make that you won’t see on tech news sites.

However, if you would prefer to digest this through a news site, I would recommend fxguide, which had a number of people covering it in great detail. Day one, day two, and day three.

The industry I work in sure has changed a lot in the three years since I last attended one in LA, and I was confused about why they even bothered to have it in LA at all this year, let alone Anaheim next year, and LA again the year after that. Sony Pictures Imageworks’ move to North made Vancouver the largest concentration of VFX workers. Sure, there are small places, like my current employer, as well as Disney Animation and DreamWorks, but it hardly seems like a thriving community with high morale. Video games seems to supplement some of those motion picture losses. But they mostly seek out engineers, not artists. Same for VR.

Would I attend another? Sure. Who knows, maybe things will turn around for people in my particular position. Barring that, I’ll at least be able to document it’s steady decline. Yay.

At least I have the podcast with Dan, people that enjoy it, and some neat projects to look at.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-08-12-Supporting-Independents.html Supporting Independents 2015-08-12T16:53:00Z 2015-08-12T16:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ One of the things that I’ve started to question about Apple’s media strategy is how they approach the big power brokers and aren’t fostering a new, independent wave of content creators.

A fascinating Twitter account to follow is @YTCreators. Little tidbits of info surface throughout the day pointing to pages explaining aspect ratios, or to accounts showing videos on low-budget video production, and especially announcements about updates to the app rolling out. YouTube wants people to make YouTube videos, not just videos. There’s a whole experience they want to continue to grow.

A YouTube channel about making YouTube videos is also a natural fit. Videos range from educational to inspirational — like this video with Hannah Hart.

YouTube provides space to work, and collaborate in several major cities for channels with at least 10,000 subscribers. It’s so popular the summer signup period is full, and people have to check back after September 1st. They even offer classes, but they’re full, and they require 500 subscribers to qualify. (Which seems pretty weird for classes on getting started.)

Apple doesn’t have an education program like this. You can sign up for iMovie classes at a local Apple Store, or you can search [iTunes U for a class] that will cover the skills.

People don’t need courses, or fancy studios, or very specific software instructions in order to make video, or upload it to the internet. Creating a focused community around a type of media, and supporting that work, will foster the specific kind of content a company would like. That sounds so cynical, and unartistic, but only when viewed from very far away.

Disconnect

Apple’s most recent investment in social media, and video, is the Connect tab in iTunes Music. It’s not great. It’s limited to musicians right now, but if it was expanded to cover a wider array of media, like YouTube does, it would still seem pretty anemic. Marko Savic speculated about it as a possibility on an episode of Unhelpful Suggestions.

Anyone can start a YouTube channel and upload video. Connect currently requires an artist to be selling music through iTunes, which makes sense since it’s about promoting material on iTunes, but if there was Connect for TV and film, it’s worth checking out what it takes to sell a TV show (most analogous to a vlog series):

The requirements to work directly with Apple are listed below. If you do not meet all of these requirements, you can work with an Apple-approved aggregator instead. Aggregators are third parties that can help you meet technical requirements, deliver and manage your content, and assist with marketing efforts.

Technical Requirements: iTunes does not accept content in physical formats like VHS, DVD, etc. You must deliver your content as a digital file through one of the Apple-approved encoding houses. Be sure to compare their services and fee structures, as this will be a separate cost if you work directly with Apple. Appropriate file storage capability and bandwidth is also required. Alternatively, you may work with an Apple-approved aggregator instead. All video content must be stored in Beta SP format or higher. iTunes only sells video content that is DVD-quality, so the quality of your source must be significantly higher than a standard definition DVD. Content Requirements: At least 50 hours of network-aired TV content Digital distribution rights for all content you intend to sell on the iTunes Store All associated music and talent rights cleared for digital distribution Financial Requirements: A U.S. Tax ID A valid iTunes Store account, with a credit card on file * Apple does not pay partners until they meet payment requirements and earning thresholds in each territory. You should consider this before applying to work directly with Apple as you may receive payments faster by working with an Apple-approved aggregator.

Note: Meeting these requirements and submitting an application does not guarantee that Apple will work directly with you. You may still be referred to an Apple-approved aggregator.

So just get a network TV show, use an approved encoding house, or figure out the aggregators, and you’re all set! Easy peasy!

Compare that with signing up for YouTube uploading a video.

Indeed, even signing up to distribute a podcast (and dealing with XML validation!) seems far more manageable. What if there was a Connect for Podcasts? Well… they’d need to figure out some kind of revenue stream to compete with YouTube, because ‘free’ wouldn’t cut it.

Oddly enough, artists can upload videos, and audio, as part of Connect posts that aren’t part of the iTunes store. Unfortunately, you can’t go back and find those things later because they don’t appear in search results, only from scrolling through the Connect stream.

As for growing a “brand” — It’s a one-way broadcast tool. There are comments, but they’re tucked away. They present in a chronological list, and there’s no pinning, emphasis, threading, or promotion that can be applied. It’s like traveling back in time to 2000. Looking at the comments is just sad.

Connect is clearly for the already established to announce things. They might as well turn off the comment feature.

What Ever Happened to Hollywood?

I mentioned “the established” but it’s not just referring to the already successful stars, directors, and musicians of the world, but the studio systems that support them. Indeed, much of that media might is held by a small group in Los Angeles. They’re pretty old, and not particularly in touch with the youth of today. They control content deals, and they’re the reason why “progress” gets tied up for an eternity.

Apple wants the established media, instead of fostering independent creation, and the established media doesn’t want to give an inch. They might be less, and less powerful every year, but they can still cling to it to prevent a disruption in the business of buying (leasing), and collecting (please lease it again when there’s a new format).

It seems practical for Apple to invest in independent content creators, like YouTube has, and continues to do. They might find themselves in the unenviable situation of only needing Hollywood.

“You aren’t ever gonna sell this house, and you aren’t ever gonna leave it, neither.”

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-08-08-Its-Practical-and-Digital-Not-Practical-vs-Digital.html It's Practical and Digital, Not Practical vs. Digital 2015-08-09T06:53:00Z 2015-08-09T06:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The Verge published a piece on August 4th titled “2015 is the year of Hollywood’s practical effects comeback“, but I mercifully remained ignorant of its existence for four days. This is another long, rambling post about how “practical effects” are good, and “CGI” is bad. You know, the kind of article that sounds very appealing on the surface because it talks about how much better things used to be, and how bad things are now. I am particularly irked that these poorly reasoned opinion pieces get broadcast to large audiences. It’s one thing if someone wants to tweet this, it’s another thing if a journalist uses his platform to broadcast things that aren’t accurate. It makes the discourse worse when that happens.

The reason it happens is because writers don’t know enough about VFX, which makes that black box an easy target. It’s whatever’s in the mystery box that made the movie bad.

The same day Kwame published his piece, Freddie Wong put out a great video that undercuts these sort of arguments. The timing is coincidental, but the subject is the same. Freddie’s video is a great way to demonstrate the flaws with “CG Sucks”. It’s not without flaws, but it’s my number one choice to refer people to.

Ben Kuchera wrote a small bit in favor of Freddie Wong’s short video for another Vox-owned site, Polygon:

The computer is a tool, and some folks know how to use it well while others don’t. It doesn’t make the tool bad when it’s used gracelessly, and we have to improve the conversation about how special effects are used in modern media … especially when we don’t even know they’re there.

Caroline Franke also endorses Freddie’s video, and agrees with him, over at the main Vox site. Curiously, she elected to embed a video from Todd VanDerWerff’s disastrous piece in favor of practical effects. The one where Todd had to print a correction that he was using an E.T. with a computer generated face (he couldn’t tell).

Back to this Verge piece:

I’m going to go through Kwame’s opinion piece and break it down. It’s not the nicest way for me to spend my time, but I don’t want to leave any lingering doubts that this sort of film critique isn’t helpful, and it’s damaging to the public perception of what I do for a living.

2015 is the year of Hollywood’s practical effects comeback

The biggest set piece in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is also its first scene. We’ve all seen it in the trailers: a frantic but determined Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) clutches the side of an Airbus A400 for dear life as it takes off into the stratosphere. While the scene itself is only tangentially related to the overall plot of the movie, Paramount made sure this was the scene that got people into theaters. A large part of this strategy was broadly publicizing the fact that it wasn’t faked. No CGI was used. No expense was spared. Tom Cruise was really and truly strapped to the side of that plane.

Here we see the first problem. If Paramount had not promoted this as being a real stunt, then no one would know it was real or if computers were used to augment reality.

Indeed, computers were used to augment this very scene and remove the wires used to safeguard Tom Cruise’s life. Wire removal is still a visual effect, and it’s not a flashy one because you’re not supposed to see it. It is an invisible effect.

The Mission: Impossible franchise decided long ago to place its bets on over-the-top stunt work — Cruise famously scaled an actual section of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in 2011, for example. But in 2015, practical effects and stunts aren’t exceptions to special effects rules. As some of the biggest movies of the year — namely Rogue Nation, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens — rely more and more on real-life actors for their action scenes, we might be seeing the start of a shift away from CGI as practical effects become a bankable alternative.

First of all, he is citing a film no one has seen as an example of practical effects being used well. Secondly, he speculates about real-life actors being used for their action scenes more often. That has nothing to do with practical effects. In the old days, stars would perform their own stunts, on occasion, if it could be safely executed because there was no technology to do face replacement for stunt doubles. Sometimes, you’d just see a stunt double! Digitally replacing someone’s face, or putting an explosion behind them, isn’t inherently worse. If Paramount has not told everyone Tom was really on that plane then no one would have known because visual effects artists can believably pull that off these days. You could say that it would totally fly under the radar.

As far as “bankable” goes? Marketing select stunts as practical might be novel, but it’s not a distinguishing feature of the film as seen on the screen.

There’s certainly no question that CGI can take fantasies and make them seem like reality on the big screen. Recent successes like Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron wouldn’t be possible without computers allowing for flying suits of armor and cars flying out of buildings. But after more than a decade of high-octane CG theatrics from huge box office juggernauts like Transformers, Harry Potter, Avatar, Star Wars, Star Trek, Terminator, literally anything the Wachowskis make, and every Marvel and DC tentpole, audiences might be getting fatigued of digital models exploding into countless pixels. As Variety TV columnist Brian Lowry put it after seeing Age of Ultron, CGI can now prove “more numbing than exciting, even during what should be the show-stopping sequences.”

Kwame, and Brian incorrectly blame a writer, or director’s injudicious use of a tool to mean that the tool itself is flawed. Killing a large number of nameless, meaningless things – whether digital or practical – will always be hollow regardless of the means used to execute the effect on screen.

Groot was a digital character in Guardians of the Galaxy and people loved him. They felt bad when bad things happened to him. In the same film, there are waves and waves of people dying and it means very little. If a computer didn’t touch those scenes it would read the same, emotionally, it would just cost a ton of money to manufacture. If any journalists would like to spring into action and second-guess the things Hollywood spends money on, go for it, but that’s not this argument.

Hollywood’s reliance on CG has only intensified. In the 1970s and ‘80s, movies like Westworld and Tron made use of rudimentary computer graphics to dazzle audiences who’d never seen such worlds on the big screen.

Really? That was the perfect execution of computer graphics in film? Westworld and Tron? They should have just held steady there?

Fast forward to 2014, and we got Transformers: Age of Extinction, a movie full of so much visual noise that it was hard to tell what was even going on.

Again, this wouldn’t read as a better experience with stop-motion robots. Maybe, just maybe, Transformers: Age of Extinction might have issues with story and direction?

As computers have gotten more powerful, studios have used them to create bigger spectacles. Bigger spectacles translate to bigger box office returns; according to Box Office Mojo, six of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time were CGI-fueled summer epics that came out in just the last five years. Three came out this year alone. Raising the stakes for what what we expect from our popcorn fare inevitably means upping the visual ante. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s done well. But in overindulging what it thinks is our bottomless appetite for bigger, more bombastic movies, Hollywood might be battering our senses to the point of dullness.

Huge factual errors here because it assumes the films are successful because they used digital effects. Even the most mundane projects use digital effects for set extensions, a couple sky replacements, makeup fixes, wire removal, painting out camera reflections – Lots of stuff. It is a part of filmmaking.

Also, if spectacle was inherently successful then all expensive, VFX-driven films would be successful. That is not the case. Even Disney, which has some of the biggest successes, with VFX out the wazoo have had very expensive flops. Sadly, Tomorrowland was not well received this year, and that was “done well”. It had nothing to do with “dulled senses”. Pixels, and Fantastic Four are loaded with effects but didn’t perform as well as other VFX heavy productions.

Spectacle, even if it’s executed well, isn’t going to guarantee the movie is even a financial success. Regardless of it being physical or digital.

As Matthew Zoller Seitz wrote for RogerEbert.com last year:

Despite their fleeting moments of specialness, “The Avengers,” the “Iron Man” and “Thor” and “Captain America” films, the new “Spider-Man” series and “Man of Steel” treat viewers not to variations of the same situations (which is fine and dandy; every zombie film has zombies, and ninety percent of all westerns end in gunfights) but to variations of the same situations that feel as though they were designed, choreographed, shot, edited and composited by the same second units and special effects houses, using the same software, under the same conditions. As long as people are talking, there’s a chance the movies will be good. When the action starts, the films become less special.

In other words, all this is expected, and the miracles that cinema pulled off 30 years ago — the moments when audiences felt transported to the directors’ dreamscapes — now feel rote.

This has nothing to do with using a computer to make images on a screen. This has to do with the images that get approved to go on that screen at the whims of the director. It has nothing to do with specialness of the tool.

It should really be pointed out that people make computer generated effects. A computer, by itself, generates nothing. If that were the case, your home PC would be pumping out Pixar classics while you browse the web for new shoes.

Just as people made miniature models to blow up, or painted matte paintings, or drew lightning by hand. People have to make it happen.

But in recent years, there’s been an attitude shift bubbling up among some of Hollywood’s biggest-budget filmmakers. In a recent interview on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Rogue Nation co-star Simon Pegg talks about the merits of dangerous stunts over CGI:

“These days,” he says, “CG is an amazing tool, and we love it and it enables us to do amazing things. But when you see something which is digital, there’s a slight sense of disconnect. You know it’s not real. Tom taped himself to the side of a plane for real! That’s how much he cares about you!”

What Simon Pegg is describing is when he knows something isn’t real. That means the effect didn’t work out. You can also know that animatronics, stop motion, matte paintings, and optical lightning are in a movie and they’re not “real”. Go watch Arnold take a table-tennis-ball-sized tracking device out through his nostril in Total Recall – or basically any effect in that movie. Tell me how real it feels.

There actually is a visceral sense of danger and even wonder as you’re forced to acknowledge that a human being is risking their life for a film, much in the same way that there’s a greater feeling of connection to a person in makeup over her CG counterpart.

Only if you know they did. The goal is that you can’t tell whether or not they did. It is so very easy to highlight effects that did not work, but it is hard for audiences to perceive the ones that did. Freddie Wong’s video highlights a couple examples that are worth considering, but if you watch enough behind-the-scenes videos you’ll see plenty of other invisible effects.

That’s certainly true for Mad Max: Fury Road, whose promotional push made much of the fact that it was shot in the Namibian desert with real cars, real explosions, and a real flamethrowing guitar, as if to remind people that things like that could still be pulled off in real life. Of course, director George Miller also used plenty of digital effects to push his scenes over the top. Of the film’s 2,400 shots, 2,000 of them were VFX shots. But set pieces that might have been done purely by computer in other movies were choreographed in real life, making for some beautiful but incredibly dangerous scenes.

This is where Kwame should have realized his whole argument against the pervasive use of computer graphics made no sense. 83% of a film. No big deal! Not to mention the color grading (digital), the editing and retimes (digital). That is not to belittle the importance of the work performed on scene, but to highlight how this had nothing to do with computer graphics being bad. VFX shots aren’t cilantro.

And it’s especially true for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which hits theaters later this year. Director J.J. Abrams has continually and consistently paid deference to the practical ingenuity that made the original trilogy so great. So in addition to the return of the original starring cast, we’ve also been promised a return of practical effects. The new X-Wing? Real. BB-8? Real. The Millennium Falcon? So real as to injure Harrison Ford on set. These decisions are billed as a return to form, as a chance to go back to the way things are supposed to be.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the movie isn’t even out yet, the marketing push is. Also that list is wrong, because the Millennium Falcon as a set piece is real, but that ship you see flying around sure as shit isn’t. Those “X-Wings” are real set pieces but they aren’t models over that water.

Don’t give me this “real” stuff about a space movie in a galaxy long, long ago that was part of a $4 billion sale to a media conglomerate. It’s about illusion. It’s great that a person might think it’s real, but it’s about the suspension of disbelief, not physical manufacturing. Physically manufactured elements can help, but it’s not like anyone believed the puppet Yoda in The Phantom Menace was real, in spite of it being a physically manufactured puppet. (Except for the walking part.)

And that’s likely the whole point — that striving for verisimilitude today means moving away from the CG that’s an industry standard and reminding audiences of how directors like Spielberg and Lucas did it way back when.

No, no it isn’t the point at all. Film is not a documentary process. Truth is belief, not reality. Use the writing, acting, makeup, costumes, stunts, sets, locations, color grading, editing, special effects, and visual effects that make the audience get swept away in the story.

It’s clear that, at a time when so many of today’s movies are reboots or returns to older properties, studios are trying hard to mine for what made people feel so good about going to the movies in the first place. Directors like Abrams and actors like Tom Cruise seem nostalgic for a time when connecting to magical objects, spaceships from far-off galaxies, and actual peril meant relying on props, makeup, wires, and daring. They’re both saying that today’s CG landscape can’t pull that off because we take computerized effects for granted.

No, I think they did it this way because they thought it would work for the movies they were making. Again, it bears repeating that the Star Wars movie has not been seen by Kwame. He’s immediately lauding it for practical effects.

That doesn’t mean that practical effects are inherently better or that CGI shouldn’t ever be used. It just means that, like music lovers preaching the gospel of vinyl, some directors are pushing back against CGI because practical effects express their ideas about how their particular movies — and maybe movies in general — ought to be made.

What?! A whole slew of words about how computer graphics shouldn’t be used and we come to an analogy about vinyl? Vinyl?!

I anxiously await the print edition of The Verge on my local newsstand, because paper is an inherently better medium.

At the end of the day, though, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is just a popcorn flick, diverting but ultimately empty.

“Anyway, I think practical effects make movies good but this movie wasn’t good, so oh well.”

Special effects can never replace the connection created by an excellent story that keeps you invested from start to finish. But you do feel something during those stunts, an elevated kind of thrill knowing Tom Cruise really is on that plane or on that motorcycle, risking his life so that we can have fun for a couple of hours at the movies. It could be argued that Rogue Nation would be no better if the whole thing were done with green screen.

I will gladly argue this. In fact, I have, above. Kwame’s time would have been better spent arguing this as well.

After all, real-life action gets our attention right now primarily because it feels so different.

It doesn’t feel different. It has been marketed as being different. No one A/B tested this movie with a version heavier on computer graphics. There was no Pepsi Challenge.

But with the next few years positively glutted with action movies, “different” might have a leg up on the competition.

In marketing films it might give the project a leg up on competition by virtue of the fact that audiences have been fed a narrative that one kind of illusion is inherently better for them, in all cases, than another kind of illusion.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-08-07-Vanity-Fair-The-VidCon-Revolution-Isnt-Coming-Its-Here.html Vanity Fair: "The VidCon Revolution Isn't Coming. It's Here." 2015-08-07T16:38:00Z 2015-08-07T16:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Richard Lawson (yes, that same Richard Lawson that posted baseless rumors for Gawker) went to VidCon for Vanity Fair to write about the conference, the fans, and the stars. Also the business of why they are famous. For anyone struggling to wrap their heads around the popularity of YouTubers, Viners and other influencers then this piece is for you.

Like I usually point out, and Richard also points out, it’s very easy to roll your eyes at all this, but then you’re ignoring a significant shift in the way money is changing hands for entertainment.

And with that change comes big dollars for these influencers. After our second meeting, Talavera and Leimgruber followed up with an e-mail that included some hard numbers. What they had to tell me: approximately 200 social-media influencers have earned over $1 million in the past year, and another 550 earned more than $250,000. The NeoReach guys estimate that the number of “Millionaire Influencers” will double next year. Popular YouTubers (1 million-plus followers) can earn as much as $40,000 per video, and $5,000 per Instagram post. That money is coming from sponsorships that pay out $0.05 to $0.10 per YouTube view, or $0.15 to $0.25 per Instagram like. Add on top of that the money made from Google AdSense, and any merchandise sales and appearance fees. In short, these people, and there are many of them, are getting very rich.

With all that money changing hands there are also problems. Richard describes the despair he felt at the parties. Even the concerns that some of the “older” YouTube stars like Grace Helbig and Felicia Day have for these kids thrust into sudden fame and fortune.

I’d also like to add that part of the reason it’s so difficult for non-teens to understand the celebrity of these YouTube stars is because we feel creeped-out by it.

Richard talked about his VidCon experience a little more when he was a guest on the (almost entirely inappropriate, NSFW) Throwing Shade podcast. Specifically when he recaps how Grace Helbig’s opinion on talent.

I read Richard’s piece after Marko Savic had sent me Caroline Moss’ profile on Vine star Logan Paul. A very distilled look at a specific person in this sphere which was also interesting.

Update: I was contacted by Richard Lawson about my description of his past work at Gawker. I used the words “fabricated lies” but he wanted to point out that he never made up anything, just ran rumors. I’ve adjusted the wording to reflect that. I still find repeating baseless rumors of abuse irresponsible. Though his past writing isn’t relevant to the VidCon story, I am still bothered by it.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-08-01-Disneys-Hyperion-Renderer.html Disney's Hyperion Renderer 2015-08-01T20:08:00Z 2015-08-01T20:08:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/

Seriously, go watch the cute video done in that 50s-Disney-educational-cartoon style. Never has path tracing and ray bundling been more appealing. Literally, never.

There’s further explanation, and some swippable demos there as well. The linked PDF is also available for the very-very curious.

There are many similarities between this renderer and Arnold, which I used at Sony Pictures Imageworks.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-08-01-Apple-Music-iCloud-Music-Library-Data-Loss.html Apple Music: iCloud Music Library Data Loss 2015-08-01T19:38:00Z 2015-08-01T19:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/

I know that many people find the complaints around Apple Music tiresome, but I’m not complaining because I hate it. If I hated it, I wouldn’t talk about it at all. I certainly wouldn’t spend any time trying to improve my experience with it, or writing about my experience in the event my troubleshooting helps someone, or someone can provide advice to me.

The problems break down in to recommendations, UI, social, uptime, and data loss. All of these can improve over time, and hopefully will improve quickly. There is a lot that Apple Music already has going in its favor, such as editor playlists, and a vast content library at your fingertips.

I’m just going to go over issues with data loss in this post to keep it focused. Specifically data loss due to iCloud Music Library, which is a cloud service, and not your iTunes Library, which is the local data on your computer.

Chance Changes

My iTunes library has some albums that are from polymer circles people used to buy at physical stores. Those not-from-the-iTunes-store albums seem to be the central issue for people experiencing problems with metadata on their tracks changing. Album art, album versions (particularly greatest hits), tracks (live recordings vs. studio recordings), etc.

When Apple’s quiet service changes something in a user’s iCloud Music Library some of the changes affect local copies of files (my queen songs were already on the device when it reorganized the albums and album art). Other changes only affect what happens if a file is no longer on your device, or was never on the device, and is downloaded. You might get the wrong file. This happens in ways that are not always reproducible.

That’s really concerning because then you’re just rolling dice. You open the app and something’s missing, or changed, and you’ll have no idea how long it’s been that way. If that wrong data has migrated to all your backups, or if it just happened a minute ago.

Another kind of data loss is missing playlists. I first saw Anthony Waller point this out on Twitter this morning. Then I said to myself, “Oh that sucks for him, I know my playlists are there because when I opened this the other day — OMG WHERE DID MY PLAYLISTS GO?!” Indeed, all of my playlists that were not created after my iPhone was updated, and the iCloud Music Library were enabled, were gone. That left me with “Purchased”, like Anthony, an Apple Music editor’s playlist I saved, and “Star Trek” — because I’m a super cool guy.

The playlists were all still there on my MacBook Pro. When iTunes 12.2 found its way on to my Mac, I didn’t enable the iCloud Music Library like I had on my iPhone. This isn’t my first rodeo. I use my Mac as an organized repository of collected works — you know, like a library — and I thought caution was appropriate. Turns out that was a really good idea!

Exorcism

Apple has provided no way for users to revert changes that are being made in iOS, and no mechanism to recover deleted data. That really bothers me because if an automated system is going to make changes to optimize my data then it’s never going to be 100 percent accurate. Dropbox is really close to perfect these days for maintaining the integrity of my data, but they still have mechanisms to recover files and revert versions.

My iPhone would not sync with iTunes. When you have iCloud Music Library enabled on your phone, it disables it and cheerfully reminds you that all your music lives in the cloud — the place where it’s totally safe and stuff. So obviously the software engineers didn’t think you needed to manually sync anything.

  1. Disable iCloud Music Library on the device.
    1. Settings > Music > iCloud Music Library toggle.
  2. Backup the iCloud Music Library on your computer. Just in case!
    1. File > Library > Export Library …
  3. Sync your iPhone with your computer.
  4. Check both libraries.
  5. Optional: Don’t reenable iCloud Music Library

Some might find this too paranoid, but really it’s just laziness. I know I have the data, I’m not sweating bullets over that, I just don’t want to repeatedly have to restore things. You can use Apple Music just fine without iCloud Music Library. Most people might not know that. The tracks all download offline, the playlists work, everything. It’s just about keeping the “My Music” section identical on all the devices without user-initiated sync. That includes keeping the things you’ve “hearted” in sync to improve recommendations.

Since reactivating iCloud Music Library would probably cause random, quiet, data loss I’m just not sure it’s worth the effort. Like I said, it’s a bigger waste of my time to purge problems than to keep it up-to-date.

Kyle Seth Gray, of Twitter infamy, went about this a different way, and he’s still relying on iCloud Music Library. In spite of his problems, he prefers the ubiquity to any potential consequences.

Whether or not you turn it back on, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t an optimal user experience, and it further tarnishes Apple’s reputation with cloud services. I would really like a bright, and gleaming reputation. You know, a silver lining…

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-30-The-Hollywood-Reporter-More-Theaters-Sign-Up-for-Paramounts-Daring-VOD-Plan.html The Hollywood Reporter: "More Theaters Sign Up for Paramount's Daring VOD Plan" 2015-07-30T23:53:00Z 2015-07-30T23:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The Hollywood Reporter might be misusing the word “daring”, but Paramount does have a unique plan to reduce the window between theatrical release and on-demand release. The agreement only covers some films (right now, it’s two horror films), and there’s still a small window of theater time. When the number of screens showing a movie drops below a threshold (300) then Paramount can release it through video on demand services in as little as 17 days. The theater chains receive a share of the profits.

“This is all about changing the definition of theatrical windows. Instead of starting the countdown from when a movie opens, we are starting from when it ends,” Paramount vice chair Rob Moore told The Hollywood Reporter when the deal with AMC and Cineplex was struck.

Big movies, like Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation aren’t part of this. People are willing to go see those kinds of summer blockbusters, and everyone would love to protect the profits in that window.

Contrast that with Netflix’s day-and-date approach where none of the major chains will screen their films.

This could be a way to make more mid-budget pictures in the future, if they can be quickly moved to digital, on-demand markets, and out of the high-stakes opening-weekend races.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-30-Rumor-Apple-Will-Debut-New-Apple-TV-In-September.html Rumor: "Apple Will Debut New Apple TV In September" 2015-07-30T22:08:00Z 2015-07-30T22:08:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Well, well, well. Guess what’s back? It’s Apple TV rumors! John Paczkowski wrote that BuzzFeed’s sources tell them that the new TV box will be unveiled at a September event. The next iPhones are also rumored to be announced at the same event.

John recaps:

The device itself is pretty much as we described it to you in March, sources say, but “more polished” after some additional tweaks. Expect a refreshed and slimmer chassis and new innards; Apple’s A8 system on chip; a new remote that sources say has been “drastically improved” by a touch-pad input; an increase in on-board storage; and an improved operating system that will support Siri voice control. Crucially, the new Apple TV will debut alongside a long-awaited App Store and the software development kit developers need to populate it.

Maybe Apple’s just trolling everyone at this point?

It’s not like I care, or anything.

Curiously, John’s sources say that the OTT service will not be unveiled at the same time.

When rumors of the rumored unveiling were last destroyed via a leak to The New York Times, the blame for it was placed on the content partners not cooperating on the OTT service. (Specifically, trying to get local broadcast stations onboard, not just national networks, and studios.) As I’ve repeatedly argued, there is plenty of justification for upgrading the device even without the OTT service.

Obviously, if this rumor is true, and the device ships without an OTT service, it can only mean that Apple Executives love reading my blog. No other conclusion, really.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-28-Radar-Followup.html Radar Followup 2015-07-28T16:08:00Z 2015-07-28T16:08:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Yesterday morning I typed up a little post agreeing with Marco Arment about many of his feelings regarding Apple Music. Specifically, the lack of specificity about what was setting off those feelings. It’s not really required that people cite every little annoyance they’ve had with Apple software in order to express their displeasure.

One part of it concerned someone telling me to file a Radar (Apple’s bug tracker). I did, but I whined about how I don’t really feel like that’s called for when it comes to end users (me) picking up release software Apple ships and promotes for public consumption (Apple Music). The Radar process itself is odd, go poke around if you’ve never filed one before, and you don’t really have any idea if you’ve filed it correctly, or if anyone will check it out. Someone may check it out in six months and close it. It’s opaque.

Jason Snell saw my post and replied.

Things escalated quickly with an ensuing conversation involving many people, including Michael Jurewitz, who works at Apple and is certainly in a capacity to speak about the process.

There were many others that saw what Snell and Jurewitz were talking about and weighed in on it.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure if it’s any clearer what will happen with the Radar I filed, or any future Radars I might file, but I do feel a little better knowing that it’s not completely futile if I elect to do so. It does seem that there’s a general agreement that it’s not a requirement for end users to file one in order to express unhappiness, or disappointment. Which is probably good, since that’s all I really bring to the table.

Anyway, here’s a pug filled with ennui:

Cody

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-27-Critiquing-Fish.html Critiquing Fish 2015-07-27T16:38:00Z 2015-07-27T16:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I read Marco Arment’s opinion of the current state of Apple Music, and he’s certainly not being koi about how fishy he thinks the service, app, and iTunes integration are.

That place is great. Nice staff, casual atmosphere, good food.

You didn’t like it? Really? Why? It’s great.

Oh, you got the fish? Rookie mistake. Don’t order the fish, it’s terrible. But everything else there is good!

Marco’s frustrations are broad, and far-reaching. He’s not articulating a specific problem he’s had, but he’s been burned by various things, and most importantly, knows other people burned by things.

On the one hand, my immediate reaction is to agree with what he’s saying. Then my second reaction is to wonder if it’s too harsh because it’s not a specific account of an issue. Then I’m back to where I started because it doesn’t matter if it’s a specific account of an issue, because that’s not how people function. He’s very correct in his restaurant analogy. Bloggers might be one-star-Yelp reviewing Apple Music, and iTunes, but that’s life.

The other day, I mentioned on Twitter that I stumbled across a problem with my music library after the Apple Music transition.

Someone replied to it with “radar ticket”.

For those unfamiliar, Apple has a bug tracker called Radar. It’s mainly for developers, and people participating in betas to use. It’s not for real humans to use. You can tell, because it still has pinstripes on the page, and shaded iOS pre-iOS 7 widgets. It’s not linked to the apps, you go find it, log in, and write a report.

I am no stranger to bugs, and bug-tracking, as I’ve had plenty of experience with a ticketing system Imageworks uses to internally track software bugs. A problem with these ticketing systems is that most people (myself included) can’t fill out the perfect ticket, or their ticket might be a duplicate issue. No one has a perfect ticketing system.

The closest analog a restaurant has to this is a comment card, but it’s a comment card customers aren’t supposed to know about, so that doesn’t really work. It’s not like calling the manager over, that seems to require a very public declaration.

While I did file a Radar, I wouldn’t really fault myself for not filing one. Nor would I fault others for simply deciding not to come back to the restaurant to order 🐟.

The allure of this particular restaurant is that it’s supposed to be a no-hassle experience.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-26-Apple-Music-Share-Testing.html Apple Music: Share Testing 2015-07-27T06:38:00Z 2015-07-27T06:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I already outlined the problems I’m having with Apple Music’s “…” and share buttons in a previous post and in an episode of Unhelpful Suggestions. Not to Beats One a dead horse, but the problems with consistency in the UI persist. Here’s a little story in pictures I shared on Twitter last night.

Also, Pat Carrol singing “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is amazing, so don’t judge.

I got the following reply from Ezekiel Elin about changes in iOS 9.

These reduce the number of text buttons but don’t seem to add much clarity. And what is up with the inconsistent white space around borderless tap targets?

Isn’t it also a little weird that there are different versions of the Apple Music interface being maintained for iOS 8.4 and iOS 9 when they’re basically rolling out changes to both? Poor people must be burning the candle at both ends to do all this work.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-23-New-Patent-Group-Threatens-to-Derail-4K-HEVC-Video-Streaming.html New Patent Group Threatens to Derail 4K HEVC Video Streaming 2015-07-24T06:53:00Z 2015-07-24T06:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Gather round boys and girls and listen to Ars tell the tale about how the companies fought each other over patents and licensing!

A new industry group called HEVC Advance is threatening to demand royalties for the new HEVC video codec that could halve the bandwidth required for streaming online video, or offer higher resolutions with the same bandwidth usage. The organization is promising to demand a royalty of 0.5 percent of revenue from any broadcaster that uses the codec. This move could re-ignite the arguments surrounding video codecs on the Web, and may well jeopardize services such as Netflix’s year old 4K streaming service.

Maybe if we all get really lucky they’ll just keep this Sword of Damocles hanging over UHD streaming, and whatever the next format happens to be?

This fragile situation is now jeopardized by HEVC Advance. MPEG LA has no authority over the patents—it doesn’t own them, it simply has a non-exclusive right to sell licenses to them—and companies with HEVC-relevant patents are under no obligation to join MPEG LA. If those companies are unhappy with MPEG LA’s terms, they don’t have to participate

They should have gone with Pied Piper. It has a higher Weissman Score than HVEC.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-23-Variety-Digital-Star-Popularity-Grows-Versus-Mainstream-Celebrities.html Variety: Digital Star Popularity Grows Versus Mainstream Celebrities 2015-07-23T20:23:00Z 2015-07-23T20:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Variety wrote about a survey conducted with 1,500 people aged 15-17 comparing traditional media celebrities to YouTube celebrities. (Sample size could have been bigger and also compared different age groups, but whatever.)

On the surface, this is eye-roll-inducing. For someone my age, this seems trite, but this isn’t about me. It’s where about where ad money will go in a few years.

In other survey findings: Teens’ emotional attachment to YouTube stars is as much as seven times greater than that toward a traditional celebrity; and YouTube stars are perceived as 17 times more engaging, and 11 times more extraordinary, than mainstream stars.

Again, even though that sounds like the soulless drivel that content marketers bathe in, it’s important to consider how shifting advertising money shapes content and services we all use.

We’re already being influenced by those advertising dollars starting to move. For example: Shaun McBride’s native advertising for Snapchat.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-22-Defocused-Live.html Defocused Live! 2015-07-22T16:23:00Z 2015-07-22T16:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Dan and I are going to be doing the same thing we do every Wednesday night, at 9 PM Pacific Standard Time, trying to take over the world discussing a movie, but we’ve started to broadcast the recording sessions. If you’re familiar with other podcasts, like Accidental Tech Podcast, or podcast networks like Relay FM, The Incomparable, and 5by5 then you know how it works.

For those unfamiliar: A piece of really old-looking Mac software broadcasts the tenuous Skype conversation as a stream that you can listen to in your internet browser of choice. There’s an optional, IRC chatroom, where people listening to the stream can react to all the terrible things being said. There’s also, typically, a chatroom bot (referred to as a “showbot” (not a GoBot) which accepts any IRC message beginning with “!s ” as a title suggestion for the episode.

Unfortunately, both Dan and I kind of skipped the last part, so suggest titles, and Dan will use magical regex to get a list of the suggestions from the chatroom. (Dan’s not a GoBot either.)

This all worked pretty well last week when we tested with our “Maybe this will fall on its face” trial run.

We announced on Monday that we’ll be discussing Jupiter Ascending. If you haven’t seen the movie, then consider whether you would like to before tuning in. There will 🐝 spoilers. Keep tabs on the show’s Twitter account for announcements about recording times, and movies, we’ll continue to provide advanced notice there.

If you can’t tune in to listen, or you haven’t seen what we’re discussing (and you actually want to), then have no fear because we’ll still be releasing this thing called a “podcast” where audio is recorded and downloaded over the internet.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-21-The-Verges-Mobile-Web-Sucks.html The Verge's Mobile Web Sucks 2015-07-21T16:53:00Z 2015-07-21T16:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Nilay Patel typed an opinion piece titled “The mobile web sucks” with “It’s going to get worse before it gets better” tucked in under it. He’s doing his article a disservice though by speaking so broadly, it should really be titled, “We can’t make our web site run well on Safari and still make money”.

He occasionally mentions Google, but it is very clear that this piece is about taking Apple to task. I’m no stranger to writing long, rambling rants about Apple, but I would like to think that my writing doesn’t suffer from the cognitive dissonance that Nilay’s piece does.

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

Peppered throughout Nilay’s complaints about mobile Safari are statements about how publishers have bloated web pages, but it’s up to Apple to make the bloat run.

And yes, most commercial web pages are overstuffed with extremely complex ad tech, but it’s a two-sided argument: we should expect browser vendors to look at the state of the web and push their browsers to perform better, just as we should expect web developers to look at browser performance and trim the fat. But right now, the conversation appears to be going in just one direction.

SPOILER ALERT: Apple, and Google, have been intensely focused on increasing the performance of JavaScript for years. They frequently boast about different benchmarks for compiling JavaScript, execution, and different tricks to increase the performance of repetitious code with just-in-time compiling tricks.

JavaScript isn’t even very good, it’s just ubiquitous, and no one has a solid way to replace it on the desktop, or on mobile. That’s the open web at work, pros and cons.

And that’s troubling. Taken together, Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles are the saddest refutation of the open web revolution possible: they are incompatible proprietary publishing systems entirely under the control of huge corporations, neither of which particularly understands publishing or media. Earlier this year, I called Facebook the new AOL; Instant Articles comes from the same instinct as AOL trying to bring Time Warner’s media content into its app just before the web totally kicked its ass.

LOLWUT, bro?

AOL could not compete with the open web because the open web was better. Web sites, limited as they were even then, offered diverse content, from a variety of sources, that AOL could not directly compete with inside of its walled garden.

Newsflash: This is still how it works! If your site is good, and people like going to it, guess what the fuck happens? People go there! No way!

Safari isn’t being deprecated for Apple News, publishers can even omit their site from Apple News. Facebook doesn’t have a wealth of content in their Instant Articles system either. It’s a negotiation here, not ownership. People don’t like junky sites, and they turn to not-junky experiences. It is up to publishers to compete since they are the ones in charge of the experience.

The part Nilay should take Apple to task for is how Apple’s own tools for accessing Apple News are web-based but do not function on iOS devices. It’s an iCloud “app” that consists of web forms. A missed oppurtunity for him.

He has a section where he compares his perceived experience (no measurements) on old MacBooks with the iPhone 6. He doesn’t actually check out what was loaded, or compare browsers. It’s a good thing he isn’t burdened with running a technology site because he might see some problems with this testing methodology. Namely, non-Retina, desktop devices will load different images and ads from his site. Also that he compared it to Chrome, which isn’t exactly an Apples to Apples comparison.

You don’t see much complaining about Chrome’s performance on Android, because Nilay doesn’t care to test it to see if mobile Safari and Android’s Chrome are competitive. He says it isn’t great, and that while other browser vendors can compete, they don’t offer competitive products. So … ? Apple’s fault?

Nilay abdicates responsibility for the performance, and quality of his site. Buried paragraphs down (and three ads down) in his rant:

Now, I happen to work at a media company, and I happen to run a website that can be bloated and slow. Some of this is our fault: The Verge is ultra-complicated, we have huge images, and we serve ads from our own direct sales and a variety of programmatic networks. Our video player is annoying. (I swear a better one is coming, for real this time.) We could do a lot of things to make our site load faster, and we’re doing them. We’re also launch partners with Apple News, and will eventually deliver Facebook Instant Articles. We have to do all these things; the reality of the broken mobile web is the reality in which we live.

“Ultra-complicated, bro. Guess we’ll just do all those things I was complaining about.”

I am disappointed he spilled so much ink only to wind up holding these inconsistent thoughts together like two negative ends of magnets. His site is not remotely streamlined. This rant is 10 MB, kilobytes of which are the actual article, and it’s crammed full of JavaScript and iframes.

The Verge is supported by advertising, and venture capital money investing in what advertising money can be made in the future. Large, obtrusive ads suck up the whole screen as you scroll through in mobile Safari. As you scroll you also bounce horizontally because there is bad styling on the page (presumably a problem from an ad that loaded).

This is not Apple’s fault. This is literally The Verge’s domain.

Hoisting the performance, and experience of using their own site on Apple is a dereliction of Nilay’s duty to his readers. This should have been a fiery rebuke of walled gardens with the announcement of genuine effort to improve his site. Instead, it’s a petulant, poorly researched exploration of anxiety. There isn’t anything inherently wrong about that, as long as you aren’t running a site worth millions.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-15-Snapchat-has-Become-a-Wild-West-of-Sponsored-Content.html Snapchat has Become a Wild West of Sponsored Content 2015-07-15T16:23:00Z 2015-07-15T16:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Russell Brandom and Ryan Manning wrote an interesting piece for The Verge this morning. Readers of the site will know that I don’t often discuss the Snapchat because I don’t enjoy the service, and can’t even bring myself to be academically interested in their efforts to monetize entertainment content through their Discover service. Perhaps the most interesting part is the generally creepiness of sponsoring people with followers to promote products in a way that crosses the line from entertainment into advertising. Sure, there’s product placement in entertainment (often with really clunky dialog about using a product or service) but there’s something about the way a singular person promoting a product that has a disgusting feel to it. As if this personal blog would start to talk about the virtues of Taco Bell’s Cap’n Crunch Berry Delights™.

That time I wrote about the Starbucks app? Because I wanted to, not because I was compensated to do so. That would never be my default assumption when reading someone’s personal blog, but what about in a few years? Will I look at someone else’s writing, or their videos, and distrust their reporting because I’m suspicious of compensation that isn’t clearly spelled out? That’s not even a foreign notion, with it occasionally happening on websites. It’s not like I’m a reporter, nor is Shaun McBride. Shaun knows that the disclaimers can make people avoid sponsored content:

“As a society, we’ve kind of learned to tune out advertisements on TV,” McBride says. “With Snapchat, we’re not used to it. When you advertise on Snapchat, if you do it in a fun and creative way that adds value; they don’t see it as an annoying ad. They actually enjoy it.”

Shaun fails to understand that this is fundamentally deceptive. Even if he does an amazing job at constructing his videos in a way that communicates that money is changing hands (probably not, bro!) that doesn’t mean that everyone is. After all, it is the very act of making it seem like it isn’t an ad that gets people to pay attention to it.

As all the grownups know, there’s a good reason to regulate this. The Verge cites a Cole Haan case on Pintrest where the FTC fined Cole Haan. However, as Russell and Brandom note, that’s very different for Snapchat, or Periscope, or anything else where the content expires.

But Snapchat’s self-destructing nature makes it hard for regulators to keep up. The FTC isn’t an investigative agency and most of its targets come from consumer referrals. But if a video disappears as soon as you watch it, it can’t be sent to regulators, and recording and hosting a Snapchat Story is still out of reach for most consumers. Advertisers on broadcast channels face even stronger restrictions, spurred by concerned parent groups, but there’s no equivalent for social media, and the ephemeral nature of Snapchat means there’s little concerned parents can point to.

Not to highlight an unfinished writing project, but blurring the lines between advertising and personal lives is the sort of dystopian future that speaks to me.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-08-Apple-TV-Service-Only-in-Dreams.html Apple TV Service: Only in Dreams 2015-07-08T16:08:00Z 2015-07-08T16:08:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Ever since the announcement of Apple Music, and Beats 1, Twitter has been atwitter with discussion over what this could mean for Apple’s oft-delayed TV and Film efforts. I’m still relatively certain that the most probable outcome is that Apple will merely empower broadcasters, and studios, to setup their own apps with content services with rich, multi-media experiences. I don’t think it’s going to be as dramatic a shift as some are forecasting. More of a transition away from cable boxes, to Apple TV boxes, with a limited set of services that more or less mirrors the kind of television metaphors North American audiences are used to. (Including ads.)

That’s not as much fun as Apple taking on curation authority and crafting the whole experience of interacting with the content. So let’s entertain some of the farther-fetched ideas. Only in dreams, we see what it means…

Programming

No, not Swift, not even Taylor Swift, but the thing everyone calls “curation”. It’s not really a museum, it’s selecting, and placing, multiple pieces of entertainment in a linear order. Even Apple Music’s playlists are a form of programming, even though they aren’t “on the air”. Beats 1 is all about linear programming. Calling it curation just makes it sound so much more artistic.

A piece of content can also frame other programming inside of it. Like when a DJ’s block starts on a radio station, or on Beats 1, and they provide the frame around the songs that are played. TV has similar vehicles, with MTV’s VJ’s in the 80s and 90s being the closest approximation. There are also those monster-movie blocks, with Elvira, or Dr. Paul Bearer. There’s that guy in a suit on TCM, or even a disembodied voice on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre. Even something like VH1’s old Pop-Up Video program puts the framing inside of the media as an overlay.

While there is a certain silliness to that kind of framing on television (it’s often done with very inexpensive sets, and very inexpensive to license media) there can be an element to it that many find valuable. There was a bit of time where social media feedback ran in tickers around the screen in order to get people to tune in to provide the frame for the inexpensive movie or show.

In terms of taste, I’m not sure I buy in to that kind of execution from Apple. I could see, perhaps, the VJs, since there are musical minds at play at Apple, and music videos are still popular online, even if they aren’t on the garbage station MTV turned into.

That’s a very tiny slice of programming, for a very specific thing. Audiences are mostly favoring consumption of serialized, hour-long dramas with short seasons these days. Would Apple license marathons? Unlikely. Would they program their own TV channel to showcase programming from different sources? How would CBS feel about mixing their shows with AMC and FX? TV is very unlike radio in this regard. Zane Lowe has the luxury to pick and choose from labels.

This could be possible with film. There could be an AMC-like host, or a FX “At the Movies” set of hosts, discussing what people are about to see, maybe some interviews with stars, and directors. It’s certainly been done before, and it’s possible to buy the rights to broadcast films on a TV channel from a variety of studios.

That means that in our list of hypothetical formats we have MTV VJs, and people introducing movies — both on linear, live, video.

(If anyone at Apple is reading this, and they need some volunteer film buffs, please, get in touch, I’m totes down for this bananas plan!)

How do you satisfy network TV in a way that doesn’t turn over authorship to the networks? They would have to select off-the-air TV, like Netflix and Amazon, or they’d have to finance their own TV production, like Netflix, and Amazon.

Apple Studios

This is the part I can’t ever see happening as long as we’re in a business climate where the large broadcasters have content people want to watch. Really, I think this isn’t feasible. The second Apple opens up shop and starts financing pilots for TV shows, the broadcast networks are going to start pulling their shows from sale on iTunes, and any collaborating with Apple on a streaming OTT service will cease.

Apple absolutely has the money to do it, but they would have to do all of it. This isn’t like Beats 1, this is like Apple producing all the artists you hear on Beats 1. Totally different situation. Totally different skillset, and a real commitment to something that isn’t Apple’s primary goal.

Sure, anything’s possible, but it would be an enormous leap to go it alone on TV production just to sell phones and TV set-top boxes. Pragmatism would dictate trying to create the same, comfortable TV metaphors and associations, but with a better user experience. That means the networks.

Netflix started their own film studio, but the theater chains are refusing to show Netflix’s films in their theaters because Netflix will show them day-and-date on the service and in theaters. It hasn’t stopped Netflix from moving forward, with Netflix’s Ted Sarandos vowing to release more films. It certainly wouldn’t stop Apple, but it just means Apple needs to really be focused on this.

The Little Fish

Something more likely than Apple starting up studio operations, is providing funding, training, tools, and promotion for independent productions.

Let’s say you’re in film school, and you have a great idea for a film, you pitch it to Apple for a grant, receive it, and create the video, available for Apple’s video service. Apple doesn’t like to directly fund people (see app developers) so it might be some sort of VC fund thingy. Whatevs. Money stuff.

Another possibility is training people to perform, and manage the tasks required for their independent productions. Like WWDC, but for an Apple-focused production, and publishing suite of tools. Now imagine it’s also sort of like a cross between SXSW , NAB, and SIGGRAPH. There’s a showcase of the previous years’ work, panels, camera vendors, motion tracking vendors, lighting rigs. Hopefully it would have good food too, that would be nice.

In terms of tools, Apple has ceded most of the ground it had in the mid 2000s when they bought up, or internally developed, all the top-tier pro software they could. Tools that rivaled what Adobe and Avid had at the time. Then everything has slowly been withering up since then. Replaced mostly with an emphasis on inexpensive, third-party apps that are more specific in the tasks they do, and not the all-encompassing apps they once were. It’s still conceivable that Apple can reinvigorate those efforts. Sure, not a lot of people bought a Mac because Shake ran on it, but what if your goal isn’t Mac sales, but iPhone sales from things made on those Macs? You can justify spending money on pro software for Macs if it significantly improves the availability of media for the devices you make profit off of.

Not to mention, you can also partner with Adobe to make specific Mac focused tools that simplify production for Apple’s video service. Fill out some metadata fields, and push the one-click publish button, and your feature film is in iTunes Connect ready to go. Easy as YouTube[^1]

[^1]: Not really, I imagine that Apple would want to review the content in some fashion. It’s a family-friendly company. It would be interesting to see who would be responsible for securing ratings, or if Apple would come up with approximate, internal ratings. What could go wrong?

There are also production services Apple can provide. A limiting factor for many independently produced films, and web series, is the money to buy the right infrastructure for their project. Some of that is physical equipment, some of it is software, and some of it is craftsmanship others provide. It’s very expensive to hire a VFX house to do your greenscreens, add fire, muzzle flashes, and blood hits. They have infrastructure costs, and people they need to keep staffed. What if Apple had a service for connecting these artists so they could do work for one another? Even a booking schedule? Someone like me could be available for compositing work, and deliver assets through an Apple pipeline, even review, and track time for billable hours. That’s not off-the-shelf software, and it’s not something YouTube, Vimeo, Amazon, or Netflix provides. There’s so much friction in film and television production that has to do with infrastructure and manpower issues. Poof, Appled-away.

Finally, the biggest tool Apple can wield with any of their services is promotion. They select apps for promotion on iOS, and the Mac App Store (to varying degrees of profit). They select films and TV shows to appear in those categories of the storefront. Apple Music taps select artists for playlists, and to appear on Beats 1. Imagine a showcase of independently produced material. Many people jump at the chance to be seen, or have their work seen.

The part where Apple might get tripped up, is what terms they set for their generous help. Exclusive streaming to Apple’s service? Forever, or for a window? What physical rights do they have? You’ll notice Apple hasn’t taken the book publishing world by storm with iBooks Author. All the best tools and services don’t amount to much if you can make more money elsewhere (or at least the perception that you can).

If you don’t like working with the established parties, and you can’t outright remove them, slowly increase the relevance of other parties, diminishing your reliance on the established ones.

Back to Reality

Apple’s totally just going to release TVKit which will let companies build rich-media apps to showcase individualized, branded streams of content, bundling some expenses together, and we’ll have new-cable, via Apple. More like what Apple Pay did for credit cards, than what Apple Music has done for music streaming.

But when we wake, it’s all been erased, and so it seems, only in dreams…

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-08-For-You-Perhaps-But-Not-for-Me.html For You, Perhaps, But Not for Me 2015-07-08T16:03:00Z 2015-07-08T16:03:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The internet’s favorite curmudgeon, Dr. Drang, has arranged his thoughts on Apple Music. They’re mostly negative, as anyone who follows the good doctor on twitter might expect.

Let’s start with Connect. This is, to me, the least interesting part of Apple Music because I’m far too jaded to believe that anything put here is straight from the artists themselves.

Yes, this is the experience I’ve had. Connect automatically forms a list of people for you to follow based on what you purchased through iTunes (at least, I haven’t seen any artists that were purchased through Amazon and synced to iTunes). This includes my buddy, Mr. 305 — Mr. Worldwide — Pitbull. His Connect posts occur often and exclusively feature a promotional photo of Pitbull. This is not really something that excites me, and seemingly is by some PR assistant somewhere. A few things, from other artists, read like tweets about tours. I don’t go see tours, even though I live in LA, so these sorts of broadcasts don’t mean anything to me as a fan. The only novel feature is the occasional posts with music in them, such as one by ZEDD, or Macintosh Braun. That’s really not the predominant Connect experience, and still doesn’t feel direct, in any way. You can comment on some of the posts, but there seems to be absolutely no point in doing that, and no value to be gleaned from the comments of others — a huge surprise.

Dr. Drang goes on to highlight several problems he has with Beats 1. However, if you pay attention to the wording of it, Dr. Drang hasn’t listened to much of the linear programming — curation — being done on the channel. He’s mostly poking fun at the notion of it. The praise, from many young people, is mostly about the concept as a vehicle for music discovery. Something another of the Internet’s top curmudgeons, Philip Michaels, agrees is pretty silly. Modern radio programming is mostly not very good even though it’s conceptually similar. So the praise is warranted, if overblown when it comes to the notion of sequencing audio clips with DJs.

Dr. Drang is also open to the idea of some shows, and willing to write others off. He even talks about an old radio program he’d like to hear, but again, he’s not really listening to all of the current programming to know if it’s missing. Not that I fault him for that, I certainly can’t listen to most of the programming. Even a show that piqued my interest, Elton John’s Rocket Hour wasn’t on at a time that I could listen. The schedule is also nowhere to be found in the app and relies on listeners finding the Beats 1 Tumblr page.

Effectively, they’ve reinvigorated the need for a DVR, or On Demand (podcasts), and TV Guide. Ironic, no? Particularly in light of trends in television services.

Next on the Apple Music list of services is My Music. Because I didn’t already have an iTunes Match account, I had to go through the process of scanning and uploading my iTunes library. This took about two days of continuous connection, and both iTunes on my Mac and the Music app on my iPhone lied to me through most of the process. For example, even when the progress circle in iTunes showed the uploading to be nearly complete, none my Beatles tracks were ready. Their iCloud status in iTunes was still “Waiting,” and they were unavailable for streaming on my iPhone.

I’m a little disappointed in Dr. Drang for jumping on iTunes 12.2 so quickly and letting it mangle his music library. The nice thing about the iOS app is that it’s not mangling my jams through some first-generation importing and syncing method. On the day Apple Music launched, Apple released iOS 8.4, and many hours later iTunes 12.2. As I noted on Twitter:

Spoiler alert: It was rushed out the door and wrecks some music libraries.

Hard pass.

I’ll eventually (probably accidentally) update to a newer version of iTunes, but I’ll wait a round.

A brief tangent: Apple should do what many other services with apps do and distribute a version of the app that can use the service in advance of the service being available. Then they can turn on, or off, the availability of the service as needed. When I mentioned this practical approach on Twitter (which has an iPhone app that follows this methodology) I recieved pushback that Apple probably rolls out iOS and iTunes updates at the last minute because it’s a way to meter the traffic on the service. Poppycock. Whether or not someone will update their software is not an effective metering tool, compared to controlling the ability to connect to the service as a meter, and the ability to patch the clientside software because you see problems with the service rolling out. Not doing both at the same time.

Anyway, back to Dr. Drang’s post:

Part of the problem is that generational thing. When I went through the For You setup and made the Genre selections, I ran into a dilemma: should I include R&B or not? I knew perfectly well that Apple Music would see R&B as primarily Chris Brown, Beyoncé, Usher, and, God help us, Robin Thicke; so my inclination was to turn it off. But if I did that, would I be blocking Curtis Mayfield, Prince, Gamble & Huff, and the entire Stax label? That was too much of a risk, so I left R&B in my Genre list. To my chagrin, I soon found lots of current R&B in my For You suggestions, but not a hint of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

It’s not simply generational. Indeed, Dr. Drang generously lays much of the blame on the fact that he’s old (I would say that has more to do with reluctance to try new things). The problems I’ve had with “For You” have been similar even though I’m a spritely 32 year-old.

The bubbles are whimsical, and pretty, but they are not the best way to get started with my musical tastes because the bubbles are overly generic. I have a library full of music, and a rich history of iTunes purchases. Connect uses that to find artists for me to automatically follow, but none of the bubbles are pre-populated by this data. It’s like I’m setting up my music tastes from scratch, which is a chore. After refreshing the bubbles many, many, many times I gave up and confirmed it, figuring it would be easier to prune later. It hasn’t been easy at all. Country music is a genre I typically loathe, almost universally, and yet, there was country music. You know, for reasons.

Long-pressing something I’m not interested in, and selecting the menu item to see less of that, doesn’t remove it from the “feed” of the For You section. Cee Lo Green just sat there, staring at me. His smile mocking my very attempt to control his authoritative playlist.

Even the playlists that are aligned with my tastes don’t appeal to me because they are, for the most part, too tame and too obvious. Of what value, for example, is a “Led Zeppelin Deep Cuts” playlist to someone whose library already has every Led Zeppelin album? If I’ve said I like Cheap Trick, I’ll probably like the songs in a Cheap Trick playlist, but how does that help me discover new music?

This is a huge problem with For You, and something that could be improved by actually using any of the data that Apple already has available to them. I received an “Intro to Pitbull” playlist and an “Intro to Queen” playlist. I own every track on both of the lists. I can tell Apple I don’t like the suggestions, but that’s not true. I want Apple to form future recommendations from those, but I don’t need my whole library I already bought available to be streamed back to me for a monthly fee.

Dr. Drang skipped the New tab, but I’ll just assume he doesn’t like it either. I absolutely hate the way this is “organized” it’s like they maxed at 5 items on each list and moved on to the next. The UI widgets are all over the place. Presumably, this is mostly to distinguish these quick blobs from the other quick blobs. There’s stuff that’s “Hot” and “Discovered” which doesn’t connote anything to me about wether or not I might like it. There are lots of hot things I don’t like. Hot pans, hot weather, scalding hot tea, I could go on.

The category selection, like all of the other category selection, is so broad that it’s not completely effective as a filter. As Jason Snell pointed out on a recent episode of Upgrade where he discussed Apple Music with Myke Hurley, what Apple interprets “Alternative” to be covers a whole lot of ground.

There are a few things that are buried here that have really delivered though, and that’s in these same playlists that For You tries, and fails to surface. Browsing through the maze of playlist sections I found an absolutely fantastic playlist (The Tropical Side of Pop by Apple Music Pop). I gave it a heart, and then I couldn’t find it. The hearts don’t store it anywhere for me to access, and I couldn’t remember the exact name of the playlist, just that it had pink, lawn flamingos on it. I found it once, to add it to my music, and I found it again, just now, to try and remember where it was buried in the interface. It’s not that the playlists are bad, but that For You is doing such a terrible job of surfacing the ones I want that relying on the New tab to find interesting lists raises all the same questions about discovery that For You is ostensibly supposed to solve.

Dr. Drang hints several times in the piece about the value of the service relative to other options. Indeed, his whole piece is about the value for him, specifically. I see many of the same problems he sees mirrored in my own experience with the iOS app, and I do wonder about the value. I buy less than one album of music from iTunes a month, often going three, four months without buying a single track. For Apple to convince me to stay on after the trial is over, they need to convince me I would end up buying, and listening, to more music that would justify the monthly rate I would be paying.

As a free service, it’s great, but it’s not really a free service in three months.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-07-05-Apple-Music-Share-and-Share-Alike.html Apple Music: Share and Share Alike 2015-07-06T02:23:00Z 2015-07-06T02:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ After waiting the requisite number of hours to update to a new iOS release, I started poking around with Apple Music, and I’ve been particularly interested in how it has functioned offline in comparison to its predecessor. Like, 1 in 5 buttons in the main interface show you a white screen with gray text saying that you are, in fact, offline. It’s a barrel of fun, turn on Airplane Mode and give it a whirl.

Fortunately, you can make tracks, and albums, available for offline listening, but there’s no genius playlist functionality. Finding it in an ellipsis menu (not all ellipsis menus offer the function) yields a modal dialog that you need to be connected to cellular or WiFi to create a genius playlist.

This was not a problem in the previous iteration of the app, because the genius data was updated when you synced your phone, and available offline.

I’m not sure a lot of thought went into something which matters so little in 2015, but hey, I thought I’d mention it.

Something more relevant is the all-encompassing, unexpected junk-drawer of the ellipsis button. The button is seemingly attached to every part of the interface, and they don’t mean you’ll see the same items when you click on each of them.

The closest, existing analog for this is the share button. A box with an arrow pointing out of the top would either bring up the system share sheet, or a custom menu with share options, depending on the application.

The ellipsis does not improve on this button, because now the share functions are occasionally in the ellipsis menu, or in a share button. Sharing a song you are currently listening to now requires, 1-3 modal menus, depending on where you are in the app, and which button you clicked on. If you are viewing an album, there’s a share button that immediately brings up a share sheet. Curiously, the same share button feature is present in the ellipsis button next to the share sheet button. This is an odd redundancy.

As for tracks: If you are viewing a track of the album, and it’s taking up the full screen, the share button brings up a menu asking if you want to share the song, then the share sheet.

If the track is not taking up the full screen then you’ll have the ellipsis to use for access to the menu with share options.

This makes the ellipsis buttons, that have share features notched in to their many-tiered, ever-changing menu of options, the most reliable way to share albums and music. The text buttons have no share sheet iconography. They spell out what they do in centered text alongside all the other options for building playlists, etc. Like a menu in OS X, or Mac OS, the text items that bring up other modal sheets/menus present ellipsis next to them. Menus with stuff, and more menus with more stuff. It’s ellipsis’ all the way down.

There’s also the rather unexpected behavior of what happens when you try to share something in your library that is not in Apple Music. In the above image, that Leonard Cohen track, from that specific album, is not available to share. However, it still presents you with the menu items to share it, and opens a share sheet. If you click “copy link” nothing is copied to the clipboard buffer. If you try to tweet it, a blank sheet unfurls for you to send out a completely empty tweet. In a rather perplexing move, the same song, on a different Leonard Cohen album, is available to share. No error pops up, and no option to refer people to the other, available track, is presented. As far as I know, the track in my local library is just like everything else … only it isn’t. Surely this came up in testing? Are there no Leonard Cohen fans at Apple?

A big part of the business proposition of Apple Music is discovering new music. Word of mouth plays a huge part in spreading music around. Apple knows this, because the app basically wants you to have access to a menu item to share things. Apple just has a lot of slack they can tighten up here. This was a ground-up overhaul of this app, and it seems they could not come up with any elegant solutions for this all-new first impression of the app, other than putting “…” everywhere. It feels like Microsoft Office.

Which takes me to the new Clippy, “For You” …

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-06-26-Supreme-Court-Legalizes-Marriage-Nationwide.html Supreme Court Legalizes Marriage Nationwide 2015-06-26T16:53:00Z 2015-06-26T16:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I’m overwhelmed by the news this morning that marriage between two men, or two women, is possible in all 50 states. The same excerpt from Justice Kennedy’s opinion that you’ll see everywhere today:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embod- ies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people be- come something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be con- demned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civiliza- tion’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.

That’s really the heart of it. People are people, and they want that dignity. Even if someone is not going to be married, or they are and they get divorced, the point is that it’s a possibility. (The same can be said of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.) That they are every bit as human — deserving of love and respect. Even all those single people can feel whole.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-06-25-Inquisitive-44-Dan-Moren-and-Star-Wars-Episode-V-The-Empire-Strikes-Back.html Inquisitive #44 - Dan Moren and 'Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back' 2015-06-25T16:23:00Z 2015-06-25T16:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Myke Hurley shifted gears on Inquisitive a little while ago, and started talking to guests about their favorite albums. While I’ve listened along to the show since the transition, I’ve felt a little outside of it. I don’t appreciate music at the album-level. I’ve always been selective about what I’ll listen to off of any album, and don’t really have a deep connection to an artistic story the artist wants to tell. I wouldn’t survive in the record store in High Fidelity.

However, Dan picked the perfect thing, a soundtrack. I have had a deep love of soundtracks since I was a kid. I suppose I didn’t really consider them “albums” because they’re part of the film they come from. It’s not the same creative relationship as the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds. Beats in the songs have to align to editing of the film, and action from the story. Many soundtracks are great to listen to because they evoke the film — I can picture Khan’s attack on the Enterprise in the track “Surprise Attack” just by listening to the score. Divorced from the film, I can’t help but wonder what kind of listening experience people would have.

Listening to Dan recount his love for soundtracks, and lack of appreciation for pop music, really echoed the same feelings I had about music when I was younger. I do appreciate his selection, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back by John Williams, because I also love the score. Two years ago, I even had the chance to listen to John Williams conduct the LA Philharmonic at The Hollywood Bowl while people in the amphitheater waved lightsabers around.

Sometimes, on these podcasts that prompt a guest, or panelist, to answer a question, I try to figure out how I would answer. Not because I am in any danger of being asked it, but because it’s a fun creative exercise. Like Dan, I assume I would wind up staying “on brand” and selecting a Star Trek soundtrack.

Then again, it could be kind of fun to troll everyone and pick the first music I ever bought, the Mortal Kombat soundtrack with George Clinton, The Immortals, Orbital, KMFDM … untz, untz, untz.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-06-23-Starbucks-Without-Lines.html Starbucks Without Lines 2015-06-23T17:38:00Z 2015-06-23T17:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Starbucks has an online ordering program available to customers using the Starbucks app on their iPhone. For those unfamiliar, the app is pretty weird. It bridges the gulf between gift card, loyalty card, store locator, and “special offers” inbox. Before you can use the online order, you must have money on a Starbucks gift card, or you can create a virtual gift card inside of the app and load it via a credit card, PayPal, or Apple Pay. This is honestly the weirdest part. It’s like buying Xbox Live points, but at least there’s the utility, and security of Apple Pay.

Once Starbucks captures your money, you can brandish your iPhone at any Starbucks register, and get it scanned to pay for orders. Customers can now use the app to browse the menu and place orders for pickup at a store, bypassing Starbucks’ lines.

This is a key differentiating factor between Starbucks and every other coffee company out there: convenience. They need to compete on convenience because their coffee usually tastes like cremated goats. Even if you are a fussy coffee drinker, it’s important to take a pragmatic look at how Starbucks is deploying technology.

2 to 5 Minutes

Press “Order” in the Starbucks app and you’ll see a little collage with any previous order at the top, and some other photos of suggestions below. A search box appears at the bottom, and clicking on it brings up the standard categories, as well as just letting you type the name of what you’re looking for. The menu displayed is for the nearest Starbucks location to you. You can swipe to other locations, or manipulate the map to find them. You don’t have access to search for an address (let’s say you’re driving somewhere and want coffee at the destination). All locations seem to display the same “2-5 minutes” for your potential order.

For some reason, Starbucks’ reserved roasts they use in their Clover machines are not available for purchase at any location I’ve examined so far. I suspect that’s because the availability of the beans varies so widely they decided to skip that level of inventory tracking.

Once you select an item, you can pick and choose what goes in it. The first time I placed an order via the app I made the mistake of not examining what it considered standard to include. I was quite unhappy to find 4 pumps of “classic syrup” in my iced coffee. This can be easily altered, and it was user error, but I do encourage you to examine what’s toggled on in your beverage.

Once an order is placed, you receive an immediate modal notification that a receipt is available to view, and a tip can be left. A banner notification also drops down, and the screen behind the banner and the modal dialog shows the order is confirmed. They should tweak that part of the experience.

Leaving a tip is painless. You can adjust it after leaving the tip, or wait to leave it at all until much later in the same day (I believe the window is 8 hours?) and it comes out of the same card-money. This is nice if you haven’t had time to go to the ATM, but at the same time, I have to imagine that cash tips are preferred.

The pickup experience is as awkward as I’m capable of making it. The first location I picked up a beverage from made the drink in under a minute so I wasn’t even sure it was mine. The app also says you should “ask the barista” for your order, so I did because I didn’t want to just grab and drink and walk out. He pointed out that the printed label that said “JOSEPH > MOBILE” was, indeed, my mobile order. The second Starbucks location was busy kicking out drinks, and I didn’t see mine on the counter so I waited quietly. Eventually, the barista asked me if I was waiting for an iced Americano. I sheepishly replied that I was, but not the “venti” size she was holding with “DENISE” written on the side with marker. I started to explain that it was a mobile order, in the only way I know how (with too much detail) and before I could finish she was apologizing for and pulled a completed drink out from behind the counter. I apologized back because I should have just asked right off the bat, instead of looking for it on the counter like the first place. Picking up online orders is totes awk.

I would rank each experience highly for speed, and for the intangible benefit of not having to stand in a line and listening to other people order things. Their coffee is still their coffee.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-06-22-James-Horner.html James Horner 2015-06-23T06:53:00Z 2015-06-23T06:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Tonight, on Twitter, I saw reports that James Horner’s plane crashed near Santa Barbara. At first, no one was sure it was him. His assistant confirmed it, and I was overcome with sadness. He was a tremendously talented man, and hugely influential on my appreciation of films, and of film scores.

His scores for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock contain musical cues, and themes, that I can hum on command. His work for Aliens contains mainly similar elements, to his Star Trek scores, but arranged in a distinct, and bone-chilling way. I have a playlist that pulls action pieces from those three (as well as from Cliff Eidelman’s Star Trek VI score) that I listen to sometimes when I’m driving around in LA traffic (it’s exhilarating).

Even some of his work on the “cheesy” things early in his career – like Battle Beyond the Stars and Krull – are full of bombastic, action beats.

Chronologically, I think the first film I heard his score for might have been The Land Before Time. It’s a heartbreaking, sweeping score, and the animated feature would lack weight without it. The scene where Littlefoot’s mother dies still breaks my heart, even though this is a film I saw in 1988.

Horner’s score for the Rocketeer captures a child-like wonder, as well as Americana. Glory‘s choral elements are very moving, and spiritual. Titanic has that element of romance.

To me, I’ll most often think of him when I hear the blaring crashes in Surprise Attack.

He will be missed.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-06-21-One-Year-of-Defocused.html One Year of Defocused 2015-06-21T17:23:00Z 2015-06-21T17:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ With the release of “A Podcast Loaf”, Dan and I have just past a full year’s worth of podcasting. 52 episodes released in total. It might not sound very impressive compared to the output of many other programs, but I feel quite rewarded by the experience.

While it may be a hobby, and not an empire, Dan and I treat it pretty seriously behind the scenes. Microphones, recording spaces, software, etc. We have a calendar, we schedule our late-night recording times. We have a Slack group with multiple channels for organizing work for the show, and show-related tasks. Even the silly, little flourishes like gifs (soft “g”), or a couple seconds of a song comedically spliced in, all require collaborative work.

Speaking of work, Dan has edited almost every single episode of the show. Though I am quite happy to dabble in the task from time to time (most recently with The Birdcage.) He really deserves a round applause for it.

I’m also pretty proud of our lively mix of movies we’ve discussed. It’s not a sci-fi podcast, or a 90s podcast, or an action movie podcast — it’s a little bit of everything.

Here’s a list of films that you can traverse to go right to an episode if there’s anything you might have missed and want to check out.

Our show mythology isn’t really all that deep. There’s the notion of the “shame burrito” (which has it’s origins in giving up on life and just getting a burrito you know you probably shouldn’t eat). “Cats Per Mango” is just nonsense, so really, don’t worry about what that means. Of course there’s the fan favorite pastime of Star Trek and Simpsons references that go over Dan’s head (something he is very proud of).

It’s a fun show to make, and we’ll keep making it. Thank you to all the fans that engage with our brand on Twitter, and to the few guests we’ve had on (something we will hopefully have more of in the future). You’re the real heroes for putting up with us.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-06-09-Unjustly-Maligned-15-Watchmen-with-Merlin-Mann.html Unjustly Maligned 15: Watchmen with Merlin Mann 2015-06-09T17:23:00Z 2015-06-09T17:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/

Ever since I was aware of Antony Johnston’s podcast premise – discussing with a guest why something has been unfairly derided – I suspected someone would get around to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film. A couple weeks ago, when I saw Merlin Mann tweet a lot about Watchmen I suspected he might be the guest on the show doing that. He was. Turns out.

I always get a little trepidatious about people discussing the film for a few reasons:

  1. I worked on visual effects for the movie.
  2. Most people do not like the movie.
  3. It is my favorite movie I’ve ever worked on in my 9+ years of doing visual effects.

Set trepidation to maximum:

Yeeeeaaaahhhh…

I enjoyed listening to the episode, overall, and I’m recommending you listen as well. One of the more surprising aspects (to me, anyway) is that this was the first time Antony had seen the film.

My opinions about the project are strongly colored by my time working on it. When I think of it, I think first of the Dr. Manhattan shots, and then about everything else. The amount of effort, and time, people put in isn’t immediately evident to viewers, but it was all difficult VFX back in 2008 (keep in mind the movie was released in Spring of 2009). It was a huge team effort. Animation, effects, textures, rigging, lighting, resource management, compositing – literally everyone.

Most of my favorite shots are the subtle ones, where there’s just a curl of the lip, and a tilt of the head. The subtle churning of effects under his skin providing some extra life. Most of that is overlooked in the film, particularly if the film is just a general affront to your sensibilities as a comics fan. That’s a shame, from my point of view, but I am a little biased.

Many of the shots are still used in my demo reel.

Fortunately, Antony and Merlin agree that they approve of Dr. Manhattan. That’s all the validation I really need. Group hug.

Also, I’m really sorry about blowing up Rorschach.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-06-05-Unhelpful-Suggestions-2-A-Better-Idiot-Box.html Unhelpful Suggestions 2: A Better Idiot Box 2015-06-05T16:23:00Z 2015-06-05T16:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/

A couple weeks ago, Marko Savic and I recorded our first episode of Unhelpful Suggestions. A podcast about technology, but discussed through a slightly different lens (very-slightly different, depending on how you classify lenses, and people as lenses). It’s not a gay podcast, per se, but it’s part of that whole lens thing I was talking about.

Reactions weren’t negative, so we made a second one, and released it last night. That’s also my cue to blog about it here.

The first and second episodes discuss the Apple TV, and we ride a sweeping, emotional roller-coaster from rumors of a new box, and OTT service, to rumors that there’s no new box, and no new OTT service. It’s a pretty short roller-coaster.

Feedback on the show is appreciated.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-06-03-Clockwise-90-Cord-Nevers.html Clockwise 90: Cord Nevers 2015-06-04T05:23:00Z 2015-06-04T05:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I always enjoy the Clockwise podcast. It’s a bite-size tech podcast (compared to most) and still packed with interesting people, and perspectives, interacting in unanticipated ways.

Unfortunately, this week, the Apple TV news dropped a few hours after it recorded. It still contains many things to keep in mind about the anticipated service, and platform changes. Notably, Christina Warren is on the episode to share her insight on entertainment. As always, I agree with her predictions about bundles, etc.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-06-03-The-Same-Progress-as-Last-Year.html The Same Progress as Last Year 2015-06-03T23:48:00Z 2015-06-03T23:48:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Brian X. Chen at The New York Times is reporting that Apple will not be announcing the rumored Apple TV at next week’s WWDC event:

Yet one much ballyhooed device will be absent from the conference: a new Apple TV, Apple’s set-top box for televisions. The company planned as recently as mid-May to use the event to spotlight new Apple TV hardware, along with an improved remote control and a tool kit for developers to make apps for the entertainment device. But those plans were postponed partly because the product was not ready for prime time, according to two people briefed on the product.

Apple declined to comment.

(Takes a deep breath.)

“The product was not ready for prime time” is not a hardware issue as Variety chooses to interpret it.

It’s not even the HomeKit integration, as 9to5 Mac discovered in an official Apple support document that the third generation Apple TV will do all the HomeKit stuff too.

Gaming didn’t kill it, because that was on wish lists more than it was ever hinted at by any of these reports or leaks. Seemingly the “TVKit” rumor had more to do with apps, which we know can include things like streaming media apps.

What really killed this was the OTT service. Recode reported earlier this week that the OTT deals would not be in place by WWDC and so no service would be announced.

Supposedly, that missing piece has killed every would-be update that’s been rumored for the last three years.

That’s fine, really. The OTT service was never announced, but it was so heavily rumored, and reported on, that it felt like it was inevitable. Les Moonves, President and CEO of CBS, was openly discussing a streaming service for Apple at the Code Conference only a week ago. He hinted that the big hang-up was money, but was “excited” about his ongoing conversation with Eddy Cue.

Indeed, Showtime, which is owned by CBS, has gone ahead and announced Showtime as a standalone service available for Apple TV and iOS devices today, but nothing about CBS’ other properties or even existing digital programming.

As Jason Snell noted on Six Colors, it’s “one of those stories that reads a bit like Apple managing expectations…” I agree. Better to disappoint everyone this week, than leave the media, and audience, wondering why it’s absent next week.

Let’s look at this excerpt from The Verge’s 2014 WWDC predictions from last year:

Apple TV: Tim Cook has been teasing for a while now that more is in store for the Apple TV, but there’s exactly nothing in the way of details. Multiple reports have suggested that Apple is trying to work with cable providers to get live video content and effectively replace your set-top box with something much more powerful — how exactly that’ll work, however, is still unclear. Other reports have suggested that some key improvements will come to even the familiar Apple TV software soon, including support for Siri and third-party apps, giving the tiny box a whole lot more potential. All we know for now is that Apple remains very interested in television — and the rest is still to come.

Again, we’re at the point where there’s nothing new, and it might be on the horizon. We’ll just keep moving the horizon back like that dolly-zoom in Poltergeist.

You’re almost to the door, Diane!

On the Bright Side

There are three, positive things to note about the Apple TV:

  1. Apple’s only selling a three year-old set-top box. There are still 11 months before they’re selling a four year-old box.
  2. No FOMO over not buying a new Apple TV, because no one can.
  3. The Apple service errors are easy for very young children to recognize, and comprehend.
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http://joe-steel.com/2015-06-02-Print-Magazine-Advises-Hollywood-Subscribers-Not-to-Panic.html Print Magazine Advises Hollywood Subscribers Not to Panic 2015-06-03T02:08:00Z 2015-06-03T02:08:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The Hollywood Reporter ran a piece about global, shifting market conditions for the entertainment industry. The data comes from PricewaterhouseCoopers and it isn’t very shocking if you’ve read about the trends in the industry over the last few years. What is surprising is the “see, everything’s fine!” analysis. The U.S. is stagnant, or shrinking, over time. Much of the growth is anticipated overseas, particularly in China, and mostly for first-run box office numbers.

Look at this bullet-point on advertising:

Web ads will hit $83.9 billion in 2019, overtaking TV ads, which will generate $81 billion.

Advertising is the primary revenue source for broadcast TV networks, and cable networks. Internet advertising overtaking TV ads before TV is really on the Internet is not a good thing. They should be moving lock-step with the ads.

This piece by THR is the reassuring pat-on-the-back that the old ways are still working. That’s to be expected from THR which still feels compelled to print this at the top of the article:

This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

No, you did not travel through time, it is still June 2nd. Hey wouldn’t you like to buy some dead paper with 10 day-old analysis about how old media is fine?

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-06-02-Defocused-QAnniversary.html Defocused Q&Anniversary 2015-06-02T21:08:00Z 2015-06-02T21:08:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ This Thursday night, Dan Sturm and I are recording a Q&A episode of our podcast Defocused. We would really appreciate any questions you might have. Either tweet them at the show account, or contact us on the site.

It’s been almost a year since Dan and I released the first episode of Defocused. It came from trying to record another podcast. We didn’t even have a name for the show when the first episode was recorded. It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.

We are going to record our “anniversary” episode before Dan leaves for a vacation. It didn’t seem right to make it like other episodes, where we usually discuss a movie, or to make it about one particular topic. It’s also been too soon to do another version of our award/clip show.

We really appreciate all the people that listen, and send in feedback. If you feel compelled to write iTunes reviews for the podcast, or share some favorite episodes with the Internet – what are you waiting for? An invitation?

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-06-02-Vimeo-On-Demand-Adds-Subscriptions.html Vimeo On Demand Adds Subscriptions 2015-06-02T16:23:00Z 2015-06-02T16:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I originally noticed this story on The Hollywood Reporter, but they left out many of the specific details that the official Vimeo blog covers. This an interesting move for Vimeo and can ultimately serve to make it much more appealing to people producing video content. It does build off of the existing Vimeo On Demand service — what? You didn’t know about that either?

Vimeo On Demand premiered two years ago, and I finally recalled it when I started reading about it. It is/was a storefront for paying for individual videos — either by “renting” them, or by “buying” them. The person paying got access to the video in any Vimeo client signed in to their service, though you couldn’t purchase in every app (like YouTube on the Apple TV). Creators had granular control over how the work was presented, how much they charged, and how long rental windows were. However, it was another storefront, and many of the things there were either available through other storefronts, or not worth singing in to pay for. It was just as unappealing as I remember it being.

This subscription changes things because no one else is offering anything like it. It’s not a subscription for all of Vimeo, which gets divvied up between all the Vimeo content creators, it’s a subscription only to the relevant content creator. The money goes directly to the people that give me what I want, and those people keep 90% of it. If they stop making what I want, I can cancel my subscription for them without affecting my other Vimeo subscriptions. This is sort of like Patreon, in a way, except instead of paying Patreon, and going somewhere else to watch what you pay for, it’s right there.

Video creators can still make certain videos free, or available for rent or purchase, in addition to being available for subscribers. That’s a good way to get people to discover a show and sign up for a month.

In a way, the a la carte nature also hurts Vimeo, and video creators, because people are going to weigh the cost of subscribing more carefully than they would with an ad-supported service like YouTube.

Perhaps they’re still not trying to compete with YouTube? Or offer shows like Netflix or Amazon? Vimeo is mostly still a place for one-off, oddball stuff, and demo reels of very unimportant people.

Maybe something new will grow from this petri dish of experimental stuff, with this broth of financial tools.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-05-29-Google-Photos-and-Bar-Snacks.html Google Photos and Bar Snacks 2015-05-29T16:53:00Z 2015-05-29T16:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ One of the larger announcements at Google’s I/O conference today was that Google+ Photos were being spun off as a separate product, Google Photos. Sorry, “+” I guess you didn’t add a lot of value.

A big deal was made about unlimited, free photo uploads. There are some caveats that they have not been super clear about, so you’ll read varying things from news outlets about when they compress, or resize images, and under what conditions, so go to the source. From Google’s support site:

High quality Unlimited free storage Regular cameras: Recommended for phones or point-and-shoot cameras that are 16 megapixels (MP) or less. Uses: Good for typical printing and sharing. Size: Save high-quality photos and videos while reducing size.

Original Limited free storage: Uses your Google Account’s 15 GB of free storage. DSLR cameras: Recommended if you take photos with a DSLR camera and want to maintain the exact original quality. Uses: Recommended for printing large banners or to store your original files. Size: Store your photos and videos exactly as you captured them.

Most importantly, you can change your mind at any time. Confusingly, it affects storage sizes going forward and won’t resize items you’ve already stored. Uh… So… Does that mean I can pay for one month, upload 4 TB of UHD video, and 3 TB of 24 MP images, and then switch to the free plan and it’s all there, and not resized or altered? That would be weird.

This also differs from Apple’s iCloud photo storage which divvies up everything from the same bucket as device backups, media, and application data. Google’s plan doesn’t lump this together with Google Drive’s data plan. They’re separate silos. Unless you use the ‘Original’ plan. In which case, you technically have 15 GB of free space with the ‘Original’ plan before you have to pay for anything.

In fact, many people use all their free Google Drive space to upload photos. Drive does have 15 GB of free storage, and won’t do anything to compress, or alter, your photos. You can even toggle on an option to show your images stored in Google Drive in Google Photos. It is not toggled on by default though. That might be because it didn’t work great under a few simple tests.

Test Drive

I made an edit to a test photo and it wasn’t reflected in the local copy in my Drive folder. I deleted the image from the Drive folder and it still showed on the site, but it had a weird gray box where the thumbnail was. Refreshing the page removed the broken thumbnail.

Next test was opening the Google Drive site, where there’s now a Google Photos button — which doesn’t take you to photos.google.com, but shows some text “Stay tuned! Your photos are coming soon.” If I restore the deleted file from Drive’s “trash” the image returns to Photos. Confusingly, the photo that’s restored has the editing adjustments from before I deleted it still applied in Photos, but not in Drive on the web, or in my Drive folder. This is possibly because Google is storing the adjustments as metadata and applying it on-the-fly in the Photos interface — but that is confusing, and not really “syncing”. Also there’s no versioning for those edits, you can only restore to the original, even though Drive is perfectly capable of saving many revisions. Stranger still, it asks if you want to keep changes if you adjust something that was already edited. Not a modern save-as-you-go workflow. The editing options are also a total joke, so I’m not sure that’s a huge loss for me.

What was also bizarre, was opening Google Photos for the first time and seeing images I put up in 2008 … which I guess was Picasa, or something. I’m really not even sure.

Storage Wars

As Jason Snell mentioned on Twitter, “Would be nice if Apple felt some pressure to lower its iCloud photo storage rates, which are twice Google’s.”

Amazon also offers unlimited photo storage for Amazon Prime members, and some paid plans. However, I haven’t really noticed this gaining traction, even though every tech writer in the universe is an Amazon Prime member. You’d think people would be writing about it nonstop.

Dropbox also wants all of your photos. It put a “please let us upload all your iPhone’s photos” button in their iOS app. How else can people fill up the free, two gigabyte tier and pay $9.99 a month (or $99.99 a year) to upgrade to one terabyte?

Flickr has taken some controversial twists and turns over the years (the last turn seems to have been into a ditch). They introduced a free, one terabyte tier a few years ago. It serves gross ads, and offers no first-party syncing, or downloading, off the service. The pro account now offers unlimited photo uploads at $24.95 a year. That’s a great value – if Yahoo hadn’t defecated on Flickr, set it on fire, and tried to put out the fire with urine-soaked novelty T-shirts that say, “We Hate You” in purple Optima.

How Does Google Pay For Photos?

It is not fear-mongering to ask about how this service, and associated apps, are financed by the company. Especially if it is Google, a company that makes most of its income from collecting information and displaying targeted advertising. They have offered no indication how their photo service is paid for, but several reporters have been told that it does not collect personal information to sell ads.

Pete Pachal, writing for Mashable:

The thrust of the new Photos, as described by product lead Bradley Horowitz, is to provide a “private secure, safe place where all of my memories can live without compromise or agenda.”

From the “agenda” part, Google wants to make clear this isn’t Gmail: the Photos app isn’t scanning your photos to sell you things via ads (although it is scanning them for other reasons). Others, including Apple, Dropbox and Lyve, are trying to solve the immensely difficult problem of photo management, but Google thinks it has the best approach, and from a look at the new app, they might be right.

CNN’s Heather Kelly, and my request for a clarification:

From an interview with Bradley Horowitz on Medium’s Backchannel:

The information gleaned from analyzing these photos does not travel outside of this product — not today. But if I thought we could return immense value to the users based on this data I’m sure we would consider doing that. For instance, if it were possible for Google Photos to figure out that I have a Tesla, and Tesla wanted to alert me to a recall, that would be a service that we would consider offering, with appropriate controls and disclosure to the user. Google Now is a great example. When I’m late for a flight and I get a Google Now notification that my flight has been delayed I can chill out and take an extra hour, breathe deep.

Now, those of us that skew a little more to the cynical, or paranoid, might read in some hedging. Once all the worlds’ photos are uploaded the trap will spring! Targeted ads for diapers based on your baby photos! MWAHAHAHA!

Ahem.

I don’t see this as being a major concern, or a major obstacle, for most people. Particularly for the billions of Android, and Gmail, users that already agree to actually agree to actual data collection. NBD – as the kids say.

I have a Gmail account. I use Google Maps every day to go to and from work. I’m not going to get on a high horse about the photos, except that there is a certain intimate knowledge that can be gleaned from photos which we’re not used to thinking about. As Horowitz notes in that same media piece, people want the vast majority of their photos to be private.

Loss Leader

Since there are no (current) plans to do anything with the data collected from the photos, and to offer a lot of free, or discounted, storage, then this is paid for by money from other parts of the company. That’s perfectly justifiable. It immediately increases the value of any product Google has which can take, or view, photos.

It’s like snacks, and food, at a bar. You can pay for some sodium-heavy food items, that make you crave paying for a refreshing beverage, or you can just grab some complimentary, salty nuts.

The salty nuts are unlimited.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-05-28-Over-the-Air-PVR-with-a-Rube-Goldberg-on-Top.html Over the Air, PVR, with a Rube Goldberg on Top 2015-05-28T16:23:00Z 2015-05-28T16:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Glenn Fleishman wrote up how he’s getting TV at home — with all the modern conveniences of time-shifting! It is convoluted, but completely necessary, and legal, thanks to years and years of precedent. If you thought about making your own PVR system back in the mid-2000s then this will seem very familiar (and perhaps highlight reasons you might have passed on doing so). Not much has changed in a decade except convenience features around shoveling the content. Before that, the biggest innovation was the software to record and playback on a home computer.

This is a diagram of what Glenn wrote in his blog (glog?) post:

Yuck. It all just seems so unnecessary, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be nice to streamline that?

That’s the potential benefit we might see from Apple’s rumored OTT (over the top) service. Yesterday, at the Recode Conference, Les Moonves, President of CBS, confirmed that he’s in talks with Apple to do just that, but that the sticking point is money. Shocking, I know.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-05-27-Desperation-Notifier.html Desperation Notifier 2015-05-27T16:19:45Z 2015-05-27T16:19:45Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ 20th Century Fox rolled out an app, with apparently some text for The Hollywood Reporter and Variety to paraphrase. They’re so excited about this app they didn’t bother to open it, or to apply any critical thought. That’s how exciting this app is. Wee!

It’s an app from Fox Digital Entertainment Inc., a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox. They do promotional tie-in apps for Fox’s entertainment properties. You download this free app, which is white-label software from Premiere Digital Services, and then it will notify you of daily flash sales on Fox’s movies in the iTunes Store. There is no special deal brokered between Fox and iTunes.

The sale price is the same in the app, or in the iTunes store. This is merely a way to highlight the film on sale, and provide a countdown timer — including complimentary seconds ticking away! — to entice people to hurry up and purchase something.

Strangely, “Movie of the Day” is by Fox, for Fox, but has no Fox branding on it. It’s also “MovieOfDay” when displayed on your iPhone, which amuses me.

Since no one appears to have opened the application before they wrote about it, allow me to be the first.

Hands-On

First of all, if you go to the store to download the app you are treated to screenshots of films that are not available to download. Not a big deal, right? It’s just demonstrating a flash sale.

Except that the image in the screenshot is of last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past and the only film available for download happens to be 2011’s X-Men: First Class. Surely, just a coincidence. Surely.

Upon launching the app, you get the best first screen experience anyone can ever hope for:

Keep that in mind, because that’s really the primary goal the company has. The people running this project feel it is their duty to notify customers to purchase something immediately.

The home screen has a share button, which pulls up a standard iOS 8 share sheet to send this important sale to Twitter, or run a Workflow. The “i” pulls up a bar of icons that have no text explanation. Turns out, they’re for cast & crew (just the stars and director), reviews (it doesn’t label where they’re from but it appears to be sourced from iTunes), and a synopsis. I could get more information from the search page in Google, or even by clicking the button in the app that kicks you to the iTunes Store.

What’s the value to the customer? Almost none that I can think of. Unless you really want to be notified every day about an old movie you might not be interested in owning on the off chance that you might want to own one of them.

This seems to want to evoke some of the excitement of bargain bins, with $5-10 DVDs, but there’s no shelf space to clear out, and no retailer with volume to move. Apple can move as much, or as little, as Fox wants. Fox, when left to its own devices, thinks everything it makes is gonna be gold forever and finds it very difficult to markdown their own movies.

That’s why there’s a flash sale with a timer. Artificial scarcity for the customers, and then the panic over low-low prices can subside.

From Variety’s original reporting: “…available for purchase on [on?!] digital HD for $6.99 — ordinarily priced at $14.99.” Perhaps the problem is that Fox is pricing a movie from 2011 at $14.99 the rest of the year? Look, X-Men: First Class was OK, but it’s not like it’s The Godfather.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-05-26-Peddling-Risk-Aversion.html Peddling Risk Aversion 2015-05-26T20:38:00Z 2015-05-26T20:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Brent Lang offers up some specious reasoning and doomsaying in Variety today.

“Tomorrowland’s” middling debut points to a nagging problem in Hollywood. As much as people claim they love fresh and unique movies, they’re more likely to shell out money for sequels and reboots.

A few problems with that. First, and foremost, is reading too much into the performance of a single film opening. There are so many factors that can contribute, or detract, from any film opening. Indeed, you can wind the clock back to November and see interstellar box office numbers from … Well, Interstellar. As Brent writes about several paragraphs later:

Some analysts cautioned against reading too much into the failure of one film. After all, original pictures like “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” and “Inception” have enjoyed commercial success.

Brent does highlight that he might not really be using “original” correctly because this is, of course, a feature film tangentially related to a themed attraction. Much in the same way that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was related to 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Remember those “original” films? They had nothing to do with the ride, really, and the ride was redone to hew more closely to the films.

Brent points out that sequels and reboots are the only things people turn out for, but the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise declined, financially at the very least, after the second one. $46M opening box office for the first one, $135M opening for the second, $114M opening for the third, and $90M for the fourth. More alarming, the fourth had a lifetime gross that’s 80% of the first film.

After four years, they’re going to release a fifth pirates film, but will it be labelled a success or an example of declining sequels? If it has a $50M opening weekend, will Variety run a piece about how audiences won’t turn out for sequels?

I completely agree with Brent that the production budgets put an enormous amount of pressure on films at this scale, but I don’t think the solution is to take fewer risks, as he does. The first Avengers might not seem like a huge risk, but it was, and that risk worked out well. That Tomorrowland isn’t Avengers should surprise no one. That it isn’t as financially successful shouldn’t merit a piece about how people don’t like original stuff.

I’m not worried that this will make Disney less risk averse than they already were. Every few years they release something expensive that doesn’t work out. John Carter and The Haunted Mansion being two films that spring to mind, which had big budgets, but weren’t original, and had disappointing box office numbers.

Disney is flush with cash. They should be taking as many chances as they can.

Just like the other studios trying to mirror the success of the Marvel films at Disney, I worry that other studios will try to dodge these “obvious” failures from Disney. That those studios will look at this piece in Variety and greenlight as many, competing Ghostbusters movies as possible. Only making financially successful movies isn’t a realistic strategy.

Marketing is another area worth dwelling on. Brad Bird has hinted that he hasn’t been completely happy with the trailers. Particularly with the most recent one. This isn’t the first time Brad Bird has had a low opening weekend because the potential movie-going audience didn’t understand what his movie was. Look at The Iron Giant which Bird made for Warner Bros. before they decided they didn’t want to make animated movies, and sabotaged the film. It’s a cult classic, and a risky movie.

Like Brent, I also can’t tell you what is happening in the film based on any of the trailers. There is some place, a pin that lets you see the place, George Clooney’s inventions, a ship, and they have to save something while being chased by [thing that might be a spoiler but is in the trailer]. I still intended to see it, because of Brad Bird, but that isn’t a selling point for everyone. Whatever tension exists between marketing and Brad Bird is reflected in the low turnout and 61% adult audience for this summer “tentpole”. Maybe this is a movie that shouldn’t have been a tentpole? Maybe this is a movie that needs to build with word-of-mouth instead of an explosive opening weekend? That’s all speculation.

The only thing that isn’t speculation is that this isn’t a teachable moment about why original properties should be avoided. That’s not filmmaking, that’s accounting.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-05-20-Bag-of-HighDynamic-Hurt.html Bag of High‑Dynamic Hurt 2015-05-21T00:23:00Z 2015-05-21T00:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The Hollywood Reporter ran a story last night that Fox will be the first studio to put out media for home viewing in UHD “HDR”. I’ve updated the Wow Factor Cheatsheet accordingly.

It helps that the UHD Alliance president is also the CTO at Fox.

Speaking last month at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show, UHD Alliance president Hanno Basse — who is chief technology officer at Fox — asserted: “We want to have a first version [of a quality spec] later this year to coincide with the Blu-Ray Disc Association (which is introducing Ultra HD Blu-Ray with HDR support).”

Remember that “HDR” isn’t a standard, but the UHD Alliance’s HDR will be a standard. The Blu Ray Association will support “HDR” from a variety of sources, including Dolby Vision. Dolby is also a member of the UHD Alliance. So that is going well.

I haven’t found any information on the technical differences, but sources familiar with the matter (that’s right, jerks! I have a source!) told me that the UHD Alliance is adopting Samsung’s SUHD as their draft, and the “HDR” that Fox is using.

Disney is releasing Tomorrowland which was mastered in Dolby Vision for the Dolby Cinema experience (just put ‘Dolby’ in front of every word.) They haven’t announced what they’ll back for home video release. Disney is also a member of the UHD Alliance.

Does that mean we’ll live through another format war over home video formats? Instead of HD DVD and Blu Ray, are we getting Ultra Blu Ray with UHDA HDR and Ultra Blu Ray with Dolby Vision? Since the technical differences might come down to different metadata, would we potentially see discs that support both? It’s really unclear. I imagine that there will be non-technical (money, ego) reasons beyond technical ones.

If you buy an SUHD TV now, will that mean you’re future proof? Maybe? It certainly doesn’t support Dolby Vision, but maybe it won’t ever need to. Or at least, not if you only like Fox movies.

What about disc players? Considering that part of the UHD Blu Ray move is about larger capacity, it’s not clear if firmware updates would allow older players to read the extra capacity on the disc (might not physically be possible), even then, the hardware would have to be capable of handling 4x the pixels. None of the gaming consoles offer UHD playback from streaming sources but we might see updates. Again, no one is saying.

The new Ultra Blu Ray discs are backwards compatible, so you will have your traditional Blu Ray experience if you load the new discs in old players. Awesome, right? Totes worth paying a markup on that disc, just like those combo DVD-BR discs. Totes.

That means you can’t really count on any existing market momentum. In addition to buying a new TV, a new Ultra Blu Ray player, and new Ultra Blu Ray discs. All of them agreeing on the supported format, Dolby Vision or UHD Alliance HDR, to pipe from the disc to the panel.

At this point in the article, it’s probably worth recalling Steve Jobs’ thoughts on Blu Ray:

Blu-ray is just a bag of hurt. It’s great to watch the movies, but the licensing of the tech is so complex, we’re waiting till things settle down and Blu-ray takes off in the marketplace.

It never took off in the marketplace. The licensing, alliances, and a looming format war over brightness and contrast make that particularly clear.

To quote from Steve again, in an email he sent to a MacRumors reader, Siva:

No, free, instant gratification and convenience (likely in that order) is what made the downloadable formats take off. And the downloadable movie business is rapidly moving to free (Hulu) or rentals (iTunes) so storing purchased movies or TV shows is not an issue.

I think you may be wrong - we may see a fast broad move to streamed free and rental content at sufficient quality (at least 720p) to win almost everyone over.

Obviously, we are a little ways past 720p, but Steve’s opinion that streaming will win out over discs still seems to hold true.

Then the question really becomes a combination of what “HDR” flavors the streaming media companies will support, and which of those your TV will also support. You’ll have the same problem if Netflix backs something your TV manufacturer doesn’t. Apple doesn’t even seem likely to include UHD content at this rate.

And the “4K” UHD is mostly going to be scaled up from 2K. Because VFX.

Yaaaaay…

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-05-19-Shelved-Prototype-and-TVKit-Rumors.html Shelved Prototype and TVKit Rumors 2015-05-19T16:38:00Z 2015-05-19T16:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ More Apple TV rumors popped up yesterday. One rumor was about a shelved TV panel that’s locked away in some lab. I have no interest in what they are rumored to not-release.

There’s still some simmering excitement over “4K” with some news outlets saying it’s possible, and some saying it’s not on the table at all. I’m very inclined to believe it’s not on the table. “4K” is really UHD, which is a way to sell panels, not content. Even with the Blu Ray Association revising the disc standard to allow for UHD content, there will still be a paucity of people excited about rebuying a library of discs for UHD. Particularly when most TV and film is not output for the format.

Since the rumors around Apple’s OTT service center on American broadcast stations, and a select number of cable networks — none of which show UHD content — I don’t think it’s a remote possibility. Particularly when Apple is competing against cable networks on that OTT service and those networks aren’t rolling out UHD channels either.

That’s not to say that they will never, ever do it, but there’s no reason to expect it in the fall, or even next year. Not until things you can watch in UHD show up. Crazy, I know, but most people don’t want to sit at home and watch a handful of Netflix episodes and some demo footage of a scenic waterfall, or canyon vista.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Apple is in talks with programmers to create a bundle of TV channels delivered over the Internet to its devices, according to people familiar with the matter. It has told media companies that it hopes to unveil the service in June, and begin programming in the fall, they said. Whether Apple makes that announcement may depend on the progress of those talks.

There are also rumors about “TVKit” which will allow third party developers to create their own apps for the Apple TV.

Our sources add that a new version of Xcode, known as “MuirTrail” internally, includes a new feature called “TVKit” for developers to build third-party Apple TV apps.

Many people, including MacStories’ Federico Vittici are interpreting that as gaming on the box:

TVKit rumor: http://9to5mac.com/2015/05/18/app…

Thinking about the possibilities of Metal and haptic feedback powering future Apple TV games…

While that is possible, I would like to point out that it’s just as likely that this won’t have anything to do with gaming. It’ll allow for richer brand-engagement with custom menus and interfaces for apps that serve streaming content. Think about the networks that have apps on your phone. Now imagine those apps on your TV. Imagine someone on stage at WWDC talking about how easy it will be to develop apps for both devices with “TVKit”. Also imagine that it’ll focus on analytics, possibly through iAd, because I still see analytics driving advertising as the primary motivation for these networks to take OTT services seriously. Like Roku’s deal with Nielsen.

I mean, yes, I’m sure “TVKit” is for super-fun games. Sure.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-05-18-Wow-Factor-Cheatsheet.html Wow Factor Cheatsheet 2015-05-18T16:53:00Z 2015-05-18T16:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ A few things I want to reiterate about 4K, UHD, Dolby Vision, HFR, and HDR:

  • “4K” is not actually a standard, UHD is. It’s still used by many to refer to the resolution.
  • UHD is about frame rate, color, compression, and different resolutions, including 4K. Officially, the whole thing is Rec. 2020, or BT 2020.
  • Blu-Ray doesn’t play back UHD content, but it will.
  • HDR is also not a standard. It means “high dynamic range”. In terms of TVs, it’s usually used to refer to Dolby Vision.
  • Dolby Vision is a proprietary standard of (suspense accent) Dolby. They’re very eager to license it to people.
  • Dolby Vision has the same Rec. 2020 color gamut as UHD, but it has a greater range of luminance. Whites are whiter, darks are darker. I recommend reading the very short PDF on it.
  • Dolby Vision can be any resolution. When it initially premiered, it was pitched as a competing technology to UHD. However, there are “4K” Dolby Vision displays.
  • Dolby Vision is even supported for laser projectors in theaters. It’s not the same as a Dolby Vision TV in a home. The specification allows for this variation (mostly because they can market it all as Dolby Vision).
  • HFR means “high frame rate” and it’s not a standard. It basically just means anything higher than 24 FPS, the standard frame rate for film. 30 FPS was common as part of the NTSC standard, but it doesn’t really count. People are usually referring to 48+ FPS when talking about HFR. It hasn’t been very popular with critics, or audiences.

It’s about more than just the TV, it’s the pipeline of how stuff got to your TV. Whatever a person watches on their TV is only ever going to be as good as the worst part of that pipeline. If you’re watching satellite broadcasts, they’re compressed. If you’re watching a movie that was transferred to UHD, but your display is Dolby Vision, you’re not getting that amazing color and contrast. If your source material was an episode of Doctor Who shot in 1976 then no fancy TV is going to help very much.

A major limitation is getting the content into homes, with the Blu-Ray Association announcing another revision to their disc format to accommodate UHD (but not Dolby Vision), and only a handful of streaming services. Even Apple’s magical, unicorn TV coming this fall is rumored not to have 4K support.

In terms of color, and brightness, there’s a ton that’s available in older material that’s not been represented to people in their homes. Some recent productions are using an ACES pipeline to try and keep color, and brightness, as lossless as possible through the whole mastering process.

Movies from the last 20-ish years had their effects mastered in about 2K-ish resolutions. Even modern film and television shows are not mastered to take advantage of the new technologies appearing on the market. Some do, like House of Cards which had its’ third season mastered in 6K (6 times HD). Even Disney’s Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron had the intricate effects for The Vision’s face delivered at a final resolution lower than UHD.

Will the person sitting at home perceive variations in quality? Probably not. I’ll know they’re there, damn it. I’ll know they’re there, and I’ll judge you all.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-05-13-Critical-MAS.html Critical MAS 2015-05-13T16:53:00Z 2015-05-13T16:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Oh noes! The Mac App Store is in the news again, and it’s for the same thing that it’s always in the news for — being really, really lame. Some developers make a living off of apps that they distribute through it, and others — notably ones that had apps that predate the store — left. No big third parties ever joined the store, except to offer camera apps or tiny utilities.

349 days ago, I wrote this:

The Mac App Store offers very little promise to developers, which in turn, offers very little promise to me. I’m still using web downloads, serial numbers, and — for fuck’s sake — Creative Cloud. I hate that. Words could not possibly do justice to the caustic bile that wells up from within my blackened soul when I think of Adobe’s Creative Cloud and it’s update for it’s update process. It spews forth excrement in to the world, and I gladly sup it, because I need it.

I hope that after Apple’s WWDC event next week they release an “App Store”.

LOL, they totes didn’t release any update to the store, it’s exactly the same, and we’re having exactly the same conversations. Yaaaay!

This specific iteration of “MAS sucks” started with Sam Soffes’ blog post on Redacted’s launch. What’s important about his experience is how ranking in the store translates to real-world value. Even though he was ranked very highly, it’s ultimately not that important because not a lot of people are buying things in the store. Contrast that with the iOS app store, and it’s rankings.

Stephen Hackett, of 512pixels, chimed in with, “I think it may be time for Apple to take a long, hard look at the Mac App Store and either invest in it and woo back developers (and customers) or just shutter the thing.” He wasn’t really serious about shuttering it, as he went on to reiterate in an episode of the Connected podcast.

After the initial brouhaha, Sam’s story turned in to press for the app, and drove his sales up. However, that doesn’t resolve the issue with how it originally ranked, and how little people are using the store. A public outcry to shop at a store is not a sign of a healthy store.

Todd Ditchendorf, developer of many fine apps at Celestial Teapot, jotted off a few comments defending the MAS on Twitter.

Some of us are making a nice living as Mac devs, & MAS is an important part of that. Do us a solid & don’t tell  to shut it down /cc @512px — @iTod May 7, 2015

The Mac App Store has problems, but as a marketing vehicle, it’s well worth the 30% revenue share. Indie devs would be worse off without it — @iTod May 7, 2015

So there’s a divide here where there are indie devs that are making a living off of what they earn from the MAS. Perhaps that has to do with releasing a variety of apps, like Todd, rather than living off the release of a single app, like Sam’s post initially lamented. That’s why I choose to look past the specific value, since “a living” varies for everyone, and concentrate on those ranks.

What About the Big Fish?

Why would an app that focuses on obscuring part of an image reach the very heights of the MAS — in the graphics category, and overall — and be a featured app? Where are the usual, profitable software companies that are prolific in the graphics field, or in any field?

Currently sitting at number five in the “Top Grossing” list is “Adobe Photoshop Elements 13 & Adobe Premiere Elements 13”, a bundled app at $149.99. There are no customer reviews, but this is a $149.99 app so it’s not like it takes a lot of people buying it to show up on a top grossing chart.

Adobe doesn’t offer any of it’s high-end software for the MAS, you have to use their site, and store, and CreativeCloud subscription model. They have no incentive to put apps people need for work in the store, because those people will do whatever they tell them to[^1]. Dance for Adobe, monkey! Dance!

Microsoft Office isn’t in the store, even though MS and Apple have made a big deal about how closely they want to work together. You can, however, get Microsoft Remote Desktop. That’s exciting.

Autodesk isn’t absent from the store either, they just have total garbage in the store. Their high end software, like Adobe and Microsoft, lives elsewhere.

A big part of that is upgrade pricing, and pricing in general. Since subscription models are all the rage these days, even at Apple, perhaps Apple should offer subs as a way to entice big third parties to put their big apps in the store?

Perhaps, maybe, they could do… anything at all, really, to make it slightly more appealing to big, third parties?

This is why an app that redacts regions of an image hit the top of the charts.

Ain’t No Party Like a First Party

I will continue to argue, like I do every year, that Apple should put forth effort for best-in-class software. For a while, Apple, and Adobe, were direct competitors with many of their products, but that competition has dropped away. Final Cut and Logic still compete with Adobe products, but Shake is long gone, and the plug was officially pulled on Aperture last year.

Even now, the applications you’ll see topping the charts are Apple’s own, but in many ways, they win by default in the store.

Marco Arment, expressing his discontent with Apple (totes shocked, bro) rattled off a few tweets last night:

Photos is a great app in many ways, but it definitely doesn’t replace Aperture.

Reality: This is iPhoto X, and Aperture was discontinued. — @marcoarment

I really miss Adobe adjustment tools when using Photos.app on RAWs.

I might add a Bridge process-to-JPEG step before importing to Photos. — @marcoarment

Just another happy customer that loves Apple’s first-in-class software!

A small store, filled with indie developers in various states of happiness, no big third party software, and a mixed bag of first party software that neglects the high end. Apple can, and should do better than that.

[^1]: Before anyone else points out perennial store, and fan favorite, Pixelmator does what Photoshop, or Photoshop Elements does, I will reiterate that it does not. It’s absolutely fantastic, and fills most customer needs (I’d certainly recommend it over Elements!) but it is not a feature-for-feature replacement for Photoshop and if you argue that it is then I know that you don’t use Photoshop in a professional capacity.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-05-12-Vanity-Publishing-System.html Vanity Publishing System 2015-05-12T16:16:00Z 2015-05-12T16:16:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The whole reason I wrote this blogging “engine” is because I was inspired by Casey Liss writing his own. A major decision was where to put the blog, but instead of picking Heroku, I elected to go the VPS route. Even though I was intimidated at the time, I’ve never looked back on that choice with regret. Heroku has many nice things, but it lacked the flexibility I wanted. I found out through Casey’s blog that Heroku is limiting the operational time of apps on the free tier, but they are offering a hobby tier, with restrictions, at $7 a month. That’s baffling to me when almost every company offering a VPS offers far less restrictive plans for $5 a month.

Now, I might just be a simple, country lawyer (I’m not) but that seems like it is not a very good deal. It is not a significant amount of money, but it’s enough that I wouldn’t recommend anyone with a pet project go play with it on Heroku instead of setting up a VPS. At least Casey has momentum, and he’ll save time by not having to adapt or change, his setup.

Of course, Constantin Jacob wrote a wiki to install and run Camel on a VPS from scratch… Erm, so…

For anyone that is considering moving over to a VPS, I do encourage you to do so. It is very easy to get up and running. The fine-tuning can be a breeze, or a real slog, depending on the specific needs of the task you want to do. With something like Heroku, the boundaries are defined, but there’s so much freedom in running a server that the lack of restriction can be daunting. It’s a bit like looking at a blank page, so give yourself a little “writing exercise” of serving some static files.

My setup? An Ubuntu droplet (out of the box) that serves static files with Twisted (not out of the box). It’s even easy to manage things on the go with tools like Panic’s Prompt and Transmit.

Problems I’ve faced:

That’s really not that bad, right? There’s nothing really messy, even less so if you’re better equipped than I am. After all, I am a simple, country lawyer (still not true).

If you want to try out DigitalOcean, feel free to use my referral link for a $10 credit, which is 2 free months to give it a shot. Or try Linode, or whatever else. It’s better than paying Heroku $7 a month to host a blog.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-05-04-FXGuide-on-the-Avengers-Age-of-Ultron.html FXGuide on the Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015-05-04T16:15:00Z 2015-05-04T16:15:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I watched Avengers: Age of Ultron yesterday, and I wondered how the work was divided between various VFX houses. I knew multiple places worked on it beforehand, but I didn’t know the specifics. Everything felt pretty cohesive, there were a few things that seemed inconsistent with the other work, but it is mostly cohesive.

FXGuide has a breakdown of all the vendor work. Who did what, what assets were shared, and how things were handed off. The shared assets are always fascinating to me because that requires a level of effort that can’t be appreciated by the audience.

In this article, fxguide finds out from Townsend and many of the VFX vendors on the show - including ILM, Trixter, Double Negative, Animal Logic, Framestore, Lola VFX, Territory, Perception NYC, Method Studios, Luma Pictures and The Third Floor - how the studios were cast and how the biggest characters and biggest scenes were carried out.

Mike Seymour talks to Lola visual effects supervisor Trent Claus about the work that Lola did for The Vision’s face in fxpodcast #267. Lola usually does beauty work on films that you don’t usually perceive. Like “airbrushing” in magazine photos, but for film. They specifically focus on the subtlety of the eye work.

And the question on everyone’s mind

Mike Seymour: “What resolution were you working in?”

Trent Claus: “It’s basically 3K, It was, I believe, 3414x2196, it was shot on Alexa.”

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-04-30-Nielsen-to-Measure-Roku-ConnectedTV-Video-Ads.html Nielsen to Measure Roku Connected-TV Video Ads 2015-04-30T16:43:00Z 2015-04-30T16:43:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Todd Spangler, writing for Variety, discusses a new arrangement between Roku and Nielsen. For those unfamiliar, Roku makes streaming-media devices, and software to stream content, and Nielsen is a firm that specializes in tracking what people are watching.

About half of the 250 most-watched Roku channels, including CBS All Access, already deliver ads, but in selling that inventory publishers have had to extrapolate audience demographics for ad impressions.

Now, Roku channel partners will be able to measure audience according to Nielsen’s standard demo breakdowns. Nielsen will collect usage data from Roku devices (stripped of personally identifying info) and then will use its National People Meter television panel to assign audiences.

TV advertising is faltering largely because agencies and clients expect the kinds of measurements that they can get through online advertising. Providing this data through Nielsen is going to be very attractive to television networks looking to satisfy their demanding advertisers.

Roku is often overlooked by tech press that covers Apple, but the devices are quite popular.

In 2014, Roku users streamed more than 3 billion hours of video. (For the sake of comparison, Netflix said subscribers worldwide consumed 10 billion hours in the first quarter of 2015 alone.)

Apple TV does have some ad tracking through Apple’s iAd platform, but how that’s working, and what their plans are for it in the future, are kind of a mystery. I’ve speculated that if Apple is getting the old-guard, American TV broadcasters to offer streaming on Apple TV and other iOS devices, then it’s a forgone conclusion that they’re going to provide advertising, and advertising tracking, because that’s the carrot that’s going to move this along. They don’t really have a stick (literally, heh).

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-04-27-Analogue-37-The-Times-are-Changing.html Analog(ue) #37: The Times are Changing 2015-04-27T15:53:00Z 2015-04-27T15:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ It’s no secret that I like to listen to Analog(ue) on Relay FM and hear Myke and Casey struggle with how they integrate technology with their lives. This past week was about how Myke met his girlfriend online. Why he approached it, how he went about it, and the stigma of sharing how they met.

First off, the stigma is very real, but mostly generational. People around my age, like Casey, might not have gone on any dating sites, but might be accepting of it because they know people that have. People old enough to be the parents of grown-up adults tend to have mostly negative views. Even younger people are seemingly the most accepting. It is the kind of pattern you see with all internet services. It doesn’t help that most people think finding someone to date online means instantly hooking up with randos for flings.

I don’t generally share the story of how I met my boyfriend, but it was almost six years ago. We met on Match (not an endorsement) and I said we should get coffee. July 2nd, we met for the first time at Intelligentsia Coffee in Venice. We met and talked and decided to go on more dates. There is nothing weird, or creepy, about it.

Online dating is crucial for many people that don’t have much social interaction in their busy lives. It can also be essential if you are a guy that is not looking for a girlfriend. Online profiles tend to clear up a lot of ambiguity.

I encourage people to give that Analog(ue) episode a listen to hear Myke’s experience.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-04-19-Batman-and-Superman-v-Fans.html Batman and Superman v. Fans 2015-04-19T15:56:10Z 2015-04-19T15:56:10Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Graeme McMillan wrote an opinion piece for The Hollywood Reporter about the online reaction to trailer for Warner Bros. next superhero movie. Unfortunately, Graeme misplaces the blame for the reaction to the trailer at the feet of the fans. It’s not Warner Bros. that has a problem, it’s the people that love Superman and Batman, or films, that have a problem. We’re all such jerks.

Think of it as “A Tale of Two Trailers.” Thursday saw the release of teasers for both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and, thanks to what appears to be a camera phone-aided leak, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both are among the most eagerly-anticipated movies of the next twelve months, but that’s pretty much where the similarity ended. While The Force Awakens was met with a huge embrace, the response to Batman v Superman was a whole lot cooler — and crankier.

This is an apt comparison to make. I also made that same comparison.

Graeme feels like The Force Awakens’ marketing task was a small hurdle:

By contrast, Star Wars: The Force Awakens had a far easier job: all it had to do was convince the audience that it was the Star Wars that they grew up with.

Oh. That’s all! Easy-peasy.

Ultimately, audiences know as much (or, really, as little) about The Force Awakens as they do BVS, but because the latter is building off of a base of goodwill as opposed to apathy or outright suspicion, the Force trailer was successful in a way that the BVS trailer can only dream of being.

Who’s fault is that, Graeme? It’s not the fault of the fans. It’s not the fault of people that saw Man of Steel. It’s not like they’ve been unfairly maligned by a smear campaign from someone else making a terrible Superman movie.

Graeme even compares the plight of Batman v. Superman to Terminator Genisys [sic]. He says that fans reject the premise so strongly, so Fox couldn’t help but release a trailer that shows the twist of the movie three months before the film hits theaters. Fans are such jerks for making them ruin their movie!

What?!

Trailers are marketing tools, and they exist to get people into theaters, but don’t “ruin” your movie to try and get people in to theaters. Fretting that BvS is equally ridiculous.

Trailers, ultimately, are tricks; they’re something that exists to convince the audience that, hey, this movie is exactly what you want to see! Unfortunately, such tricks only work on audiences that are willing to be convinced, or at least open to persuasion.

Yes, trailers are tricks. They are marketing instruments that often have little to do with the final film. They are laboriously constructed to get people to go to theaters opening weekend. With franchise films, they are specifically about building off good feelings that already exist toward a piece of intellectual property — like a novel, comic book, film, or TV show.

This piece of marketing does not appeal to me, or seemingly, almost anyone. That is a failure of marketing. The trailer might be accurate to what the film winds up being, but then it’s a failure of marketing, and a failure of filmmaking.

JJ Abrams, and Disney, had an uphill battle with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They created an appealing piece of marketing. What the final film ends up being — well, we’ll see. That is a heroic feet.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-04-16-Star-Teaser-Two-The-Feels-Awaken.html Star Teaser Two: The Feels Awaken 2015-04-17T07:38:00Z 2015-04-17T07:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/

By now, everyone and their grandmother has seen the new teaser trailer for the next Star Wars movie at least five times. I’ll keep what I have to say about it short.

I like the teaser. I feel something when I watch the teaser. Even someone as jaded, and cynical, as myself can be tricked into being excited about a film these days. This is what JJ is good at — He knows how to work the feels. You can pick apart many shows and movies JJ has done, but he always jams his work full of things that immediately resonate, emotionally, with the audience.

The first teaser was full of stuff that resembled things from the original Star Wars movie. Visual analogs were offered that called back to something we had good feelings about. Many of these costumes, and objects, are tweaked, instead of being the same as they once were. The first teaser was met with positive comments (mostly.) It didn’t have any of the actors from the original film series. Fans already know that those people are involved.

When the first teaser came out, Dan and I put out a whole trailer-centric episode — Defocused 25: ‘A Controlled Leak’. We also discussed Star Wars: The Phantom Menace‘s trailers, as well as Cloverfield and Star Trek.

The new teaser has gone further with calling back to the original series of films. Again, many things are altered to be slightly different, and yet the same. The teaser winks and nods at the audience. “Hey, buddy, remember those good times we had? Remember this guy?” Every frame of it seems composed to expressly tie elements with the previous stories, including the voiceover from Luke Skywalker, and appearance of Han and Chewie.

I am charmed by it, in the truest sense. There are many things a teaser trailer like this can do to mitigate the “bad PR” of the prequels. We all know a giant, corporate entity runs it as a film franchise. We cheer, and tear up, over seeing familiar things that trigger our memories. It’s pavlovian.

I hope that the film can deliver, and that I’m not distracted by all the winking and nodding that comes through in the teasers. I want to be in the moment of the movie, and I don’t want to be knocked out by remembering the other films. I’m very optimistic about it. That’s really my only concern — my optimism.

JJ seems far better suited to Star Wars, than Star Trek, and I can only assume that means the film will be as good as 2009’s Star Trek was at playing with feelings (if not the plot).

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-04-13-We-Can-Reboot-It-for-You-Wholesale.html We Can Reboot It for You Wholesale 2015-04-13T16:08:00Z 2015-04-13T16:08:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ I suggested to Dan that we watch Total Recall for our podcast, Defocused. Of course I was referring to the 1990 hit, by Paul Verhoeven. Before we recorded our podcast, I did decide to go ahead and watch the 2012 reboot by Len Wiseman did for Columbia Pictures.

That remake infuriated me — and not because it was a remake. It was just a shitty remake. Much like Columbia Pictures’ remake of RoboCop — another Paul Verhoeven film. All the quirky comedy was extracted, the goofball, over-the-top violence was gone. Influences of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek flares and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (a different Philip K. Dick story) are pasted on.

It’s not like the 1990 film has much in common with the short story, but 2012 film didn’t do itself any favors by trying to go a third way with the story.

Reboots and remakes can work, but they do often miss the mark. I’ll pitch you on an example idea.

Joe’s Total Recall

Let’s go back to what works, the 1990 movie. Same story, no need for a new plot twist. Instead it’s about a casting twist. Gender swap the whole main cast.

  • Lori Quaid - The Protagonist
  • Douglas Quaid - The husband/agent
  • Mel - The boyfriend/freedom fighter
  • Vina Cohaagen - The corrupt, ruthless governor

The only element of the 2012 movie I would retain is keeping agent (Lori, in this case Douglas) through the whole film and removing the character of Richter.

We still open on the dream, and waking up. We have the breakfast scene where the husband tells the wife that her dreams are nothing. The wife thinks about Mars, and the husband talks down to her about it. She goes to work in an office job (no rock quarry) and does the same thing as everyone else around her. Everything in her life is bland and boring. A coworker warns her not to go to Recall. She goes.

How much more interesting is this story about male fantasy when it’s reframed from a whole new perspective? Hell, I’d even pitch having Sharon Stone as Vina Cohaagen. Arnold’s head would malfunction and repeat “Two Weeks” — it would be fantastic.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-04-09-Et-Tu-Tim.html Et Tu, Tim? 2015-04-09T15:43:52Z 2015-04-09T15:43:52Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ A few days ago, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh dismissed a class action lawsuit against several animation, and visual effects companies. This is directly tied to the emails uncovered in a 2010 suit by the Justice Department for the companies agreeing not to poach employees from one another. Ed Catmull — one of the most important people in computer graphics, and film — was sending very casual emails about coercing people to participate in the no-poaching scheme. Ed also did away with contracts because they thought it would be better for employees not to be tied down, they’d all be “at will” and could, in theory, leave for better paying jobs. You know, jobs no one was offering them because of Ed’s no-poaching agreement.

From Joel Rosenblatt, writing for Bloomberg Business, emphasis mine:

“We have avoided wars up in Northern California because all of the companies up here — Pixar, ILM, DreamWorks, and a couple of small places — have conscientiously avoided raiding each other,” Catmull wrote to [Disney Executive Dick] Cook.

Asked about the e-mail during his January 2013 deposition, Catmull said he saw it as his duty to insulate Northern California film companies from salary bidding wars that drive costs up, move the animation jobs overseas, and destroy the U.S. industry.

“Like somehow we’re hurting some employees? We’re not,” Catmull said. “While I have responsibility for the payroll, I have responsibility for the long term also,” Catmull said. “I don’t apologize for this. This was bad stuff.”

Steve Jobs played a major role in this through Pixar and Apple.

When Koh ruled against the former employees, I was gobsmacked that the employees couldn’t sue the companies because the statue of limitations had expired. The clock started ticking when the employees were affected, not when proof of a scheme came to light. So tough cookies.

During my twitter indignation over this, Glenn Fleishman and Jason Snell pointed me towards the new Becoming Steve Jobs book. They informed me that the book doesn’t shy away from it (unlike Catmull’s autobiography) and specifically includes a quote from Tim Cook defending Steve Jobs’ position in this. The book is, frankly, a bit of a mess, particularly the chapter relevant to the no-poaching agreement.

From Chapter 16 of Brent Schlender’s & Rick Tetzeli’s Becoming Steve Jobs:

Tim Cook doesn’t see anything egregious in Steve’s thinking—even though he has since tried to settle the lawsuit by offering to pay hundreds of million of dollars to participants in the class-action suit. “I know where Steve’s head was,” he says. “He wasn’t doing anything to hold down salaries. It never came up. He had a simple objective. If we were working together on something—like with Intel, where we threw everything in the middle of the table and said let’s convert the Mac to the Intel processor—well, when we did that we didn’t want them poaching our employees that they were meeting, and they didn’t want us poaching theirs. Doesn’t it make sense that you wouldn’t, that it’s an okay thing? I don’t think for a minute he thought he was doing anything bad, and I don’t think he was thinking about saving any money. He was just very protective of his employees.” It’s a rational argument, insofar as it goes. All CEOs want to keep their best employees at their company. But it ignores the simple fact that making such an agreement with other companies, explicitly or otherwise, is illegal, according to the U.S government and most antitrust lawyers. Steve, apparently, couldn’t be bothered even with acknowledging those rules.

With all the positive, social speaking he’s done recently, it was very disappointing to read Tim excuse this.

It shouldn’t really be surprising, since Ed Catmull doesn’t regret his actions at all. He didn’t include them in the book he wrote, which specifically talks about managers needing to understand the mistakes they’ve made, so … great book, Ed.

If there’s anything Steve, Ed, and Tim are guilty of, it’s caring too much about employees. Don’t you get it?

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-04-06-California-Film-and-TV-Subsidies-Chase-Lost-Jobs.html California Film and TV Subsidies Chase Lost Jobs 2015-04-06T15:13:00Z 2015-04-06T15:13:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The LA Times has a piece by Richard Verrier on the end of California’s film and TV incentive program that ran for seven years. A new program is starting with a different set of issues.

Last year, the Legislature signed a law to disband the lottery program and replace it with an expanded program that will triple funding to $330 million annually. The new program also allows more projects to qualify, such as big-budget features and TV pilots.

The new program cited from the California Film Commision’s site:

Eligible for 20% Tax Credit (Plus 5% Uplift*):

  • Feature Films: $1 million minimum budget; credit allocation applies only to the first $100 million in qualified expenditures
  • Movies-of-the-Week and Miniseries: $500,000 minimum budget
  • New Television Series for any distribution outlet: $1 million minimum budget per episode (at least 40 minutes per episode, scripted only)
  • TV Pilots: $1 million minimum budget

Eligible for 25% Tax Credit:

  • Independent Films: $1 million minimum budget; credits apply only to the first $10 million of qualified expenditures (only independent projects may sell their tax credits)
  • Relocating Television Series, without regard to episode length, that filmed their prior season outside California; $1 million minimum budget

5% Credit Uplift

  • Filming outside the Los Angeles zone + 5%
  • Music scoring/music tracking recording expenditures + 5%
  • Visual effects expenditures (minimum spend required) + 5%

*Note: The above uplifts cannot be combined. The maximum credit a production can earn is 25%.

This is messy. The reason pilots are mentioned so prominently is because networks commission a ton pilots every year. That’s how they preview things, they get together the cast, and make a show. The networks roll some dice, pick some flower petals, flip some coins, and then they give a small selection approval to go to series. Then the next time networks need a show, they make more pilots. This creates a lot of work for people.

In an effort to cut costs, pilots are happening outside of California. Then they go to series outside California. That’s why there’s a lot of emphasis on pilots, and on TV relocation, in the new incentives. It’s a lot of jobs.

The film side of the credits might make more sense to people unfamiliar with film production. It seems like films make a lot of money, right? Wrong.

The maximum tax rebate a film can get is 25% on everything. Compare this to Vancouver, British Columbia where they have a stacking system of credits.

  1. Basic (35% labor costs)
  2. Regional (12.5% labor costs)
  3. Distant Location Regional (6% labor costs - filming outside Vancouver prorated against the number of days filmed in Vancouver.)
  4. Film Training
  5. Digital Animation or Visual Effects (17.5% labor costs)

You will notice that is a bigger payout than the California program. The program also doesn’t have a cap of $330 million. If you ran a film studio, it would seem far better to set up a Canadian production company to collect tax credits and sit in your Hollywood office.

Production was in danger of leaving BC for Ontario, and Quebec, without increased tax breaks to compete with those provinces. The credits remained the same, and work stayed in BC. Justin Smallbridge writing for the Saskatoon Phoenix:

Shooting for “Deadpool,” the eighth instalment in the “X-Men” franchise starring Vancouver-born Ryan Reynolds, has begun and is expected to spend $37.5 million in B.C. and employ 1,100 people.

It’s one in a string of Hollywood features shooting in the province, including “Star Trek 3” and “The B.F.G.” (big friendly giant), Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book.

The productions, and many others, have prompted one industry insider to predict that 2015 will be one of B.C.’s most lucrative years ever.

Another factor is that facilities and infrastructure for many places that support each film moved, and are unlikely to move again as long as nothing is significantly better, or worse. They’ve achieved critical mass to sustain themselves as long as everything stays relatively the same. A former employer relocated and spoke to The Globe and Mail:

Randy Lake, executive vice-president and general manager of the animation and visual-effects leader Sony Pictures Imageworks, brings a hard, cold, cash-based reality back into play when he says, “I love Vancouver.” Having moved the Imageworks head office from Culver City, California, to Pacific Centre as of April 1, “I would not want to pick up and leave. But if the [tax] incentives were gone tomorrow—well, that’s my nightmare scenario.” The sweetest of those incentives, for Sony, is the DAVE—the Digital Animation or Visual Effects—tax credit, which lately means that a credit of “17.5% can be applied against any qualified B.C. labour expenditures that are incurred while performing eligible post-production activities in B.C.” Lake says this break, more than any other factor, drove the relocation from Culver City.

So again, when the LA Times used visual effects employment as an example, “Applicants can boost their ratio if they do visual effects work in California…” I had a morbid little guffaw. California will not woo those jobs back. Perhaps it will stabilize TV VFX, or houses that haven’t moved, but Imageworks is staying put.

CA Should Just Give Out More

Obviously, the work moved because places offer more money than California, but that hasn’t worked out well for everyone.

Take Lousiana for example. They have a $1.6 billion budget shortfall and yet they are still doling out money that leaves the state. Quoting from Chelsea Brasted’s report on a state mandated study: “Overall, the entertainment tax programs cost $4.48 for every $1 of state revenue they create.”

The study underscores the low return on investment on film projects with big name talent because these “higher-end paid individuals … are typically not Louisiana residents,” (emphasis the study’s own). Specifically, it said about 25 percent of the state’s total spend on all entertainment programs goes toward paying those big name actors, directors, writers and producers. “It is a heroic assumption that these monies will actually be spent in Louisiana,” it notes on page 15.

From another report by Julia O’Donoghue:

The governor is trying to abide by a “no tax” pledge he signed with the national anti-tax group, Americans for Tax Reform, in Washington D.C. Americans for Tax Reform would consider certain changes to the film tax credit program a “tax hike,” according Tim Barfield, Secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Revenue. It’s unlikely the governor would approve any changes that Americans for Tax Reform would label a tax increase.

Resist and die. Don’t resist, and die.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-04-05-Rumored-Apple-TV-Rumored-to-Not-Have-Rumored-4K.html Rumored Apple TV Rumored to Not Have Rumored 4K 2015-04-05T23:33:00Z 2015-04-05T23:33:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ There was a piece by John Paczkowski, the managing editor of BuzzFeed San Francisco about the new Apple TV not supporting 4K. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, really, because the current one doesn’t support it, and the only two streaming media companies that offer 4K (UHD) content are Netflix (some original programming) and YouTube (some user-generated videos). iTunes doesn’t sell UHD content to use on your Retina Macs, and Netflix won’t even stream UHD to them. Maybe save UHD for some point in the future when there’s more than 6 things to watch in UHD? When it can be a real, headline feature?

Naturally, John concludes his post with that acknowledgment. Actually he concludes with “Apple declined to comment ‘on rumor and speculation.’”

SD to HD to UHD

A few days ago, my boyfriend and I were watching a rerun of Friends on the TV Land channel. It was an episode that was remastered in HD, compressed by DirecTV, and displayed in his living room. I had seen the episode a long time ago, it was one where Phoebe’s identical twin sister, Ursula, was using Phoebe’s name. Phoebe confronts Ursula over it. Lisa Kudrow has no real life twin, so this was accomplished with split screen, and doubles. The shots showing the back of the double, and Lisa Kudrow’s face were as crisp as anything in HD on DirecTV. The split screen shots, where Lisa Kudrow was composited with herself, were a fuzzy mess. It kept cutting back and forth from crisp shots, to blurry shots, as the scene played out. To my trained eye, it looked like whoever was in charge of remastering Friends had to blow up the original standard definition output and crop it, instead of going back to the source and redoing the split screen. Remember it’s not just scaling, it’s also the aspect ratio change so you actually have to remove pixels on top and bottom.

Ultimately, it’s Friends, so very few people will care about a handful of blurry shots. This does illustrate a problem with “content” in that it isn’t future proof. Companies either can’t (original source is gone, or degraded) or won’t ($) remaster visual effects shots when they transition from one output medium to another. Naturally, most people assume that’s an issue for Star Trek and Babylon 5 (and it is), but it’s also a problem for Friends, and other sitcoms. Even dramatic shows that take place in the real world make extensive use of enhancement. Set extensions, painting out wires, adding explosions, combining different takes, image stabilization — all kinds of stuff that people don’t even perceive. Only they will perceive them because they’ll all be blurry when that moves up to a higher resolution.

Networks are still converting shows to HD, notably HBO’s The Wire and notoriously Fox’s Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.

Even CBS, which has been applauded for their work remastering the original Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, has no immediate desire to remaster Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Star Trek: Voyager. (My personal theory is that this has to do with the decline of Blu-Ray sales, in general, reducing the profit.)

Babylon 5 a show that used computer graphics instead of miniature photography, is adrift. Warner Bros. lost everything they had. Jason Snell referred me to a fan that tried to redo all the effects himself (he gave up).

HD is still the law of the land in TV. It is newsworthy for a production to work in a resolution higher than HD. Netflix’s House of Cards is being mastered in 6K (and archived) and also mastered for UHD (4k), and HD, to be streamed today. Keep in mind, 6K isn’t even a standard, the next step up right now is 8K UHD, so … Let’s see where that goes?

Films are in the same boat. Most VFX have been produced at 2K. The exact resolution varies based on the project, and what the client requires for delivery, but it’s around 2048 wide with different regions of the frame being masked to produce different aspect ratios (or using anamorphic lenses that compress and stretch horizontally). Film resolutions and TV resolutions are not directly comparable so “4K” doesn’t mean the same thing.

Even films like the original Star Wars trilogy have 4K problems. A firm called NanoTech Entertainment hired Petr Harmy, the creator of the unauthorized Star Wars Despecialized Edition HD remasters to do the same thing in 4K for their UltraFlix 4K streaming service. Think of how many times Star Wars has been futzed with — whether George Lucas was involved or not.

Even knowing 4K will be eventually asked for, modern motion pictures aren’t entirely produced in 4K DCI (around 4096 wide). Those that are, might include VFX shots done at 2K, and blown-up to 4K.

This creates an uneven library of material to pull from and populate your “4K” TV with.

It’s OK, Netflix, your ISP, Vimeo, YouTube, DirecTV, Verizon, etc. can all step in and compress a video too, so it’s not like you’re literally getting pixel-per-pixel stuff anyway.

Colorspace, The Final Frontier

Beyond the issues of pixels, is colorspace. An overly simple way to think of that is the way the color data is stored, but it also has to do with how that stored data is transformed on to the screen where you see it. The internet is just awful when it comes to color accuracy. That has to do with the delightful interplay between how images and video are stored, the browser, plugins, operating systems, drivers, and monitors. Line up a bunch of computers and load the same sites on all of them and you will see slight differences. This is also why the colorspaces you’ll see used most often are sRGB, or Adobe RGB, because they’re from so long ago, and use such a narrow gamut, that maybe you’ll luck out and it’ll look uniformly bland.

As bad as that is, your home TV is weirder. HD TVs support a standard colorspace called Rec 709. As anyone who’s seen more than one TV at a time can attest, it’s not uniform color. It too is subject to the whims of the TV manufacturer. Sometimes they increase the saturation, and brightness, to make their TV seem more appealing on a showroom floor.

4K UHD is also plagued with this problem. Again, it supports a standard — Rec 2020— but it suffers the same fate, with each manufacturer doing different things to how they display that Rec 2020 material in your living room.

Here’s a very thorough piece from FX Guide about colorspace, and color pipelines.

Most consumers aren’t fazed by this at all because they simply don’t care. Much like they don’t care about resolution issues. They want their whole TV filled with an image. They want to know they bought the highest number of pixels, and they want it to be bright and colorful. Mark my words, in a few years, some manufacturer is going to make some Android stunt-phone that’ll claim to show 4K movies and TV shows, and they’ll get all the positive press in the world, because numbers are bigger than other numbers.

Everything’s a lie.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-03-25-How-to-Save-Star-Trek-Make-it-the-True-Detective-of-Science-Fiction.html How to Save Star Trek: Make it the True Detective of Science Fiction 2015-03-26T07:48:00Z 2015-03-26T07:48:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ This ran at the beginning of the month on Vox, and I only just got around to reading it after hearing David Loehr mention the article that episode of Counter Clockwise about Star Trek.

I think there are other avenues that can be explored, but like everyone else, I’m just itching to have Star Trek back on the air.

Today, news circulated that Idris Elba was in talks to appear in the next Star Trek movie. I will be doubly sad to see the 50th anniversary of Star Trek celebrated with another Khan knock-off villain plot. Another Earth-in-peril film. Perhaps it will be more, but the last two installments were literally about vengeful men trying to blow up San Francisco. Two of them! San Francisco’s not that bad.

Villains have their place, and can be used to great effect, but not recently. Here’s a recap of film antagonists, and a projection:

  1. V’Ger — A machine seeking perfection.
  2. Khan — Vengeful megalomaniac.
  3. Kruge — Selfish megalomaniac.
  4. Probe — Accidental destruction.
  5. Sybok, Klaa, God — Selfish megalomaniacs.
  6. Chang — Homicidal war hawk.
  7. Soran, Lursa and B’Etor — Obsession, and power, respectively.
  8. Borg, Borg Queen — Complete assimilation, and domination.
  9. Ru’Afo, Dougherty — Vengeful megalomaniac. Ends justify the means.
  10. Shinzon — Vengeful megalomaniac.
  11. Nero — Vengeful megalomaniac.
  12. Khan, Admiral Marcus — Vengeful megalomaniac. Homicidal war hawk.
  13. Someone? — Vengeful megalomanic?

If this was a TV series, anthology or not, there wouldn’t be so many vengeful nuts. Indeed, Star Trek’s history is full of episodes that have very abstract notions of villains. Many times villains are inserted as a mirror for us, and our society. Some episodes are about broken components, and natural disasters. Antagonists are not the only source of conflict.

One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is “Cause and Effect” where there’s plenty of tension, and not a single villain, or hint of malice.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-03-20-Counter-Clockwise-2-Lost-in-Stars.html Counter Clockwise 2: Lost in Stars 2015-03-20T15:38:00Z 2015-03-20T15:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/
Anti-time. Counter Clockwise. I’m hilarious!

My favorite nerd-culture (not grown on a petri dish) is provided by the The Incomparable podcast network. The main podcast spun off an orbiting array of other podcasts, including the The Incomparable Game Show. Which isn’t a show, but a feed of similarly themed game shows. Counter Clockwise, however, isn’t really a game, but just go with it. Each panelist presents a question to the group, and they take turns answering. It’s a mirror version of the popular tech podcast Dan Moren, and Jason Snell do for Relay FM’s podcast network.

The first one was a Star Wars one — which is fine, if you’re into that sort of thing. Their second episode is about Star Trek. Yay! (Throws shiny, space-confetti.)

Readers may recall a similar post about The Incomparable, and Star Trek from ages past, and then, only in legend.

Favorite Character

Dan Moren’s question is pretty straight-forward, but difficult to answer since it’s easy to be torn between several characters. Dan jokes, “Which one’s your favorite child?”

  • David Loehr: Jean-Luc Picard
  • Jason Snell: Leonard “Bones” McCoy
  • Scott McNulty: Worf
  • Dan Moren: Benjamin Sisko

While it’s hard to extricate the character from the actor, Jason Snell has complimentary things to say about both De Forest Kelly’s performance, and Karl Urban’s

I’m torn between Spock, and Data. The characters have many similarities, but some key differences in their personal struggles. There are two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that stick out in my mind from when I was in my formative years: Hero Worship and The Measure of a Man.

Hero Worship is a flawed episode, and it’s hard to really get into it when you view it now, but it left an impression. Here was this kid that felt all alone, and isolated. He didn’t want to feel that way, and he looked up to Data as someone he could model himself after. This spoke to me.

As much as it pains me, I’d pick Data over Spock. If only Jason Snell had invoked The Phil Hartman Rule to save me from this choice.

What Scene, or Plot Element, Triggered a New Story Idea, or Head Canon?

David’s topic is, of course, very writery.

  • Jason Snell: Kirstie Alley’s Savvik, as originally written. Also considered:
    • Kelsey Grammar’s captain from the end of “Cause and Effect” exploring the universe as a fish-out-of-water.
    • The people thawed out at the end of “The Neutral Zone” for another fish-out-of-water story.
    • Dr. Bruce Maddox’s quest to make new androids.
    • Baseball. For … something.
  • Scott McNulty: “Conspiracy” ending with the homing beacon to other little parasites out in the far reaches of the galaxy.
  • Dan Moren: “Yesterday’s Enterprise” - to get to know more about that alternate reality version of Starfleet.
    • Get to know more about Boothby.
  • David Loehr: Explore any interaction between “Mirror Mirror” Spock mind-melding with McCoy, and Spock mind-melding with McCoy in Star Trek II.

Great choices. (Except baseball.) If I had to pick one, I’d go with exploring the unidentified Dyson Sphere from “Relics”. It’s a giant shell world, the size of a solar system, built by a civilization that abandoned it. Like so many things in Star Trek, we never, ever hear of it ever again.

What is the Star Trek Series You’d Want to See?

Jason longs for a series, and asks the panel what kind of series they want.

  • Scott McNulty: Firefly.
  • Dan Moren: A show about Section 31, particularly in the J.J. Abrams universe, where it needs to be rebuilt. Espionage — cloak, and dagger.
  • David Loehr: Star Trek: Continuum — an anthology series with a few episodes to tell specific stories spread throughout Star Trek’s chronology (chronologies). Particularly if it was with the Netflix model with 8-10 episodes set here, and there.
    • Jason riffs on David’s suggestion with the opportunities to bring in the J.J. movie cast for guest spots here, and there.
  • Jason Snell: He has two, but it’s really three.
    • A series set in the original series era, with the costumes, and designs, of the era.
    • A series set in the J.J. Abrams universe, with the costumes, and designs, of that rethought era.
    • Inspired by John Scalzi, and similar books about discovering something surprising on a planet, and uncovers a mystery.

I’ve been thinking about Star Trek series ideas since TNG. I’ll spare you all the iterations I’ve gone through and present only two:

  • Set post Voyager, but incorporating the “adjusted” timeline of the J.J. movies. It’s like TNG in overall format, a ship exploring the galaxy without a constant threat, but there are serialized arcs, like DS9. The real change is that it isn’t a rehashing of TNG scripts, it will return to creatively thinking of the morality issues that we face in the present day, viewed through the lens of science fiction. I want to go to subjects that were taboo for the previous producers to consider handling. There will also be a guy that kisses another guy, because that shit just needs to happen.
  • Like the first example, but the format would divide the season up into segments all telling the same story. This is similar to David’s Star Trek: Continuum pitch, but more like viewing overlapping events through the eyes of several alien cultures. This view at the same event through characters we can sympathize with will let us look at all angles, and not just the noble Federation scolding aliens every week. Layers of perception and drama. Every season is a new event to dissect.

What is Your Favorite Vehicle?

Scott McNulty steals Dan’s question from the previous Star Wars show.

  • Dan Moren: The USS Defiant.
    • Runabouts. “It’s like the compact car of the Star Trek universe. You don’t need, like, an SUV-Enterprise-thing. It’s like a Honda Fit.”
  • David Loehr: “Ditto” (He means The Defiant, not the runabouts, thank god.)
  • Jason Snell: The classic Klingon battlecruiser (the D7) “as best seen, probably, in The Motion Picture” (that’s the K’t’inga, but same deal as the D7).
    • Excelsior as a runner-up.
  • Scott McNulty: D’Deridex Class Romulan Warbird.

These were all very good choices, except for Dan’s runabouts. I mean, really? Any vehicle? Runabouts? They’re so unexciting, and wimpy, that the role they filled was mostly replaced by the ship he picked as his primary choice.

Anyway, my pick is a little difficult, so I’m going to do the multiple-pick trick of saying a bunch of things I’ve considered:

  • The Enterprise NCC-1701-D. I have a fondness for this comfy, fabric-covered, kid-safe, holodeck-filled ship. It doesn’t look good from all angles, and some of it is a bit dated.
  • The Nebula Class is very similar to the Galaxy Class, but it’s much more compact. The first one we see, is the USS Phoenix, which has a funky AWAC pod. I much prefer the style represented by the USS Sutherland, and it’s arrowhead pod.
  • The New Orleans Class Kyushu is barely seen onscreen as a battle-damaged wreck, but if you were the kind of person that looked online at ships from the Battle of Wolf 359, and their reconstructions, then you probably liked the idea of it. It’s swept back nacelle pylons were great.
  • The Enterprise E is a slicker design than the above, but it’s not as “friendly”.
  • The Akira Class was a great ship, but then Enterprise came out and aped the design, and now every time I look at an Akira Class, I think of that incredibly disappointing show.
  • The Jem’Hadar Battleship - I’m a size queen.

In the end, I’ve got to go with the Enterprise D. It narrowly beats out the Sutherland, because it has a better bridge. They always say that kitchens and baths sell real estate, but in Star Trek, it’s about the bridge. Should have sprung for wood railings, Sutherland.

Bonus Question: Of The Many Starfleet Divisions, Which Starfleet Department Would You Work for?

  • David Loehr: Command.
  • Jason Snell: Command, but probably winds up in Engineering.
  • Scott McNulty: Wants to be in Command, thinks he would be in Ops.
  • Dan Moren: Engineering.

I’d want to wear a nice, soothing teal. Probably ship’s counsellor. I most likely wouldn’t pass any tests, and be one of those civilians with the onesies that never fit right in the crotch.

And Then Dan Died

The bonus on the bonus is the Bonus Track with excerpts from the recording session for the episode. It’s mostly about people that are having computer problems.

Also, the grocery store nearby has Quadrotriticale still. Snell, and Loehr, if you want to get it you’re going to have to come down here. You’re going to have to - come - down - here.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-03-19-The-Changing-and-Unchanging-Structure-of-TV.html The Changing – and Unchanging – Structure of TV 2015-03-19T15:53:00Z 2015-03-19T15:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Ben Thompson goes on a deep dive over how Apple’s OTT service will mostly move money around. This is very much in line with my own thinking. This is all about advertising money. See here, and here.

From Thompson’s conclusion:

Notice, though, who is not winning here, at least financially: consumers. The money is simply moving around. In fact, of the three major players in this proposed deal, Apple will likely earn the least:

  • Content owners have pricing power because they create must-see TV
  • Cable companies have pricing power because they own the pipe
  • Apple is simply proposing to be content’s customer service layer in place of the cable companies

The benefit for Apple is the strengthening of their ecosystem: owning the TV will make iPhone and Watches more valuable (see Apple’s New Market); this too is the main way in which consumers win, and why they will switch: a better UI, better integration with their devices, and a company that actually cares. Just be prepared to pay the same, if not more, than you pay today.

Thompson also breaks down the business of TV at the top of his post, although he glosses over the complex interaction between TV studios, film studios, and networks that make up divisions of media companies. The networks buy shows, and broadcast rights for films, from the TV studios and film studios respectively. Fox’s TV studio doesn’t always make content for Fox’s broadcast and cable networks, for example, and Fox’s networks don’t exclusively show 20th Century Fox films. The TV studios are even making shows for Netflix and Amazon, with Netflix and Amazon acting as the network in that relationship, and obviating the role the broadcast network division plays in collecting ad revenue.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-03-18-Connected-Cable.html Connected Cable 2015-03-18T16:38:00Z 2015-03-18T16:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/

On episode 31 of Relay FM’s Connected podcast; Myke Hurley, Federico Viticci, and Stephen Hackett discussed many items of Apple news. This included the rumor from The Wall Street Journal concerning Apple’s supposed OTT service.

Whilst I listened to the recording live, it became clear that there are some fundamental concepts about televised entertainment in America that were unclear to people outside the U.S.– and, apparently, to people in Memphis. (Hi Stephen.)

What is Cable?

Federico professed that he didn’t understand the concept, and Myke said it was like satellite. That’s sort of true, when describing television programs, and channels. In the U.S. it’s often easier to group cable, fiber, and satellite together as “cable”, though that also glosses over differences. Skip this section if you feel reasonably confident in your understanding of cable.

Brief history lesson: In the 1920s, radio networks popped up all over. The stations had limited reach, and thus covered a small area. In order to produce high-quality, consistent programming, they started to create material that would be broadcast from multiple radio stations. Thus, the networks began. Many stations are locally owned and operated, but get the majority of their programming from the network. Local news is the best example of this, with the same hour being filled in by original news programming from each broadcast station.

NBC became the largest of them, with CBS the second largest. In the 30s, the FCC (The Federal Communications Commission) forced NBC to break up because it was too large, and competition wasn’t feasible. The new network was ABC. These radio networks would become TV broadcast networks in the 40s, but they still had their roots in that decentralized grouping of broadcast networks.

Additional broadcast networks have since been added. Independently owned stations offering syndicated programming are now either Fox or CW affiliates.

Cable was a great way to provide alternative, high-quality programming, with a huge array of channels that would appeal to someone. The cable companies pay the local broadcast stations for rebroadcast rights. This also leads to interesting situations like Los Angeles having two different CBS stations that are rebroadcast over cable, KCBS (owned by CBS) and KCAL (independent). This also makes it messy when dealing with advertising.

Because cable requires a physical infrastructure laid out of vast areas of land, there’s usually only one company operating in an area. Huge mergers of regional cable TV operations have resulted in the large cable companies today. Comcast is the largest, with 22.3 million subscribers, and it is trying to merge with the second largest, Time Warner Cable, which has 11 million. Almost all the other cable providers are in the neighborhood of a few hundred thousand to a few million.

In the 90s, the cable companies realized they could send data over their networks, and it was far better than telephone lines. This is also why Americans with high speed internet access almost all have cable. This creates a natural conflict between cable companies, and internet companies that want to provide competing programming that undermines the fees and rates the cable companies charge for programming.

The best way to think about present-day cable is to think of it as a wired service that provides digital programming guides, optional DVRs, “start over” service, live TV, and on demand entertainment, some of which is pay-per-view. These are features of IPTV services like Verizon’s FiOS. (Although Verizon owns the physical network they provide their IPTV service through, making it more like an American cable provider than anything else.)

Comparison with Italy

Italy relies on terrestrial, over-the-air signals for programming. This limits the number of channels, and means that on demand services aren’t possible – with the exception of internet streaming services which are used to supplement service. Since there is little overlap, for the most part, with ISPs and broadcasting, this means no one is trying to screw anyone, like Comcast, or Verizon, messing with Netflix.

The most important thing to understand about cable is that the lines aren’t just used to carry TV shows, but also broadband internet, which makes it completely different from Italy or the U.K. Cable providers also have exclusive rights to regions of the U.S. and do not directly compete with one another – this means that costs are generally high. (Businesses gonna business.)

Federico speaks favorably of the system in Italy, because everyone can have the same experience of gathering around to watch sports events, and national political speeches. It’s more like TV in the U.S. used to be before the 1980s with a few broadcast networks that left few options.

There are, however, other problems Italy faces aside from limited selection, and limited utility. (Neither of which are major issues when you take supplemental streaming solutions into account.)

Did you know there is a “Television in Italy” page on Wikipedia? This is a fun excerpt:

According to BBC, the Italian television industry is widely considered both inside and outside the country to be overtly politicized. Unlike the BBC which is controlled by an independent trust, the public broadcaster RAI is under direct control of the parliament. According to a December 2008 poll, only 24% of Italians trusted television news programmes, compared unfavourably to the British rate of 38%, making Italy one of only three examined countries where online sources are considered more reliable than television ones for information.

HBO Won’t Sell Service Directly

In the Connected episode Myke brings up a post on The Verge that confused him and asked for clarification from Stephen. Myke’s not really at fault here because the structure of the post makes it sound like HBO NOW is just HBO Go.

From the post, with the subhead “Sorry cord cutters. You’ll have to buy it through a partner, like Apple or Cablevision”:

Cablevision doesn’t say whether it’ll be offering HBO Now on day one, but it seems like a possibility. Though Apple has touted its position as HBO’s exclusive launch partner, Apple is, in fact, only its exclusive “non-pay TV” launch partner. That means that while you won’t be able to subscribe over a Roku until Apple’s exclusivity period lifts three months from now, you should be able to subscribe though any cable company that makes a deal with HBO. HBO tells us that it hopes to announce more partners soon, but Optimum is the first.

This post is not structured very well at all and basically imparts no information other than HBO is not selling access directly, but through third parties, and he infers that cable companies will offer HBO NOW on day one. That would just HBO Go, as Myke points out on Connected.

The “sorry cord-cutters” is confusing and hyperbolic since the author acknowledges that there’s no information other than Apple and Cablevision (as an ISP) offering to sell HBO NOW. That does not mean that you will only have your regional cable provider to contend with for service. So this is still a “yay” for cord cutters.

The writer also mistakenly assumes that HBO should be the one you buy HBO NOW from, directly, like Netflix. There are large development costs to engineering a solution without partners like Apple. Netflix can manage this because they’ve been building their service in iterations for years.

From Variety, last December, about the resignation of HBO CTO Otto Berkes:

Under Berkes, HBO had been developing a streaming-video platform with the code-name “Maui” designed for the OTT service. But the Maui system was a “less-than-perfect solution” and the project was shut down, according to a memo sent to team members by Mark Thomas, senior VP of technology program management, and Drew Angeloff, senior VP of digital products. The memo was previously published by Fortune.

“This was not a judgment of the team’s work quality or deliverables but rather a bet that an existing streaming service could deliver the needed product faster and at lower risk than Maui,” Thomas and Angeloff wrote in the memo.

The execs added that “Maui’s timeframe caused us to make concessions both in scope and culture. We look forward to returning to teams defining scope, and consumer experiences, without forced top-down scheduling.” Meanwhile, a “large portion” of Maui can be repurposed for HBO Go, according to the memo.

The Verge should have referred to this reporting from Variety, especially when the author started to ruminate about how the service would be available. Technologically, HBO can do anything that Major League Baseball Advanced Media can do. That includes Roku, Android, and game console clients. HBO’s focus is obviously on iOS, and Apple TV, but The Verge would have been better off pointing out the MLBAM relationship than completely wild speculation that confuses their readers.

MLB does sell subscriptions to customers directly, so it would not seem to be a technological limitation. It is possible HBO doesn’t want to directly deal with viewers, or also fears going all-in on that immediately.

Cost

Myke asked Stephen if he felt the cost was reasonable, but Stephen no longer pays for cable, so he wasn’t sure.

I’ll refer you to my previous post covering the cost relative to basic cable packages which offer similar channels:

As I memtioned above, it’s not that much more expensive than basic cable. I am, of course, referring to true basic cable, and not the discounted plans they promote that go up 50-60% after one year. I couldn’t actually find Comcast’s basic cable package on their site. Fortunately, Consumer Reports did the footwork and found out that it’s $16 (receiver included, but no HD or DVR). Time Warner Cable’s package is $20 for a year, and then jumps up to an unspecified amount. Equipment is separate, $12 a month for a basic HD box, and $24 a month for an HD box with DVR. That’s $32 and $44, respectively, before adding in fees.

This was also under the section where I point out that it is likely to include advertising if the rates are so comparable, especially if the networks are primarily motivated by declining ad revenue, and advertisers demanding targeted ads, and analytics.

Stephen is also troubled by the cost of all the a la carte services. He says it’s why people resort to stealing content to save money. As someone that works in the entertainment industry, I am not a super-huge fan of people not paying for entertainment, but that’s my personal bias.

Bundling, and showing ads, are only natural outcomes to try to keep costs down, while still providing a comparable level of service. Apple’s approach, and interests, are different enough from cable TV providers that it should be a better experience even if it is still roughly analogous to what we have now, but will it be attractive to cord-cutters, and cord-nevers?

Despite Stephen’s old-man-ness, he’s actually in the demographic of people that are leaving cable, cord-cutters. His young kids are going to grow up not experiencing cable at all, which is increasingly common, and troubling for entertainment companies, networks, and providers.

On November 28, 2011, a report by Credit Suisse media analyst Stefan Anninger said that young people who grew up accustomed to watching shows online would be less likely to subscribe to pay television services, terming these people as “cord-nevers”. Anninger predicted that by the end of 2012, the industry’s subscriber count would drop by 200,000 to 100.5 million, blaming the economy; Anninger’s report also stated that consumers were not likely to return to paying for television even after the economy recovered. In the case of land-line telephones, people had believed younger people would eventually get them, but now numerous subscribers only have mobile phones. Anninger predicted that the same would hold true for pay television, and that providers would need to offer lower-priced packages with fewer channels in order to reverse the trend.

The Great Barrier

Myke, and Federico are largely dismissive of the Apple TV because it will have very little impact for them where they live. Imaginary boundaries mess up everything. Region locking sucks. Movies are still released in bizarre, year-long international rollouts where the U.K. will have something premiere in theaters while we have something available on home media. Even satellite TV suffers from regions set up to enforce pricing models.

It’s still worth discussing Apple, and TV programming, even if it is just in the U.S. There are 318.9 million people living here, so it is a huge area for potential growth for Apple.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-03-17-You-Tell-Him-I-Aint-No-Bandleader.html You Tell Him I Ain’t No Bandleader 2015-03-17T23:38:00Z 2015-03-17T23:38:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ My interest in Apple, and over-the-top services picked up after Apple’s March 9th event when they reduced the price of their Proterozoic set-top box, and announced 3 whole months of exclusive access to the new HBO NOW service.

This seemed insufficient for three years worth of work. Particularly because there have been rumors about new stuff in the works every year. New stuff that gets axed before it ever comes to fruition. Predominantly, the content providers have been blamed for dragging their feet, and withholding valuable programming from OTT services. (This doesn’t satisfactorily explain why nothing has been done with the hardware and software.)

After seeing what happened to sales in the music industry, thanks to iTunes, film and TV companies don’t want to see their content undervalued. Cable providers have also been afraid of being turned into dumb pipes that just move data. Clearly, this is not sustainable, especially when faced with Apple.

The Wall Street Journal, a place Apple typically leaks things to, ran a story that there will be a new OTT service from Apple this fall to coincide with new hardware and software (Here’s a link to Macworld’s post based on the WSJ - that headline). 25 channels, including ABC, and CBS (two of the three major networks (Sorry C-Dubs)). The price? Somewhere between $30 and $40 a month. That’s more expensive than an entry-level monthly plan from a cable provider, but there’s no installation fee, and you don’t rent your Apple TV box with a recurring fee. So it’s not that overpriced, depending on what you want to watch.

Notably absent is NBC, which is part of Comcast, the largest cable and internet service provider in the United States. Thanks for letting that merger go through, you stupid politicians.

The Watch isn’t the Only Thing With Perfect Timing

Apple has been in talks with networks, and content providers for years. The talks with HBO started last spring. Everything was so very slow, and nothing was happening. Apple was also building out their own CDN that could take advantage of any theoretical fast lane, or prioritization. The company had no official statement, in either direction, about Net Neutrality.

On February 26th, The FCC reclassified Internet service and adopted Open Internet rules. There are three main points:

Bright Line Rules:

  • No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
  • No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
  • No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—in other words, no “fast lanes.” This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.

No, I don’t have a conspiracy theory, so please, save the foil. It is, however, immediately apparent that these rules do help facilitate anyone looking to provide video entertainment over the internet from being obstructed by Comcast, the largest internet service provider in the US.

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal says that Apple was trying to work with Comcast until it realized that Comcast was stringing them along to develop their own X1 box. The fact that this is in the Journal, with the rest, makes me think that this is going to turn in to a tale of revenge from a spurned lover, or perhaps a cautionary tale about prized horses, and favors.

Bundle

One major problem with HBO NOW (other than the shouting!) is the price. Not because $14.99 isn’t a good price for on demand movies and original programming, with no subscription, but because it doesn’t scale if you try to apply the same pricing per “channel”. Ordering a la carte will always be more expensive than a package deal. That’s the nature of it.

This package of 25 channels will represent something like the entry-level cable package your cable provider offers. You can add premium content to it, like HBO NOW (and logically other premium services), but the basic package gives you lump of stuff that has value.

A major issue with the current “channels” offered by the Apple TV is a lack of any value. The majority that have content require a cable subscription in order to use them. This cable verification system has been a method the cable providers and networks devised in order to provide “cable anywhere” programming. It’s a flawed system because the agreements between networks and cable companies are not universal.

This also effectively negated any reason to open those Apple “channels” instead of using the cable set-top box. Pretty much missed the point.

Advertising?

I must assume that there will be ads.

As I memtioned above, it’s not that much more expensive than basic cable. I am, of course, referring to true basic cable, and not the discounted plans they promote that go up 50-60% after one year. I couldn’t actually find Comcast’s basic cable package on their site. Fortunately, Consumer Reports did the footwork and found out that it’s $16 (receiver included, but no HD or DVR). Time Warner Cable’s package is $20 for a year, and then jumps up to an unspecified amount. Equipment is separate, $12 a month for a basic HD box, and $24 a month for an HD box with DVR. That’s $32 and $44, respectively, before adding in fees.

So what does that have to do with advertising? Well, it basically proves that the cost of Apple’s package with HD, and on demand, is comparable. Apple would have to charge far more to get the networks to strip ads.

That doesn’t seem super exciting, but consider this: Advertising on cable is a two player system. As breaks feature ads sold by the network, and ads sold by the cable company.

Here’s a lovely page from Comcast all about their spot advertising platform. Here’s a page about analytics that they provide based on various audience measuring services.

Comcast Spotlight relies on sophisticated quantitative and qualitative applications to provide you with customized research to maximize ROI. The quantitative data from Nielsen, comScore, Kantar and others gives you precise analysis of television viewership, online activity, views into the competitive media landscape and more. MRI, Simmons, Scarborough, Nielsen Social and various other resources provide extensive qualitative data on consumers, geographies and social media habits to help you make a more informed decision during the media planning process.

Barf.

Analytics is actually an important issue facing networks because advertisers are increasingly demanding targeted ads. From Variety, Senior TV Editor Brian Steinberg writes about how prime time TV is being pressured to provide advertising solutions akin to online advertising.

Senior executives at both TV networks and some of the industry’s biggest ad-buying firms see a time looming when primetime TV is no longer viewed as TV’s most desirable real estate. Instead, these executives say, a new flow of consumer data and a dizzying array of video-viewing behaviors will prompt advertisers to carve out ad plans that put their pitches in front of very specific groups of people: first-time car buyers, for example, or longtime orange-soda drinkers, or expectant mothers. Chasing those targets, rather than viewers of big-ticket shows like “The Voice” and “Scandal,” could well transform primetime into a cultural artifact like Rubik’s Cube or Donkey Kong – something that was certainly fun while it lasted, but is no longer of the moment.

Advertisers and TV networks have long talked about Nielsen ratings guarantees and a pricing metric known as a CPM (a measure of the cost of reaching 1,000 viewers) as part of the upfront, where U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season. Now, “technology is pushing that to the back burner,” says one media-buying executive. If advertisers are more interested in capturing very select kinds of audience, the buyer says, they will be less concerned about what time a show comes on the air, and more interested in how and when they viewers they desire more choose to watch it.

Read his full report for all the details, but it confirms what many would suspect: Viewership is down, and ad spending is down. The number of young viewers is really, really down.

Compare this with Hulu. Hulu tracks every ad viewed, and every program watched. Their ad targeting is absolute garbage, but if advertisers think it works then that’s just as good as thinking ad buys based on Nielsen numbers worked.

Apple is no stranger to advertising. They sell ads through their iAd platform for mobile apps on iOS, as well as for their Pandora-esque iTunes Radio service. It underperforms the competition with 2.5% of mobile app advertising.

Does that mean that Apple will serve ads like a cable company does? Will regional businesses be able to buy spots through Apple? Political campaigns? Apple might eschew that completely and only show ads that the network requires. Thus reducing the number of ads shown, and simplifying the experience. It would be money left on the table, but if Apple’s real interest is in device sales (boxes, phones, and tablets) then it could be a way to convince people that it was worth it over basic cable, where they would see more ads. It is an area that cable companies would be reluctant to compete in.

It’s very easy to argue the other direction too, that they would sell their own ads, like cable, in order to finance much of this endeavor.

Of course it all depends on how ads are sold.

Possible Ad Configurations

If we assume some amount of advertisement will occur, then there are a few different ways this could play out.

  • Networks broadcasting the same ads on Apple’s OTT service as they broadcast over their terrestrial and satellite agreements. Bundling those together would make sense because it’s increasing the volume of available viewers, but then it would be difficult to split out metrics, or split out ads, which is what advertisers desire.
  • Networks manage ad buys, but display them through a system Apple provides for tracking anonymous data. This is different from iAd.
  • Networks go completely targeted with the platform.
    • Structurally, if the new “channels” are set up like the current ones, then the content provider is hosting the material themselves, and they can track requests for certain media files from IP addresses and assume they’re all the same. Then, when an ad is requested, one can be served based on what the viewing habits tell them is likely to work for people at the IP address. Not great.
    • Apple could provide targeted advertising to users through their own means, through iAd, like they do for iTunes Radio. This is the Hulu model, which allows for targeted advertising, but it takes networks out of wheeling-and-dealing ad sales. (Seems unlikely.)
    • Apple provides networks with a targeted, anonymous platform, but allows the networks to serve ads they sell themselves to those targets based on the way Apple interprets the audience members.

It’s possible to combine any, and all of that. Especially if different content providers go different directions, and it’s not a uniform advertising approach across all the new “channels”. What Apple currently has on the TV platform is a mishmash of different things so it’s plausible that the bundle might be one cost to the user, but ads are still handled on a one-on-one basis.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-03-12-Power-Lawyer-Ken-Ziffren-on-Who-Wins-the-Race-to-Go-OvertheTop.html Power Lawyer Ken Ziffren on Who Wins the Race to Go Over-the-Top 2015-03-12T20:53:00Z 2015-03-12T20:53:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ The Hollywood Reporter has a guest column posted by a “power lawyer” – They do not specify if he is “mighty” or “morphing” so I’m going to guess both.

He provides a succinct overview of all the OTT efforts being made by traditional studios, traditional networks, and stars from those traditional studios and networks. It doesn’t delve deeply inside how anything works, or acknowledge efforts made by non-traditional entrants, or services.

By “over the top” services, I mean Netflix and Amazon Prime, of course. But I also mean any outlet offering professionally produced content made available on-demand over the Internet (either in lieu of or in addition to linear viewing). Here, content is streamed to connected televisions and other devices. The business model could be subscription, VOD and/or ad-supported. In today’s pay TV industry, cable and over-the-air networks are paid affiliate fees ranging from a few cents to about $6 for ESPN, based on the number of subscribers reached, as opposed to the number of viewers actually watching the programs. The current OTT ecosystem is not following the linear TV model, so subscribers are being asked to pay for only the specific channels to which they subscribe; the appeal is made to millennials, mostly, who are willing to limit channels to escape the $80-plus-a-month tab when they subscribe to cable, a telco or satellite.

Ignore the conclusion where he tries to grade the OTT efforts for their potential to return on their investment. He just kind of hand-waves.

The worst is this line:

With incumbent companies, the criteria is more complicated. For them, I see the goals as improving the stock multiple, increasing the brand recognition and avoiding cannibalization

You can’t avoid cannibalization. Not unless you can make older customers immortal. Which is a power that I’m not sure Ken has.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-03-12-Rocket-9-Channing-Tatum-Saves-Feminism.html Rocket 9: Channing Tatum Saves Feminism 2015-03-12T20:03:00Z 2015-03-12T20:03:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/ Don’t let this sexy podcast title fool you, this episode mostly analyzes announcements from the Apple event and discusses HBO NOW. Christina Warren discusses the positive aspects of the NOW deal, though I still feel like the three month exclusivity window is fairly disappointing.

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http://joe-steel.com/2015-03-12-Companies-That-Start-With-V.html Companies That Start With “V” 2015-03-12T15:23:00Z 2015-03-12T15:23:00Z Joseph Rosensteel http://joe-steel.com/

Saba Hamedy, writing for the LA Times, reports that Verizon is purchasing original programming. As I’ve discussed previously, internet services, networks, studios, new media, and old media are dancing around how to handle entertainment — and paying for entertainment. In this particular case, a group that has a YouTube channel was acquired by DreamWorks a few years ago, and now they’re getting contracts to make content directly for an internet provider. This goes around television networks, and traditional production studios, cutting them out of the process.

There’s some unintentionally hilarious stuff:

“The millennials are at that stage where they are forming brand prerferences that will likely last a lifetime,” said Jim Nail, an online video market analyst at Forrester Research. “If brands can’t reach them through old media, they will be desperate to reach them through some of these new innovative channels.”

He’s not wrong but it’s so, so, so funny. Verizon’s primary motivation here is brands, so maybe we’ll wind up with some horrible webisode garbage? It’s unclear.

What is clear is that it can’t really be dismissed.

AwesomenessTV, which DreamWorks Animation purchased for $33 million in 2013, has grown into one of the Web’s biggest multichannel networks for emerging online talent. The network, which has more than 7 billion total views and 112 million subscribers, has served as an important launching pad for YouTube stars.

Please read the rest of Saba’s reporting on this, because it really shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s only the start of further acquisitions of cheaper-to-produce online media being repurposed, instead of expensive-incumbent TV being repurposed for online.

Vox Media, a company known for stylish video pieces, and comparatively high production values, announced Vox Entertainment yesterday. They’ll be creating, and collaborating on scripted content, unscripted content, and even tie-ins with Top Chef. They’re pushing out the material on any avenue, not through a specific network, like Verizon, but with a strong emphasis on the Vox sites as an over-arching brand behind all that they’re doing. It’s really nothing to sneeze at.

While I have reservations about Snapchat’s ability to stick around, Vox Entertinment will be everywhere, so it won’t matter if Snapchat does, or doesn’t exist. They’ll also have the flexibility to figure out what kinds of advertising will work best across the platforms — it is a business.

I keep harping on this point, but the traditional sources of entertainment are artificially propping up a business model that is withering away with their customer base in North America.

The Hollywood Reporter wrote a listicle about “Five Worrisome Moviegoing Trends in 2014“. A year isn’t a trend, but they do go on to actually site things over more than one year, so it’s just a silly headline. The piece specifically talks about the decline in frequent moviegoers in the most valuable demographics, and an increase in old people showing up to movies. Also, everything basically hinges on China’s growth compensating for North America’s decline.

Everything’s just fine, Hollywood. No reason to react to the world changing around you. None whatsoever.

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