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The Revolution Will Be Televised… Or Not

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Apple’s relaunch of the Apple TV excited me in a few ways: first and foremost was the price drop.  I was never willing to commit $229 towards the original, and neither were most people.  At $99, however, it’s dangerously close to being an impulse buy (at least insofar as impulse buys exist in the world of electronics).

I also believe going to the $0.99 TV show rental model was a good move, too.  I know there are some who say they’d rather own the individual episodes (a la the original $1.99 purchase model), but the rental setup makes a lot more sense to me.  I would buy a season DVD/Blu-ray set of a show, but I wouldn’t just own a few episodes from a given season, as if they were tracks on an album.

However, I think there are a number of things that need to happen before these specialty set-top boxes succeed:

  1. Episodes need to be available as soon as possible on the iTunes Store.  Preferably before broadcast, or right after.  Not the next day.
  2. Apple should offer a second model that features advertising (with reduced cost or free episodes).  They could even feature those high quality iAds.  Imagine a model where you subscribe to your five favorite shows that air once per week, and your Apple TV auto-queues those for you for streaming on demand.  And it’s free and ad-supported.  Or if not, you can pay the five dollars a week ($20/month) to only see the shows that matter to you.
  3. Apple needs to land all the major networks plus a few premiums: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, HBO, and Showtime.  In time, they could add a few of the traditionally cable channels, like USA and TNT.  For the premium stuff, Apple could charge $1.99 for rentals (especially since premium shows are usually 12 episodes long, so a season would cost the same as a network television season).  The trouble is that networks like NBC say the $0.99 model is too cheap, but I’m not sure how they can justify charging more than $24 a season (assuming a season is 24 episodes) in a view-once model.  The DVD sets usually run $40 – $50 per season, which gives the purchaser the ability to view many times as well as access to special features.

An interesting compromise would be to allow developers to create iOS apps for the Apple TV, as suggested by Leo Laporte and friends on MacBreak Weekly.  One could have a homepage that had all of the different “channels” on it: an ABC app, CBS app, etc.  That would permit each station to come up with its own pricing terms.  That said, I think if all would agree to just co-exist in the iTunes Store, it would be more elegant and less wild west.

Either way, I’m highly tempted to purchase one, though I’ll probably give it to my brother.

On a side note, the Remote application that Apple updated works beautifully with iTunes.  I understand it also works very well with Apple TV and I look forward to trying that.

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Written by Michael

3 October 2010 at 12:49 am

Posted in Technology

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Two Days with 3G Data on the iPad

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I might as well live in the land that time forgot, I sometimes think.  Lacking such basic life necessities like Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and Best Buy, has left me feeling like a pilgrim in a savage land.

While I’m exaggerating, we do lack a few things I was used to having back East, including AT&T coverage.  This has meant that I can’t buy an iPhone for the last couple of years, and it also means that my iPad with WiFi and 3G has been useless in the latter regard.  This will all change at the end of this year or beginning of next, since the Montana portion of Alltel (my service provider) has been purchased by AT&T.

However, I took a short trip to Idaho Falls recently, a realm that actually has this coverage that I’m moaning about.  So, I went ahead and purchased the 250MB plan for $15, and here are a few observations:

  • When I was in a 3G area, the overall Internet speed was pretty fast.  I didn’t think to do a Speed Test, but I found it more than acceptable.
  • 2G areas (EDGE) were really slow.  At times unusable.
  • 250MB goes fast when you have a lot of downtime, especially during a long car ride with the family.  I nearly used all of my allotment in 48 hours.
  • Using the Core Location service (with an app like Maps) was a lot of fun.  The iPad has a GPS module in it, so it worked really well with the aforementioned Maps application: I was able to track where we were to as close to 30-50 feet or so.

I look forward to having this 3G service in Bozeman, MT, but I wonder how much data I’d end up using in a month.  The saving grace could that I’m usually around WiFi so much, at home and work.

Written by Michael

31 July 2010 at 8:32 pm

Posted in Technology

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Mixing Ads and Paid Services

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A subsidy, in the Internet world, is a cost-offset to make some service or piece of content either cheaper or free.  The clearest example of this would be YouTube, which is a full-subsidy model where video content is ostensibly hosted for free (and viewed for free), and the way this is afforded is through advertising.  YouTube places ads in a few different places to do this: in banners on the outer margins of the webpage; in a transparent bar that overlays the video you’re viewing; or in a pre-ad clip that appears before a video is shown.  (The latter two are tied in with YouTube partners and Premium Content Providers respectively.)

The opposite would be a non-subsidy service, like Netflix.  A customer pays a subscription to gain access to streaming web content, and as such, there are no ads displayed because there is no subsidy.  The bill is footed entirely by the consumer, as it were.

These two models have dominated the Internet for a long time, but we’re starting to see the emergence of the partial-subsidy system, wherein a customer still pays for content or services, but is also forced to view advertising to further offset provider costs.  Now, this system is by no means new: cable television has been doing this for years.  After all, subscribers pay a monthly bill to gain access to those cable channels, but ads are still shown regularly throughout pieces of programming.

Nevertheless, this system seems awkward to me when applied to the Internet, if only because it’s different from how I’m used to seeing things work.  The first piece of news that made me realize the web was changing was Apple’s announcement of iAds.  At its face, iAds sounds like a great program for iOS app developers to take advantage of to help monazite their hard work.  However, Steve Jobs explicitly said on multiple occasions that the intent of iAds was to allow developers to offer their applications for free or for less money, opening the door for one of these developers to say, “Hey, I’m going to still charge you $0.99 for this app, but I’m also going to throw ads down at the bottom.”  In a way, that sounds like double dipping, no?

My gut reaction to this was that developers should pick one or the other: either charge for you application because you believe its craftsmanship and usefulness is high enough that people will gladly give you money for it; or, throw ads at the bottom if you want to go for volume and not cause customers to shy away because of a price barrier.

But this phenomenon is spreading beyond the iAd system: Hulu announced this week its intention to offer a premium version of its web-streaming service (Hulu Plus) for $9.99/month.  Customers get access to back catalogs of television shows and are now able to use the service on devices besides their computers (i.e. iPads, iPhones, PS3s, Xbox 360s, etc.).  That said, those customers are still subjected to exactly the same advertising as someone who logs into the unpaid website.

Again, this seems like double-dipping to me, but cable television has long done this, and I think that’s caused many tech pundits to accept these conditions without voicing grievances about the ad subsidies.

This system is probably fair because bandwidth is extremely expensive, and it’s conceivable that a $9.99/month subscription would not enough to support some customers who use this service often — at least, not with much of a profit.  After all, businesses are not in the business of breaking even, especially since they have employees to pay.  So this ad model probably helps with that tremendously.  Of course, the question is why Hulu continues to prevent customers from accessing the free content on their non-computer devices (like the Xbox 360, for example), and I think the answer is simply that even the advertising wouldn’t scale enough to support that level of access from so many extra viewers.  The $120/year price tag is enough to winnow Hulu Plus subscribers down to a manageable number and keep the droves of casual browsers restricted to the times they have access to a computer.

I thus realize the utility of double dipping, and yet it still doesn’t sit very well with me yet.  I suspect I’ll feel differently in time, and I know the democratic nature of the web will keep these services in check.  After all, if an iOS developer charges more than $10 for his app, he better not throw ads at the bottom or there will be hell to pay in the App Store reviews.  But shouldn’t services like Hulu consider reduced advertising to paying customers (i.e. fewer program interruptions)?

Written by Michael

1 July 2010 at 12:31 am

Posted in Musings, Technology

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Head in the Clouds

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Cloud computing is the fancy buzzword flying around the Internet these days. In simple terms, it means taking your data and your media and putting it on a server somewhere so you can access it from multiple locations and with multiple devices.

I was pulled into this world in late 2007 when I purchased my iPod touch. Since it had a built-in email client, I started checking mail with it instead of my laptop, especially if it was closer at hand. That said, it was still on my same home network all the time, so the multiple locations facet of cloud computing was hardly served by doing this.

By the end of the following year, I purchased my first smartphone, a BlackBerry — I would have gone with an iPhone, but AT&T has no stores in Montana right now — and I naturally started using it for my email. I set it up with IMAP, a mode that keeps copies of the email on the server rather than on your local machine so that multiple-device syncing works a lot better. If I read an email on one machine, all other machines know this. If I send something from one machine, it appears in the Sent box of all others.

“I already do that, Mike,” you’re probably thinking. You probably do if you go to your email provider’s website to check your email manually. I use an email client to fetch it for me (specifically Apple Mail and BlackBerry Mail). I prefer this because a) I like native applications better than websites, and b) because I like being told when I have new mail rather than having to remember to check periodically.

The next step was signing up for Dropbox, which I highly recommend. We’ve started using it at my job (at my suggestion of course), and it’s really helped us out a lot. We share a lot of material between our four stores, including price tags, signage, etc., so rather than having to email each other every time something changes, or have multiple employees do the same job more than once, we share all these documents over one virtual folder. This folder, or Dropbox in the nomenclature of the service, lives on every computer we use (six or seven, I think), and has helped us maintain our sanity.

I use this in my personal life, too, by placing all the important pieces of writing I’ve done so I can reference them remotely.

That said, I only own the one laptop, but I have recently purchased an iPad. There’s a wonderful Dropbox application for that now, too, so I can see all of my work anywhere I go with either device.

But the biggest sea change that the iPad brought to me for how I interact with computers is RSS. RSS, or really simple syndication, is a method of displaying headlines and blurbs from different news sources in a streamlined format — this makes it very easy to aggregate all this information together in one place, so that you don’t have to visit multiple websites to get all the information you need.

I read from probably a dozen sources, but I hardly have the patience or time to visit each of those individually and periodically enough to matter.

I was using the Safari web browser’s built-in RSS reader to accomplish this. I simply told it what sites I wanted to see updates for, and it goes out and checks them for me. When changes happen, the browser displayed a number indicating how many changes had occurred since I last checked.

The trouble with this, however, was I had no way of telling other computers I had already read the previously displayed articles. This became an issue because I often use my iPad as a news reader, but I was continually confronted with duplicate information when I returned to my MacBook Pro.

Given that Safari has no built-in syncing capabilities for RSS, I finally broke down and went with a third-party RSS reader. Many reviewers have long said that these other applications were more featured anyway, but I’m sometimes slow to change.

I went with NetNewsWire on both my iPad and MacBook Pro. This application uses the Google Reader, a website which you can aggregate all those feeds you’re interested in, just like I used to do on Safari. Only, it’s saved remotely on some Google server instead of my equipment.

This is how NetNewWire syncs between all the clients.

I have to say that I love it, by and large. Perhaps several will find this surprising, but I actually prefer the RSS-reading experience on my iPad over the one that the desktop application provides. It just seems more elegant.

All of these devices and pieces of software, mostly created by several different companies, have come together for me to form a communications system coupled with content consumption/creation. While this is pretty geeky and probably a bit esoteric to many, I can’t recommend organizing your life with tools like this more.

In fact, my next step is cloud-based task management. I’m very excited for applications like Things for both the iPad and Mac, but this example only syncs over local WiFi. If they bring this capability to the actual cloud (i.e. the Internet), and I can actually sync tasks from any remote location, then I’ll happily pay the premium Cultured Code charges for those applications.

Let me feedback if you know of any great To-Do system that accomplishes this.

Written by Michael

24 May 2010 at 1:14 am

WordPress App for iPad Test

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This is just a brief test of the WordPress application for the iPad.

It’s fairly elegant, with a kind of Mail look to it — I’ve noticed many 3rd-party apps take cues from that bundled application actually, and this is a good thing. The WordPress app works pretty well, except with one issue I’ve noticed so far: during setup, it won’t let you paste in your password, which is a shame because mine is so damned long and random. At least you only have to deal with that once (I hope).

If i come up with anything more, I’ll mention it here.

Written by Michael

2 May 2010 at 8:36 pm

Posted in Technology

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Apple Mail vs iPad Mail

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One of the main focal points of my recent iPad articles has been the simplicity of the device: i.e., what makes it an appliance instead of a computer.  To illustrate my meaning, I’ve taken screenshots of two different email implementations.  The first is Apple Mail, the application that comes with all new Macintosh computers.  The second is the Mail application from the iPad.

There are some fundamental similarities and capabilities, but as you drill down, you can see some of the streamlining that went into the iPad version.

Apple Mail

iPad Mail

Apple Mail Composition Window

iPad Mail Composition Window

You can find the complete gallery here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8929313@N07/sets/72157623708406125/

Written by Michael

23 April 2010 at 11:36 pm

Posted in Technology

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iPad: Initial Thoughts

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I don’t own an iPad, yet.  I’m awaiting the release of the 3G model at the end of this month, but in the meantime, I’ve made quite a bit of use of my brother’s WiFi model (perhaps more than he has even).

The lack of my own personal “magical and revolutionary device” prevents me from writing a proper review — and honestly, there are reviews by the bucketload, so I needn’t burden the web with another.

Instead of lauding the industrial design, praising the impressive multitouch, and detailing  each app one-by-one, I find it would be easier to simply comment on what the iPad means to the future of personal computing and how it fits in my life.

Personal Computers?

I find the term a bit amusing since most people find computers to be many things, “personal” not counted among their qualities.  Useful, sure, but computers are generally regarded as difficult in every sense of the world: difficult insofar as they are hard to discern or understand, and difficult insofar as they are vexing and sometimes more trouble than they’re worth.

I’ve written an article supporting the idea of web artisanship, which has probably been lost to the ether of Internet.  Let me sum it up and simply say that I’ve long been excited about the wave of creativity the Internet has helped to facilitate.  Not so very long ago, the mere idea of creating one’s own show (audio or video) would have been so daunting a task that such a person would require immense resources to even begin such an undertaking.  However, websites like YouTube, Vimeo, Viddler, Ustream, and many others have permitted decidedly impressive productions on a shoestring budget.

Creativity doesn’t end there, either, of course.  Etsy and CafePress have bestowed artists with a venue to sell their wares, be they figurines, jewelry, or any manner of trinket they might want to sell.

I love this.  I look forward to this ongoing evolution of our culture, as it is influenced by the pervasive and ubiquitous ideas developed in a virtual hardly imagined even thirty-years ago.

But what about “Personal” Computers?

The issue with our modern computers, be they Windows, Mac, or Linux-based machines, is that they are incredibly powerful and incredibly complex.  They are well-tuned to producing content (or, at the very least, consuming graphically intense games), but they are generally poor content consumption devices.  And let’s face it, for all the content creation happening in today’s Internet generation, many people spend the majority of their time pouring over the works of others.

Indeed, I spend as much as 95% of my time reading articles online, watching videos on YouTube, and reading the status updates of my friends and family on Facebook.  Throw in some light email reading and composition, and I think this describes the general use of a computer for me.

Oh, I certainly create content.  This article you’re reading now is representative of this fact, and I usually spend significant amounts of time capturing video and photographs of nearby Yellowstone National Park, which I edit into short home movies and albums.

So a computer has a purpose — a time and a place, if you will.

What about the rest of the time?

I think that when I’m doing those things which I described earlier, i.e. web browsing and email, a simpler device makes a great deal of sense.

Apple struck veritable gold with the iPhone with an interface that many are still trying to mimic.  Now they’ve scaled that impressive UI into a larger consumption device in the iPad.  After spending a great deal of time with my brother’s, I feel very strongly that it succeeds in the capacity I require from it.

I think many will be enraptured by the iPad’s myriad of third-party applications, and I know I’ve been impressed by several.  That said, I’m convinced I’ll use the Safari, YouTube, and Mail applications the most, since they cover my everyday needs so well.  I’m sure this is true for many, but to each his or her own on the device’s utility.

What impact will the iPad have on computing?

This is pure speculation by a marginally informed amateur.  Disclaimer aside, I think the iPad will be a unique marvel for a time, since the competition compares poorly against it right now.  In a year, when others begin to construct devices worthy enough to be counted with the iPad, we might begin to see a sea change, albeit a slow one at first.

But I think time guarantees us that personal computing it destined to take the shape of the iPad — and no, I don’t necessarily mean a touch-based tablet.  But I do mean an appliance computer, one specializing in only a few, select tasks.  Rather than spend $400 on a low-quality netbook, outfitted with underpowered hardware, a tiny, poor quality screen, and a build quality that makes the aesthetes among us cringe, I believe we’ll see many moved towards these appliance machines.  The entry price for an iPad stands at $499 right now, which is regarded by many as a great price, and by others still as too high of one.  Market forces will dictate where this price goes, but the additional cost compared to a netbook is a no-brainer to me.

Sure, some will point out that even a netbook possesses a webcam and can run Flash (though not well in many cases), but I’m also convinced that a future iPad will rectify that former concern.  As for the latter?  The evolution of the Internet will handle that.

What of my MacBook Pro?

I love my MacBook Pro: it is simply the best computer I’ve ever owned.  It’s also egregiously overmatched for what need out of a portable machine.  While I do indeed spend a fair amount of time editing photos and video, and yes, playing a game or two, I normally only handle this when I have it “docked” at my desk with an external 24” Cinema Display.  While on the go, I only use it for browsing, email, etc., which is hardly befitting a machine as beefy as this.

I’m slowly convincing myself that I don’t need the MacBook Pro anymore.  Oh, I’m not saying I don’t need a full-fledged Mac, but with the iPad, I think it would make more sense to invest into an iMac, finally.  I would gain even more power for the price with a desktop, which would greatly benefit those occasions I create content or game, and I would still have the portability I require in the iPad.

This may be the ultimate decision many people like me make.

Regarding my decision to purchase the 3G iPad

The final bit I’d like to comment on is why I’d bother waiting for the more expensive, likely more niche version of a device, especially when I’ve been lauding the simplicity of the WiFi version.

The specter of 3G (as provided by AT&T) is further complicated by the reality that AT&T has no real coverage in Montana yet.  The company is in the process of acquiring Alltel, which exists in many markets in Montana right now, so there is the future to look forward to, at least.

But I was mainly driven to pre-order the 3G model because it helps to deliver on a promise made by the iPhone: the Internet in your pocket.  Naturally, the iPad won’t fit in my pocket (not well, at least), but the intent of the message is that the user will be able to take the Internet with him, and further still, he’ll be able to “touch” it.

I find the restriction of WiFi to be counter-productive to this aspiration, so I’ve opted for the potential to use Internet on the go, be this in a car, at a hotel, or wherever.

AT&T’s pricing model impresses me as well.  The company has decided to give the iPad the same data pricing as smartphones: $15 for 250MB of data, or $30 for unlimited.  Better still, this is contract free and completely on-demand.  Compare this to the large selection of 3G modems out there, which come encumbered with a 1- or 2-year contract and a $60/month price tag for unlimited (which, in these cases, means 5GB of data).

When I compared the two models, the only question I had was not, “Why would someone want the 3G iPad?” but rather, “Why wouldn’t someone want the 3G iPad?”

Late April

Once I have my iPad in hand, I’ll spend more time with and really pound on the applications available for it.  If I find anything exciting, I’ll report it back here.

UPDATE (July 1, 2010):

AT&T changed the pricing model for its 3G services not long after the launch of the iPad WiFi+3G models.  This saddens me some, but I think I can still manage to survive on the 2GB cap offered under the new $25 program, especially since I was prepared to only use the 250MB ($15 program) for short trips anyway.

Written by Michael

17 April 2010 at 5:23 pm