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TV Plus What?

By the time I have a moment to write things about Apple TV+ these days someone else has already written it up, or talked about it, and I’ve seen no real need to jump in on the blog. There is one area that I feel like I need to say something about, and that’s the question of how much Apple TV+ will cost. I’ve posted before about how Apple’s service lacks content, so they can’t charge what competitors charge, but at the same time Apple isn’t running a charity for TV production, so money will exchange hands somewhere. They’re also making TV content, which means people need to watch it. TV content is unlike other services Apple provides, like Apple Music, where the content still exists elsewhere through other venues. It’s also unlike Apple’s other services like storage, where the goal is to charge people for space they mostly don’t use.

People have speculated about TV+ being free with the sale of certain hardware — like with the purchase of an iPhone — but while the iPhone sales have been flagging that seems like a terrible way to boost those sales. Back before this year’s CES announcements of Apple content being available on third party TVs (which eventually turned into Apple TV the app being available on third party TVs) there was even speculation that Apple would boost Apple TV hardware sales by making streaming content exclusive to Apple. That seemed like a tremendous way to lose money by making TV content.

People have also imagined Apple TV+ will be included with a bundle of Apple services. That’s something that’s a lot more likely, since it’s more akin to what Amazon Prime does where most people sign up for Amazon Prime for reasons other than the video content, and the video content turns out to be a nice-to-have, but unessential component for most customers. That’s not exactly the situation Apple finds itself in though, because I still have relatives that don’t want to pay Apple for iCloud backups, so that limits possible viewership.

Prior to Disney’s price tag for Disney+ being announced, people even thought that Apple would charge $9.99/mo because Apple charges that for Music. That didn’t seem like it would be possible even then because HBO and Netflix — hell, even CBS All Access — are all far better deals. Apple lacks any established IP to hook anyone in. Even a free trial would be a risky proposal because people would run out of material to watch on the service before a one month trial was even up.

So how does Apple make a profit on this? They could just do any of those things I said above, or a combination of those things above, because they can set money on fire for years and hope their service, and shows catch on, but that seems wrong.

Let’s examine TV the app. It was recently refreshed with a strong emphasis on content you don’t own, and don’t subscribe to being featured prominently so that you will buy content, or subscribe to services. It’s really one of the things I like least about the refresh. The addition of Apple Channels is a good thing (don’t sue me, Martha) for consumers because it prevents them from having to use the bad apps that many content providers make to house their exclusive, branded experiences in. It’s also good for Apple because Apple takes a cut off of the subscription, while also being able to fill TV the app with material. The à la carte sale of shows and movies lets people have access to things they wouldn’t consider paying a monthly fee for.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Apple configured TV the app this way. The one kind of bundling that hasn’t been discussed by Apple tech journalists is content bundling. Either:

  • Sell Apple TV+ with a partner Channel, or a set selection of partner Channels. This pays for TV+ with the revenue of the bundled subscription fees. It’s also a way to redirect what consumers are already spending on subscription services. If they subscribe to HBO, CBS, etc. elsewhere, then they’ll unsubscribe and resubscribe through Apple which just reflows where the fees go in cases where Apple is not involved as a middle man.
  • Make Apple TV+ free for subscribers of [a set number] of Apple Channels. Same benefits as above, but a different way to frame it.
  • Sell Apple TV+ with a set number of movie rentals per month, or with selected rentals from specific partners — like how airlines and movie studios arrange for movies that get screened on an airplane flight. That’s not a long-term thing on the service, like when Netflix buys rights for months, instead it’s a short window to increase the viewership of titles that consumers could purchase. This is far more complicated than making a deal with Channels, but allows for nimble access to certain things and to more freely shape a month-to-month reason to entice people in.

Of the above, the first is the most likely, and the last is the least likely, but any combination is possible. I truly think Apple wants to retrain consumers to spend money subscribing to a variety of services. It’s a hard task, because Netflix has trained people to pay for Netflix and just watch what’s on Netflix.

Tomorrow, at the Apple event, I’m sure they’ll announce something about this, and I’ll be interested to see what path they choose. Hell, they might do something absolutely bananas and buy a studio, or make an exclusive deal for a studio’s catalog. Those scamps.

2019-09-09 09:00:00

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Some Pluses Some Minuses

Last December I was very excited for Apple’s media event, which I guessed would be in the Spring. I even guessed the month right. However, I had figured that it would be an event solely about Apple’s TV efforts, and conducted in the LA area to show the focus, and importance, of “Hollywood” on what Apple is doing. (Apple’s video efforts are headquartered in Culver City, along with Sony Pictures on the former MGM lot, and Amazon’s rented space on the Culver Studios lot most famous for the Gone With the Wind mansion that’s used for office space.) Apple had even purchased an old theatre in downtown Los Angeles to revitalize as an Apple Store — which is a weird place to put one unless you wanted to capitalize on that historical connection to entertainment.

Instead I grew increasingly concerned as the focus of the event seemed to shift from video to a variety of other services. When I heard Apple News would be relaunching Texture as part of an expanded all-you-can-eat magazine service I knew that this was no longer an event about video, it was an event about having services. Sure enough, a rumor about a games service appeared, as did a rumor about a credit card. All of that turned out to be true. I will reserve judgement on those because they aren’t specifically interesting to me. In aggregate it’s interesting the way Apple emphasizes them, as financial growth that will also reshape the world to be a better place. That’s also how they’re framing their TV efforts.

Although, let’s talk about consistency:

  • Apple News+
  • Apple Card
  • Apple Arcade
  • Apple Channels
  • Apple TV+

I don’t know how many other names were in the hat that they picked these out of but some of them had to be better than this. Especially when you line them all up.

Apple’s homepage is even weirder:

tv+ News+ Arcade Card

So all of them are capitalized, except TV. In the top navigation menu bar on Apple.com it’s “TV” and the hardware products use all-caps too. The service is lowercase, unless you go to the page that describes it where it is presented as both “Apple TV+” and “tv+”.

Sigh.

Let’s look at everything with TV in the name:

  • Apple TV HD (HD-only hardware)
  • Apple TV 4K (UHD-capable hardware)
  • TV (an app)
  • Apple TV+ (a service in TV the app)

Apple Channels doesn’t have TV in the name, but it’s also in TV the app and while the channels are additive to TV the app the only thing with “+” is the service that carries on Apple-produced material.

Sigh.

The Future of TV is App

One of the various things I’ll never stop mocking Tim Cook for is his unsubstantiated assertion that “the future of TV is apps.” Never get tired of it. This wasn’t correct at the time, and I’m fairly certain Tim also knew it, but all Apple had to exert to shape the space was the power of the iOS App Store. Their plans to launch a skinny bundle had all collapsed and they had a piece of hardware that was collecting dust.

A curious thing this presentation highlighted as it’s first prominent feature was that your TV and Movie purchases would be in TV the app. They sort of are already. I’m assuming this is a much more streamlined experience where you’re not bounced out to the video library apps for the viewing experience any longer? We’ll see in practice, but this seems harmless if uninspired.

Hilariously, this decision has actually hurt them in a few ways because they’ve been trying to course-correct for a couple years and get third parties to integrate with a TV app to discover, browse, and launch content. To replace the app-centric experience that originally shipped. They can’t do that though because there are some big holdouts, and even the companies that did participate participated to varying degrees. Now that there’s a new program for mixed support, Apple Channels, the permutations increase again. Apple Channels are just like Amazon Channels, where content the end-user sees is piped through Apple’s service and appears as if it was something the user had through Apple. They’re not kicked out to CBS All Access’ dreadful app, or anything else. No, this doesn’t mean that Amazon Channels you’ve subscribed to will show up as if they were Apple Channels, you’ll still see those in Amazon’s Prime Video app. In fact, depending on how thorough Apple is, you might see sales pitches for Amazon Channels you subscribe to littered in your TV app as possible Apple Channels you should get a free trial for. Rates for this are unannounced but I would be surprised it if was priced differently from Amazon Channels. Amazon Channels is a huge source of revenue for Amazon too, so this makes sense if you’re hungry for sweet, sweet revenue growth.

The jury is out on the specifics because if the app presents it like it was an iTunes purchase, and you have to use the navigation and browsing features available to you from that, you might not see much of an improvement in your experience, general wellbeing, or temper.

The big omission continues to be the Netflix juggernaut. Netflix has no interest in being a pool of content for Apple, they want to be the place where people go so Netflix can control the experience and to shape what Netflix as a brand is worth to a consumer. They never joined TV the app and they pulled out of offering new subscriptions through Apple, assuming that they’re in demand enough that users will seek out Netflix’s web site to sign up. I imagine that one of the things that will sink in when TV the new app ships is that they’re still going out of it to get to Netflix content. If the primary venue for viewing material for someone is Netflix then they’re going to have very little interest in participating in this TV the app ecosystem of Apple Channels and subscriptions.

At some point soon Apple is change tvOS App Store rules, or restrict homescreen access in such a way that all video services will have to go through TV the app as the new homescreen. That was clear from it’s introduction. It’ll be interesting to see when Apple thinks it can jettison Netflix.

Hulu is also a provider for single sign-on OTT content, but they’ve elected to not be a channel even though they make Hulu originals and do already offer an advertising free tier. They’re much more friendly with Apple, but not completely interested in all of Apple’s campaigns.

Every demo of TV the app, even the new one, only underscores the fragmented, under-supported nature of it. Imagine an obstacle course. You see the Apple employee navigate it to “what they want” on stage and then they try to repeat this process in their own home, in their own region, with their own services and providers, and they fall through a trap door on the second or third step of the obstacle course. It’s more common to hit one of these pitfalls than to be someone who traipses through without impediment.

Solving the $150 Problem

Since the 4th-generation Apple TV was introduced in 2015, Apple has had an issue with how expensive their streamer was when compared to competitive products. Everyone might select different things as important, like they prefer Apple’s UI, or they prefer iTunes services, but there’s no denying that those are not important things to all people. That Apple’s emphasis on content providers providing their own apps has meant that those providers build apps for Roku, Fire TV, and whatever Google is doing at any given time. As several years have passed since the introduction of that Apple TV revision, the price hasn’t dropped one cent. Meanwhile, Roku and Fire TV vie for the top-dog spot on streamer sales charts, and TVs are bundled with software that obviates the need for those boxes and sticks.

The solution to Apple’s self-imposed problem is that they’re going to offer the Apple TV app on Samsung, Sony, Vizio, and LG TV sets, in addition to Roku and Fire TV. That covers an enormous swath of the market. Nothing about that experience was demonstrated, and these announcements are mostly a logical continuation of what Apple had worked out during CES. I’m sure it’s going to more than a little inferior to the Apple TV box experience, but we’ll have to wait and find out.

This means that Apple didn’t have to drop their prices at all, so they’re still selling the same box they introduced in 2015 for exactly the same amount of money, but they did swap the remote when the 4K was introduced and now they’ve changed the name to the Apple TV HD. I’m not sure what I’ll choose to refer to that model in the style guide, but I might just call it the Apple TV Rip-Off.

Story Tele-ers

I had a little concern, from when Apple did an Apple Music event, and it was a long, rambling thing with Drake, that Apple would do a similar thing for their televised efforts. That would be cynical, and would mean that Apple didn’t learn from prior mistakes about the way that they showcase their work.

Turns out they didn’t learn anything from their mistakes about how they showcase their work. It’s hard work too, I really do empathize with the people putting in long hours right now in an effort to make it, but that doesn’t absolve the presentation of that work from falling short. Apple saved this until last, they started with a pretentious black and white video about making films and television. Recognizable producers, directors, and actors explosively emoted directly into camera about the difficulties of the process of making motion picture media. None of it was anything specific to Apple, nor to history of the medium, but instead seemed to say, “these are professionals that are challenged by the work they do, and they’re doing that for us.” That’s not nothing, but any other studio could put that material together, and they do for up-fronts and Television Critics Association events. They might not have a piano piece though.

What followed was a parade of people we saw in those videos performing very rehearsed sales pitches. If you’ve seen these stars at award shows, their performance on stage here would be very familiar to you. The standout was Kumail Nanjiani, but his pitch grafted in an almost stand-up-routine approach to it to get those laughs from the audience at key moments and it worked. Unfortunately, a decision was made to transition these stars on and off the stage in the dark which resulted in enormous dead air while Big Bird and a podium were set up, and then removed. If this had been one of those self-congratulatory award show presentations there would have been video between, or music and location shifts to transition across stage. Lingering dead air doesn’t help when you’re already over an hour into this event, and the lack of material to show, even as a transitional element, is purposefully negligent of the events duty to entertain and inform. The sales pitches were all we had to go on. While they may be charismatic stars, they’re not enchanting enough for me to buy something based on their words alone.

Eventually, at the very end of the procession of celebrity sales pitches, was a sizzle reel, but it was all of the shows, cut together, in no order at all. This is akin to promotional materials HBO puts together where they show clips of Game of Thrones, Westworld, Sharp Objects, and True Detective, but that network reel only works because viewers can identify elements of what they are seeing depicted before them. The audience for this reel has nothing to anchor them other than seeing actors they just saw on stage, and seeing what could be a rocket, or a post-apocalypse. The majority of the shots were also either retimed to be in slow motion for this reel, or are coincidentally a lot of slow motion shots that were assembled for the reel, and several shots of characters staring into the middle distance. The material could have even been cut together based on show so that there was some sense of several shots composing something about the content or flavor of the production. It was the 52 pickup of network material.

If you go to about 1:35 into the keynote video, you’ll see the video as presented, but if you go to the Apple TV+ page, and watch the video that appears there, you’ll see that text has been added to some of the shots to say what the show is that’s being shown. I assume that someone thought the text was distracting for the presentation so it was omitted, rather than it being hastily added to the version show on the site. It’s better than nothing, even if it’s not aesthetically pleasing.

I do judge this harshly because first impressions do matter, to what extent first impressions matter for Apple is debatable, but why throw away an opportunity to show some of a show?

Oprah More Thing…

Oprah appeared with her magical shirttail cape and used a lot of flowery language about potential, desire, importance, and connection, but … um … she announced something with a working title, and something without. Then a book club. How the book club integrates into anything is anyone’s guess. Maybe a link to buy the book appears in the app and sends you to Books? Then the “conversation” about books will happen in … umm.. well Ping’s not there … and Connect is … nope. Maybe it’ll just be a big group iMessage?

The Long Wait Resumes

I debated the impact of this presentation with Jason Snell and Dan Moren a little on Twitter and Slack. They’re more of the mindset that this is important for Apple to put a stake in the ground and publicly communicate that they’re working on these things. That’s certainly important, but in terms of using this event time to do this thing in particular? There was nothing about this that could not have been ceded to news outlets, or put in a press release. Showing stars on stage gets nothing from me, but it’ll get a cycle out of Entertainment Tonight, or 3 hours on Deadline’s front page, or something. I feel like the presentation should have been reserved for a time when Apple was prepared for a more defined announcement. Let’s not forget there’s no pricing details, or any other specifics. There’s no clarity at all on how the A24 film projects, and other acquisitions, will be recognized and promoted either.

A curiosity is Spielberg’s prominence. Spielberg is primarily know as a film director, and film producer, but he’s done a lot of other work, like make TV shows that NBC canceled. Steven’s also been in the news recently for lobbying to increase the minimum time that a film must be screened in a theater to be considered for an Academy Award. He feels very strongly that material that is displayed on a television screen day-and-date with a film screen deserves TV awards, like Emmys. Apple bought Hala at Sundance two months ago. There’s at least one shot of it in the material Apple displayed later in the presentation. What awards will Apple be launching “for your consideration” campaigns for? Will Hala see a theater screen? Will the amount of time it screens for happen to be the number that Steven Spielberg is lobbying for? I don’t think Steven Spielberg would stoop to lobbying harsh rules on Apple’s behalf, and I don’t think Apple would want to alienate Spielberg by agreeing with Netflix on shorter theatrical windows, so it seems likely it would either be exactly what Steven wants, or they don’t do any theatrical window for Hala and only put it up for TV awards. Something Apple buys or produces will eventually be a movie they want Oscar consideration for, because otherwise what’s the point of making recognition-less films? These aren’t the kinds of questions that will be answered shortly, or in iOS release notes.

There are likely to be tvOS updates at WWDC shortly, but I don’t know if any of the big questions will be fleshed out. Maybe we’ll get some answer as to why they keep saying “games” and “Apple TV” in the same sentence without including some sort of negative, or prohibitive warning? I do still have high hopes for the shows that end up being available, but I have no more or less faith in them today than I did last week.

2019-03-27 07:00:00

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Apple Marches to April Launch

The Information has sources that claim Apple will launch their video service in mid-April. There’s a good summary of recent rumored activity in Sarah Perez’s TechCrunch piece, where she goes over several recent news items, including Apple acquiring a film at Sundance.

Peter Kafka has a piece at Recode where he carefully parses what Tim Cook said during the Q&A on the investor call today.

But here’s a shorter version of the important stuff:

  • Apple is going to make it easy/possible to consume the video Apple makes and sells on other people’s hardware, like Samsung TV sets.
  • Apple already lets people buy subscriptions to TV services like Hulu via its iTunes store. It’s going to do more of that, and Apple believes it will end up selling a bundle of those that will compete with traditional pay TV bundles — a goal Apple has been trying to achieve for more than a decade.
  • Apple is buying a lot of TV shows, and now movies, and also deals for … stuff with people like Oprah Winfrey.
  • Again. Apple has either said this some of this before, out loud, or hasn’t protested when people have reported it.

But put it all in one place, speed it up, and what you get is: “We are going to sell a bundle of other people’s TV shows and movies, and add our own, and make sure you can watch it anywhere you want.”

A spring launch has been speculated about for a bit by a few people, including myself, but this is the first rumor about a launch window. I personally think an event in March is likely, even with the news of stuff launching in mid-April, because I feel like there’s a big story to get out there before the product is available. Also, this isn’t the kind of product that launches when it’s ready to ship. It’s an entertainment content trough. It needs constant replenishing. Apple is going to host an event, say every episode is available on day one, and then disappear for 12-18 months. Having said that, be prepared for some regional restrictions, particularly on things like channels.

Here’s the start of the roll-out:

  1. Apple books a theatre in Los Angeles.
  2. Apple sends out coy invitations to both tech press and entertainment trades. Some curtains, film reels, or the Hollywood hills, etc.
  3. Announce the service on stage, with the channels that tie in, “same great blah blah you know and love.”
  4. Then announce the original content by saying something like, “starting (day) these shows will be available here’s a preview.” Lights dim, sizzle reel goes on, lights up, then, “more great shows rolling out in summer and fall all year blah blah.”
  5. Apple buys ads on TV, and online, like Apple does for any hardware product or Apple Music. Most spots will be for specific shows that wraps with an “Available on Apple (Horrible Name)” but some spots will just be for the service, showing how it bundles everything together.
  6. Vulture recaps every episode every week, and there are at least 10 podcasts recapping each episode of each show, all promoted in Podcasts dot app.

Now flash forward a couple months for Apple bloggers to freak out about the number of shows that aren’t ready at launch time or some such bologna.

2019-02-02 14:45:00

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Premiere Possibilities

One thing I’ve been musing about is the venue where Apple will announce their video subscription service to the world. Everyone needs a hobby, don’t judge.

It seems unlikely that Apple will premiere it at this year’s World Wide Developer Conference, or at their annual iPhone event. A Los Angeles event seems like a given, considering Apple wants to send a signal not just to the public that will subscribe, but to talent that may choose to work with them. I really think it’ll be a Spring event, but it could be as early as January, but March seems like a likely candidate, because it will be just after Southern California’s Awards Season, when the billboards change to “FYC”. Apple’s no stranger to a March event. An event concurrent with, or very near to, an awards ceremony might be kind of tacky and awkward if Apple is trying to demonstrate a connection to filmmaking.

That is really the reason to hold an event in LA, of course, just like Apple has held events at prestigious institutions. Apple isn’t playing off of nostalgia, like Disney does, but they do seek to establish a historical through line that connects an established past to a future product they are premiering. That’s why I’ve further narrowed it down from “Los Angeles” — which is 502 square miles (1,302 square kilometers) to historical locations that have a direct connection to the experience of watching media. Since Apple doesn’t have a historic studio lot, there’s no reason to shove a bunch of journalists into a space in Culver City near the Apple offices. Zero chance that popular beach city Santa Monica would be used either.

Hooray for Hollywood

Hollywood isn’t a real place. There’s this imaginary world that exists spread all over LA, and beyond, is a glamorous fiction with a mythic past. There is, however, the geographical Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. It’s mostly tourist traps and dirty walk of fame sidewalk stars. It’s not quite what anyone expects when they first arrive. The main drag, Hollywood Blvd., is still dotted with theatres used for movie premieres and special events.

The TCL Chinese Theatre was originally Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and Mann’s Chinese Theatre for a period of time. It’s probably the most iconic on the list, and replicas have been built in various places. It certainly overshadows its less famous predecessor, Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. “International themes” were very big, which is why a firm from the American Midwest made these sort of caricature buildings. One of Sid’s business partner’s on Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre was Charles E. Toberman, who went on to make El Capitan Theatre. Pantages, while being in the same era, and a similar ornateness level, was not directly related. It was owned for a period by Howard Hughes RKO Pictures. The Dolby Theatre doesn’t have a strong historical pedigree, but since it’s inception as the Kodak Theatre it’s hosted major events like the annual Academy Awards.

All of these would be perfectly justifiable venues except for a few obvious flaws. TCL owns the naming rights for the Chinese Theatre, so unless people can envision Tim Cook getting on stage and saying “TCL” — a company that exclusively uses Roku embedded software for its smart TVs — then I think we can write it off. Even if Apple announces a TV app for competing platforms like Roku, it seems unlikely they’d want to do it on TCL’s turf.

El Capitan Theatre hosts many events, and premieres, like TCL Chinese Theatre does, but it’s unfortunately owned by Disney. Apple doesn’t currently have a deal with Disney to sell UHD HDR content on iTunes, and Disney is going to be launching a streaming service next year. I don’t think Apple is so cozy with Disney that they would want to use their facilities to premiere a video product and talk about all the great content on Apple TV.

Apple is buddy-buddy with Dolby, so it’s possible they’d host an event in the Dolby Theatre, but I still think the lack of historical character might not be what Apple event planners would look for.

Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre is owned by the non-profit American Cinematheque, and Pantages is owned by the Nederlander Organization (they own a lot of theatres). Either would be neutral choices, and full of historical connection.

One thing is absolutely certain, if Apple hosts an event on Hollywood Blvd. the street will probably close down like a red carpet movie premiere so morning traffic is going to suuuuuuuuuck if you need to drive through.

There are certainly other locations that are capable of hosting events in the immediate area, but these are the candidates I think make the most sense, with Egyptian and Pantages weighted the strongest.

Downtown

Downtown is also unpleasant, but it wasn’t always that way. Before most people fled for the suburbs, enabled by the LA freeway system, it was a bustling city like its contemporaries in the 1920s and 1930s. Efforts are being made to revitalize (gentrify) areas, like historically important Broadway. It never ceased to be a place for performances, and film exhibition, but many theatres fell into disrepair, and some closed. Newer theatre spaces opened a couple miles away at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, but the former is blah, and the latter is Disney’s, obviously.

Apple made waves when they announced that they had leased the Tower Theatre on Broadway with plans to renovate and restore it as a new Apple Store. It’s a very peculiar location for an Apple Store, if you ask me, but when it’s done it’s going to be one of the most thoughtfully considered Apple Stores in LA (the rest of them are sad boxes, even the recent ones).

Part of Apple’s renovation plan will make Tower an event space in addition to a store. I don’t know if renovation has even started inside the property, but the renderings lead me to believe that it wouldn’t be an ideal space to host a large media event once reno is complete. I also can’t picture Tim Cook saying, “Yeah, we’re gonna gut this place after this event.” and then proceeding to conduct the construction.

Why go to all of the trouble of building a store in a remote, downtown, historical, theatre location if it’s not going to be a part of Apple’s video service narrative? That would be like purchasing a historic watch store and only selling iPads in it.

Apple could turn to another theatre on Broadway to host a large event, and have some part of the press-handling conducted at Tower.

If you look at the area on a map you’ll see a lot more theatres that what I have listed, but many of them are in severe disrepair, or have been converted to other uses like retail, or religious worship.

Palace and Los Angeles are both owned by the same company that Apple leases Tower from. It’s conceivable that Apple would make arrangements with them for the use of one of those nearby locations.

The Orpheum is mostly known as a live performance venue, with music, stand-up comedy, but could host nearly anything in the structure.

The Orpheum also has a pipe organ. How sweet would it be if the music prior to he Apple event was all old film scores played on a pipe organ? Sure, it would drive the journalists into a frenzy, but I would be very entertained.

Ready for My Close-Up, Mr. Cook

There’s no doubt the service is going to launch soon in 2019, and I’m very certain that Apple wants to connect to the traditions of Hollywood, to insert itself as a powerful force that feels like it has an association with the language, and trappings, of that industry. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see stars in attendance, observing as the journalists and Apple employees do at these events, in addition to more on stage pitching the Apple shows they’re starring, producing, or directing. I’m looking forward to seeing what Apple is considering in terms of films, like their recent deal with A24. There’s just so much to present to consumers, and to future industry peers.

It would be pretty bizarre if Apple rented out any old auditorium, or convention space, and presented their video service like Eddy Cue presented the Music service at WWDC 2015. I believe some lessons have been learned.

2018-12-07 09:00:00

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On Every TV in Dongle Town

According to The Information, Apple has considered launching a low-cost Apple TV dongle, similar to what Amazon offers with the Fire TV Stick models, Google’s Chromecast, or what Roku offers with some of their lower-end streaming devices. Those dongles offer inexpensive hardware, sold either at a loss or with low margins, in order to expand a services ecosystem where recurring subscriptions are the name of the game. Apple has looked toward service revenue for growth, with a new TV service around the corner, it makes sense that Apple should reconsider what they charge for their TV streamers.

  • $149.99 - An HD-only streaming box first introduced in 2015.
  • $179.99 - A 4K streaming box introduced in 2017.
  • $199.99 - A fantastic way to rip people off.

I was critical of this pricing when the fourth generation Apple TV was introduced because $150 was not only more expensive than all of their competitors, but it was more than twice as expensive as the third generation Apple TV that it was replacing. That antique device lingered another year on Apple’s site, with a helpful link to take people to the more expensive fourth generation model. When the fifth generation, the Apple TV 4K, was announced I had assumed that Apple would cut the price of the previous model, and place the new one at the old model’s pricepoint. To my chagrin, Apple cranked up the price and put it $30 above the old model resulting in the pricing we still have to this day.

Jason Snell wrote a great column for Macworld about the importance of Apple growing this streaming service, using The Information’s stick rumor as a jumping off point.

Before we even get to fun, wish-casting, imaginary hardware let’s just get the simplest solution out of the way:

Sell these devices for less money.

Revolutionary idea, I know. It could be accomplished by slashing the margins on the hardware with the expectation that the video service would offset the profit lost, and then some. It’s not even brand new hardware we’re talking about discounting here. It wouldn’t even be the first time Apple TV hardware has been discounted. When the third generation Apple TV was exceptionally long in the tooth, Apple cut its price to $70. I would argue the fourth generation’s tooth has past that point.

Another financial-only option is to subsidize the cost of the device if a customer signs up for X number of months of service. Many over-the-top streaming television providers offer these kinds of deals. A “free” Apple TV. You can also reverse this and offer X months of free service with the purchase of an Apple TV - but since customers don’t know what they’re getting with Apple’s service, this doesn’t seem like it would help grow the service as much as “free” devices would.

Stick With Me

So what would a trimmed down “stick” device include? My ILM bro, Todd Vaziri, thinks that an AirPlay-only stick makes sense, because it’s a way to rely on the phone, a device Apple does make money on, to drive the video being displayed. This seems like a stretch because AirPlay for long form video is not very good. AirPlay is great in a pinch, when you have a short video, presentation, or some photos, but no one really wants to commit their iPhone — the most important thing in their life — to being tied up for streaming video for extended periods. You run into issues like wanting to use social media while you watch something, or even looking at Photos will interrupt your video stream to mirror the Photos app on the screen. The controls for it are also pretty terrible — like that weird rainbow arch thing over the media player widget in control center. Also it’ll chew up your battery, so you need to charge your iPhone which makes it inaccessible. I don’t know how Apple gracefully remedies any of that.

A more likely possibility for a stick was suggested by Jason Snell:

Then there are the more radical possibilities: What about a TV stick that only runs the TV app? You could still subscribe to third-party streaming services, but only by using Apple as a reseller. (This feels too restrictive to me.)

A big strike against it, as Jason points out, is that Apple has not won over everyone making TV streaming apps for the Apple TV to also integrate support for TV the app that Apple uses as a unified interface. Notably, Netflix is still absent. I can’t imagine Apple marketing a streaming media device in 2019 that doesn’t support Netflix. Maybe they work something out with Netflix and get them into TV the app or do something super weird and make a launcher just to open Netflix but … c’mon. No.

A possibility I’ve considered is something like CarPlay, where an iPhone drives what’s displayed on the screen, and can accept inputs from sources other than the iPhone itself. That wouldn’t have the same issues as AirPlay, which leaves control of the media up to the iPhone, but it does have the same issues when it comes to powering the iPhone to do this, and what happens when the person that’s been connected to the TV needs to go to the store. There’s no way to gracefully handoff things to people staying in the living room, or resume playback on a device under a different Apple ID and subscription service profile for that matter.

For me, the most expensive part of the Apple TV hardware has always been the remote, and I think any economized Apple TV offering is unlikely to include it. Apple charges $70 for the thing by itself. I don’t think they have high margins on replacement remotes, which leads me to believe the thing costs a great deal to produce. Imagine taking $50-ish off the price of the Apple TV by forgoing that particular remote.

It is possible that since it’s been over a year since the last remote revision, and minor price reduction, that there might be further savings to be had just from sourcing different parts or switching suppliers, thus keeping the same spiteful glass shard going but being able to sell it bundled with the Apple TV at a lower cost.

I am of the opinion that a hardware remote is still an essential component of the TV viewing experience, so I wouldn’t forgo it completely, even though voice assistants mitigate many laborious things in regards to searching for something specific you have in mind, they do not replace browsing, or “channel surfing”. The Remote app Apple makes is too fiddly to quickly get in and out of for TV controls, and you have to look at the iPhone the entire time you’re using the Remote app. I think there’s a path forward with a pragmatic hardware remote that replaces the touchpad with a directional pad and loses the accelerometers.

Sadly, that means loosing out on parallax icons. Here is an appropriate violin to express my sorrow:

🎻

But What About Games?

What about them? Apple has had no serious commitment to gaming on the Apple TV since the platform was launched. There were two course corrections designed to accommodate developers:

  1. Games could require a third party controller instead of the remote.
  2. Games could fill up more space on the device so that assets would not have to be downloaded and purged as often.

These changes have resulted in … basically nothing. Apple still doesn’t make a first party controller. The asset cap seemed to be a way to finally justify the 64 GB storage tier, but no developers have really capitalized on it in a way that would make a 32 GB device owner jelly. The games are typically marginal ports of existing games for iOS, which aren’t usually that large anyway, and the controls don’t seem to ever translate well to a TV screen experience. There are a few exceptions, but they’re typically party games. There is no need to have graphical horsepower and storage tiers.

Unless Apple has an entirely new high-end Apple TV revision waiting in the wings that takes gaming seriously then who cares if storage on a stick, or small box, would be restricted, let alone the horsepower? Even then, there’s nothing attractive about Apple’s business model for the developers of console games.

If we all agree that gaming isn’t a thing, and won’t be a thing, then we have no reason to support it on a lower-priced device.

However, a less expensive stick, or box, would still face an uphill battle in global markets where these cost saving measures are negated by import tariffs, and other issues. It’s not going to be just the elimination of gaming, or just a simpler remote, Apple would really need to get more creative.

This is US

The Apple TV has always had a heavy US-centric set of features, but Apple has been trying to be more thoughtful about regional providers and consumption habits. Apple has been struggling to expand into India, with three executives departing in July, so let’s take a look at the Apple TV page for India and it’s prices. Hilariously, Apple reuses their MLB viewing photo with the San Francisco Giants, but they do mention regional services that they support and work with. The prices are worse than they are for a US consumer, with the 2015 fourth generation Apple TV for sale at 14,100 rupees, which is about $202. According to The Economic Times, smart TV sales have just passed sales of regular TVs for the first time in September. With the Apple TV being a third, or a quarter of the price of a TV set for the 2015 HD-only model, it’s hard to see how Apple could produce a video service with regional appeal that would be worth a barrier to entry that’s even higher than it is in the US.

The Smart Solution

Most TV’s have streaming media software embedded in them for major services, like YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video. If a customer wants more than that they might shop for a media streamer, or use what’s in a video game console which they also play video games on (no, not the Apple TV). Customers might be willing to spend more for the Apple brand when it comes to phones, but according to data from Parks Associates in this article from Variety Apple’s share of the media player market in the US is stagnant, while Amazon and Roku growth has incremented up. Part of that growth can be attributed not just to low prices on streaming sticks and boxes, but on Roku and Amazon’s aggressive dealmaking with the people peddling these panels to get their software embedded.

If a TV comes with Amazon, Roku, or some Android flavor, then what drives the customer to purchase a box, or a stick to plug in at all? The embedded Samsung interface and apps in my 2012 plasma TV makes me physically ill, but I could get by with an Amazon interface. I suspect many shoppers can too.

One route around this is to make the Apple TV service available as an app on these competing platforms, as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video do. That might sound insane, but Apple already makes an Apple Music app for Android phones, and on December 17th Apple Music will be on Amazon Echo devices. Services revenue obviously won out in the conversation over hardware revenue when it comes to Apple Music, so why would video streaming be different? Apple could still make the case that their hardware showcases the services the best, while also allowing them access to global markets where they can’t come close to competing on price.

In Jason Snell’s piece for Macworld, he mentions his TCL TV set which comes with Roku on it, and suggests that Apple could do the same. I think that’s less likely than Apple creating an app for Roku, or Fire OS, because Apple would need to either tailor their software to the hardware that the manufacturers use, or sell their A series chips to TV manufacturers. They would also need to include software controls for parts of the TV experience that Apple has had no interest in colonizing, like over the air TV. What remote would these licensed sets ship with? An Apple TV remote? None of these are permanent road blocks, but it would require a series of extensive changes to their approach. It kind of reminds me of Apple with the clones in the 1990s. Apple owns the Power Computing brand, maybe they could license that back out to a low-end TV set manufacturer for some thick, boring, plastic cases with a lot of flex.

Of course cutting out the TV manufacturers and making their own TV sets is a possibility. Gene Munster, an analyst, was infamous for his theory that Apple needed to make it, but he gave up when he realized the margins just aren’t there for it to make sense. I agree. The deeply discounted sales, variety of TV sizes, and razor-thin margins seem like a headache for what Apple would get out of it.

TV on iOS

It might be pretty easy to discount the living room, and television sets, as relics of a bygone era, but the reality is that a lot of people want to watch long form video content on a large display that takes up a large portion of a wall. Small, personal TV sets that kids might have had in their bedrooms can be supplanted by phones and tablets, but when those kids grow up, they want a TV set in a living room.

On top of that, the people making content for Apple want their work to be seen by people in the living room, and eligible for awards alongside all the other stuff displayed in a living room.

I don’t doubt that filmmakers that work with A24 on content for Apple’s service will also want their films screened in theaters, and eligible for those awards. That’s a fight that Netflix has been losing for years. Even if Apple follows Netflix’s path and makes the films available day and date on their video service, those filmmakers aren’t going to be thrilled that the majority of people will be watching their work on iPhones because they won’t buy a $180 box for a movie, and a couple shows.

It would be very difficult to retain talent if Apple doesn’t take showcasing their hard work seriously.

TL;DR

Apple’s desire to grow services revenue stands in direct opposition to whatever passes for a TV hardware strategy in Cupertino. To grow subscribers they need to lower the cost of the devices required to view video service content, subsidize their sale, or make the service available on the platforms they compete with. If they don’t, then this is over a billion that they wouldn’t be able to make back as a niche, premium content provider.

2018-12-03 09:00:00

Category: text


First Time Tooter, Long Time Tweeter

In conversations I’ve had over the past week, it’s become clear that there’s nothing very self-explanatory about Mastodon as a social network, and that in many ways Twitter users are both prepared and unprepared for the experience. There are a lot of things that are similar in concept, but there’s more to it when it comes to how it’s a “service” that can really throw people for a loop.

Too Long; Didn’t Mastodon

The short version is that Mastodon clones features of Twitter with open source software that can be run on any server. Those servers talk to each other and form a larger world than any one server could. The default place most people land is mastodon.social but they have halted admissions because of the large influx of people leaving Twitter at the same time. You can join mastodon.cloud or any other server. Since your server can talk to the others, and you can move your account to another one, there’s no immediate pressure. There’s a timeline which is functionally like Twitter - or at least how it was back when it was chronological. You can mute, block, follow, etc.

The longer version …

A Hive of Mastodon

Mastodon is distributed across many “instances” that talk to each other. The instances are servers, or virtual private servers. There are unique domain names attached to them. If you use Google, or Duck Duck Go, you’ll wind up at mastodon.social. This is the de facto instance, headed up by the guy who came up with Mastodon. Thus, it becomes the most likely instance people will join. They have been overwhelmed recently by people leaving Twitter, so it’s all the more reason to investigate the other instances. Mastodon.cloud is another very prominent instance. Then there are a bunch of instances that range from general topics, to very specific topics. For new users it is overwhelming, and we naturally want to go to instances that have the most people. It’s counterintuitive though, because of how Mastodon works. You want to be with a group that shares similar interests to you, but has enough variety that certain features are useful. If you join an instance that has a lot of people interested in everything, then their interests will affect your experience with certain features.

Honestly, joining one of these massive instances is fine if you don’t know what to do. You can feel it out for a week or so and move. I will discuss that process later on.

From the Mastodon blog:

I might be biased, but I find that following admins of other servers is usually a good choice. Usually, they share a lot of content from their users, so you get some insight into their entire community. You might feel compelled to do the same when you get your own users, too.

Timelines

There’s the Home timeline, the Local timeline, and the Federated timeline. As a user, on any instance, you see those three options. However, what you see under Local and under Federated is shaped by the other people on your own instance.

Some general terms for what’s in a timeline:

  • Toot - A post, or status update. This is just another word for Tweet. Confusingly, in some parts of the interface, you will see it referred to as a “status” and not a “toot”.
  • Boost - The Mastodon term for a retweet.
  • CW (Content Warning) - This is a mechanism to hide your text and images behind a “show more” button. This is intended for spoilers, or sensitive material. There’s a field to enter descriptive text about what you’re hiding behind the content warning. Images can also be hidden.
  • The Birdsite - This is a derogatory term used by longtime Mastodon users to passive-aggressively sneer at Twitter. I think you should just call it Twitter, it’s not Voldemort. If anything it’s off-putting to people from Twitter seeking to transition to Mastodon.
  • 500 Characters - Toots are much longer than they are on Twitter. Not oppressively so, you’re not going to read Moby Dick in a toot.
  • No Quote Toots - I’m refreshed by this. As much as I found quote tweets preferable to “Here’s what I think RT @schmoop whoa RT @doop” text retweets they invented a new problem. In many cases it was easy for people to quote, and not add much, if anything, and it would just make that quoted tweet surface more often in your timeline. This wasn’t a lot of fun when a public figure would say something that might provoke disagreement. Twitter recently tried to algorithmically fold some of these into a single structure around the quoted tweet, but it didn’t do much to cut down on noise. You do need to clink on links to things on Mastodon, you’re not going to get that quick burst of the original post to roll with.
  • Delete & Redraft - This is Mastodon’s answer to editable tweets. I, personally, am not satisfied as I would like a system that maintains history, in-place. This is better than absolutely nothing though. Especially when you quickly realize you made an error. The original is deleted, but copied to a new composition view, along with any media you had uploaded. You can make what changes you need to and post again. (I want history.)
  • Friend Finding - Mastodon will connect your Mastodon account to your Twitter account and find any Twitter accounts that Mastodon knows have associated Mastodon accounts. This won’t find accounts that eschewed this step, but you can get a healthy swath of people.
  • Eugen Rochko @Gargron@mastodon.social - The founder of Mastodon and primary developer overseeing its open software evolution. “Don’t want to be compared to Jack Dorsey, don’t want want prominence, specifically don’t want to be idolized. Just doing my thing” [sic] I provide that for context, not as some sort of ironic idolatry performance.

Home

This is the timeline that’s the most like Twitter. Specifically, Twitter’s old, chronological timeline. You can follow people, and unfollow people, and that’s what you will see here in Home. You’ll see “boosts” the Mastodon term for “retweets” here from users you follow.

Unfortunately, you also see Direct Messages here. Threading them in is very disconcerting for longtime Twitter users who are used to seeing a separate tab for DMs. Don’t worry, it’s still correspondence intended for you, and the person(s) you’re speaking with. You can tell by the envelope icon under the post.

Local

This timeline view is of what all people on your instance are publicly communicating. It can be interesting if you know the people on the instance, or you’re just generally bored and want to see if there’s someone else with similar interests there. It’s not, in any way, a necessary thing for you to look at.

Federated

Mastodon is a “federation” of instances that talk to one another, sometimes referred to as a “federverse”. In this view you’re seeing everyone that interacts with your instances, via the people on your instance. If I follow person A, and you follow person B, then when we go to the Federated timeline we see persons A and B. This, of course, is along with anything that they boost (retweet). On a small instance, this is great because it’s friends-of-friends, or based around a topic. On the large instances, like mastodon.social, this creates a firehose of posts that are very unlikely to appeal to you. Since mastodon.social has so many people, connected to so many instances, it’s almost like you’re looking at the entire universe of all of the posts that are happening.

This can be incredibly overwhelming, particularly when you’re just started. Do not feel any pressure to even look at the Local or Federated views until you’re set up and comfortable with your Home view. The Home View is Twitter Classic. The rest is more ways of looking at things.

Apps

Many users leaving Twitter right now might be doing it because of the near-death of the Twitter clients that they use. Many people are accustomed to a very polished Twitter client experience with Tweetbot, or Twitterrific. Unfortunately, there aren’t polished apps like that for Mastodon. The majority of apps are wrappers around a webview - fancy browsers. They have certain features, or present user-facing data in a way that is more appealing that the web site. Unfortunately, none of them are much better than the website. I would really suggest getting started on the website just because options for things will be in places you can google or ask any other user about. Pro tip: if you hit Command + on your keyboard it will “zoom” in by scaling the text and columns of the website. I find the default settings assume I have a much smaller screen than I do and I would rather read the posts than have an extra bar of dark gray on the side.

Common iPhone apps:

Common iPad apps:

  • No don’t, just use the browser.

Common Mac apps:

I’d really say that the web experience, with notifications enabled, is not the worst but it’s not what the users of third party Twitter clients are accustomed to. There are even command line python clients if you want to do some real shenanigans.

You might remember that the last time a lot of people left Twitter in a huff they went to App Dot Net (that name) ADN provided funding to developers to incentivize third party clients. There was even a twin to Tweetbot called Netbot. This time around, those developers aren’t going to jump right in. I don’t blame them for that. Twitter put them through a bunch of mind games, and the other promised platforms never worked out. The developers are on Mastodon though. Paul Haddad, who develops Tweetbot, has solicited feedback on creating a paid Mastodon client in his free time via a Patreon. Sean Heber, of Twitterific, has teased a screenshot of a very barebones client.

I don’t think that anyone should make long term Mastodon plans on this information. You might be using these very webby clients for a while. If that’s intolerable to you (it’s tolerable to me) then there’s not going to be much satisfaction for you in sticking around.

Whether you preferred Tweetbot, or you preferred Twitterific, I don’t think there’s any debate that they had an experience that felt like it was on the platform and not of a web platform.

Custom Instances

Since this is a federated experience, anyone can start their own instance. A prominent company to go to for instances is Masto.host. I started a Mastodon account on mastodon.social, but was encouraged to move to an instance started by friends using Masto.host. The advantages of your own instance are that you get to manage everything about it. It’s your own private Twitter. It associates with other Twitters, but it can also block them.

This is similar to email, where anyone can start an email server, send and receive email from other servers, or block a server from reaching it. There’s more to it than that because of the nature of microblogging and nearly real time communication, but on a functional level you own something that talks to other things on the same playing field.

People find this attractive for community building reasons, because of the timelines, data ownership, or because you can pick a really sweet domain name. Seriously, there are so many domain names now to choose from that you’re very likely to find something that is either functional or incredibly entertaining to you and your friends. Also, when I say “community building” I also mean that bad people and entire instances can be kept completely separate from your instance to not only protect you, and your users, but reduce the influence and reach of bad actors in the Federverse by omitting that connection. That level of control might be too much for some people, but other people were just born to be bulletin board moderators so let them do it.

Yes, that does mean that there are bad actors that have mastodon instances, and their goal is to interface with others and provide that same corrupting influence.

You can also make an instance for just one person. You’re not going to see any utility in the Local or Federated timelines, but you’ll be on your own little plot of land and can correspond with everyone you choose to.

Verification

Twitter has a truly awful verification system in place. It provides little public benefit because it promotes bad actors as well as good actors while also distorting the things people see based on verification. None of that exists on Mastodon. Anyone could be anyone on any instance. Naturally, that means that you should not trust that an account you see on Mastodon is the account of a person you might know from elsewhere. Just like before the verification system on Twitter existed, you’ll have to look at that person’s website, and other things to see if that mastodon account is associated with the person.

Frankly, I think this is a good thing. The verification system on twitter was easily gamed. By the decentralized nature of mastodon, instances would have to verify people, which seems silly because why would anyone else accept their word? They would be an instance of one. The solution is to just not have any verification and to have to confirm that the account belongs to someone through other reasonable sources.

Privacy & Security

One thing I’ve noticed on Mastodon is that there are quite a few Twitter users that joined around the time I did freaking out about privacy. That DM’s aren’t end-to-end-encrypted, and that instance administrators, or server administrators, could snoop on all their stuff. That is, of course, unlikely, but no social network should be used to share sensitive data. Facebook Messenger isn’t encrypted, Twitter isn’t encrypted, etc. If you need to tell someone something private do that for real. There is a level of trust that we have with large corporations, something that America is very good at instilling in its citizens from when they are kids, but you shouldn’t be passing sensitive data on Twitter or Mastodon. The privacy you have on Mastodon is even more in your control than it was on Twitter. Follow and following lists can be hidden. People were totally fine using Tweetbot to send DMs before, which requires a circle of trust. Suddenly suspecting that everyone is compromised or snooping seems misplaced. If anything, it feels like an excuse you’d use if you really wanted to stay on Twitter. Also, no one is scraping your messages for things to sell ads against. The incentive is for you to stay on an instance and be a valuable member of the community.

There are also settings for the security of your account. Two-factor authorization is an option, and you do have a list of all the authorized apps, their IP addresses, and the last time they accessed your account. That authorization can also be revoked.

Moving Accounts

One thing that seems very onerous is moving accounts. We’ve been trained by businesses that are disincentivized to let us leave, that we’re fucked if we ever want to go. This isn’t the case with Mastodon.

Whatever instance you signed up for is one that you can move away from and leave a redirect behind. There’s no system that just picks up all of your stuff and moves it, but it is comparatively stress free next to Twitter.

Go to the instance you want to join and create an account. Once you’ve made the account go back to the instance you want to move from (preferably in a separate browser tab, or separate browser.)

Go to Settings, then to Data Export. You’ll see a little spreadsheet of “You follow”, “You block”, and “You mute” each with numbers, and a CSV download button. Those lists can be uploaded to the instance you’re moving to and you’ll follow the same people, block the same people, and mute the same people. There’s also an option to request an archive. This takes a bit to process, and you’ll get an email at the email address you used to sign up for the account with all the data to download. (In some cases you can refresh the page and there’s also a download link.)

The archive is functionally useless for your Mastodon move, but it’s just nice to save things, ya know?

Once you’ve exported all that, go to the “Edit profile” section and scroll to the bottom. There’s a link to move to a different account and leave a redirect. You can leave a toot that you’re moving to your new account, and provide a link, or mention the instance.

On your new account, go to Settings, and Import. There are radio buttons for each of the lists and a choose file button. (Personally I would have made this look like the same spreadsheet you use for the export process and not like radio buttons that need to be toggled for what to do with the uploaded file.)

Once you go through each toggle, and upload each list, you’ll have all that in there. Go back to Edit Profile and set your avatar, head image, and bio manually. Unfortunately the migration process does not carry those over.

That’s it. You’ve moved instances. Your old account stays up with a redirect at the old instance, and if you needed to you could move back there just as easily.

Crossposting

A lot of people can’t leave their Twitter presence behind completely. They may not want to be there, immersed in the misery-outrage-panic machine but they have a business reason to maintain a tether. There are ways to do that. Any mastodon profile is an RSS feed, just add “.rss” to the profile URL, and then you can use that do all kinds of automated stuff. There are also crossposting apps to help you out like the open source project moa.party. You can use it through moa.party, or you can download the code and do it yourself. It can take Mastodon posts and put them on Twitter, or Twitter posts and put them on Mastodon, or even throw Instagram into the mix.

Masto-Go-On

This is all the information I’ve gleaned that I feel is important to disaffected Twitter users using iOS/macOS that would read this blog. There’s way more information out there

2018-08-20 08:25:00

Category: text


Social Technical-Debt

Twitter recently deactivated the services that third-party Twitter clients rely on for streaming timeline updates, mention notifications, direct message notifications (which never worked for group DMs), likes, and retweets. Twitter’s Senior Director of Data Enterprise Solutions Rob Johnson sent out an internal company email, which he uploaded screenshots of and attached to some tweets.

It is now time to make the hard decision to end support for these legacy APIs — acknowledging that some aspects of these apps would be degraded as a result. Today, we are facing technical and business constraints we can’t ignore. The User Streams and Site Streams APIs that serve core functions of many of these clients have been in a “beta” state for more than 9 years, and are built on a technology stack we no longer support. We’re not changing our rules, or setting out to “kill” 3rd party clients; but we are killing, out of operational necessity, some of the legacy APIs that power some features of those clients. And it has not been a realistic option for us today to invest in building a totally new service to replace these APIs, which are used by less than 1% of Twitter developers.

Rob also posted on Twitter’s blog a very disingenuous, and condescending version of this where he outlined all the features that Twitter offers, while not mentioning that Twitter fully controls the experience in third party apps, including what features they have elected to withhold from third parties over the years.

Basically, he’s saying that this is technical debt — something that was quickly implemented, not revisited, and now it has them in a position where it would require significant investment.

This is, of course, going on concurrently with all of the other issues that Twitter is having. They were in the headlines a couple weeks ago because of their stance on allowing their platform to be used by a conspiracy theorist. Twitter CEO, and co-founder, Jack Dorsey is hiding behind his own rules as reasons why he can’t do anything. The same rules that have a clause for “noteworthiness” which is used as an excuse to leave other bad actors on the platform.

Those bad actors all have accounts emblazoned with the puffy, blue checkmark which serves as an exclusive verification. Intended as identity confirmation, but selectively handed out in a way that makes it look like Twitter imparts some degree of worthiness to the person. From Tony Romm’s Washington Post piece with Jack:

Twitter’s new policies are being tested at the highest level — including by President Trump, whose tweets are a direct challenge. On Tuesday, Trump called former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman, who recently published a tell-all about her time at the White House, a “dog.” He also attacked Harley-Davidson on Sunday for moving jobs overseas — a move that precipitated a 2 percent drop in the company’s stock price.

Dorsey stuck to his long-held view that an exception generally would be granted to Trump because his comments are newsworthy and give users crucial insights as to how “global leaders think and treat the people around them.”

Functionally, it also makes accounts behave differently, with verified users having tweets surfaced in places they otherwise would not be. The overhaul of that verification system has been put on hold to focus on election integrity.

Last November, Twitter paused its account verifications as it tried to figure out a way to address confusion around what it means to be verified. That decision came shortly after people criticized Twitter for having verified the account of Jason Keller, the person who organized the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

This is also a problem for Twitter’s other products, like Periscope, where it categorizes Alex Jones as “News”. One of his videos on Periscope was where he incited his fans to get their “battle riffles” and his personal account, and Info Wars’ account were put in read only mode. Twitter doesn’t answer why it would have ever classified Info Wars as “News” at all.

Every interview with Jack, every tweetstorm of business-speak, just makes it seem like he’s trapped inside of his own creation and he doesn’t know what to do.

The extremely camp ending of Disney’s ‘The Black Hole’ where the damaged robot has entombed his creator and become a new being ruling over a hellscape populated by the lobotomized former crew of the Cygnus.

Twitter has so much on it’s plate that it continually says it will address, and that once it does it will improve discourse on its site, and safety of people in the world. The longer they take to move on these problems the worse these problems become. When Twitter allows a user to be a bad actor, to gather a following, to get verified, and then be too important to ban, then they create a kind of social technical-debt.

Conversely, when I continue to use Twitter, surrounded by misery and panic over these bad actors, because I’ve invested too much time there, that’s also a kind of debt. Realizing that my retweets of troubling articles mean nothing, and that the caustic, high-speed flow of minor news-fluctuations pumped into my veins doesn’t improve the world.

Other platforms exist, but they aren’t as popular, “they don’t have critical mass”, but whatever. I’m transitioning from Twitter to Mastodon for all my microblogging needs. If I get bored I’ll chat on Slack, or pen a letter.

The benefit of Mastodon is that it’s not a company, but a series of instances all run by different people. Think of it more like email. Anyone can host an email server (but why), and they can send emails to other people not on their email server. Just in this case it’s an “instance”. I can block instances I don’t like, and I can still communicate with others that I do. There’s an admin for each instance to moderate and shape the kind of conduct that’s allowed on the instance. I’m on a private instance with a few friends, after having an account on the large “mastodon.social” instance which is the default place most people start. You can redirect followers if you move to another instance. All your data can be exported, including follow, block, and mute lists. I can take my stuff anywhere I would like to go. A “federated” timeline view exists, which shows all the stuff people on your instance are interacting with and saying. I found it unusable on mastodon.social, but on a smaller, more focused instance it’s worth looking at. App support is rough, but since third party app support is a real thing, maybe that will improve over time.

Fleeing to Mastodon is not a solution I would recommend to everyone, but the thought of being on Twitter is unpalatable to me at present. Perhaps, if Twitter ever gets around to all that they intend to get around to, they will have a more pleasant experience, but I don’t need to take that journey with them. They have had enough of my time.

My Mastodon Account

2018-08-19 08:00:00

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WWDC 2018 Wish List: tvOS

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

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

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

That was easy.

That was easy.

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

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

I still would like to see Apple tackle:

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

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

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

Expensive Box

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

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

None.

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

Third Party Players

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

Games, lol

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

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

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

More to Come

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

2018-06-03 23:59:00

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tvOS 11.3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018-04-01 12:00:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017-11-03 08:45:00

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