AppleTV — the missed opportunity

Written by Matthew JC Powell Thursday, 02 September 2010 04:58

Note: we seem to be having a bit of a problem displaying the Twitter feed on the site. If you want to read my commentary on the event as it happened, it's all here.

Steve Jobs said something very insightful when introducing the second-generation AppleTV: no-one has nailed it yet. He's right — none of the devices designed to sit in your living room and handle your content has found the sweet spot of functionality, ease of use and elegant design that would make digital media truly homeworthy.

That was about the last thing he said that I agreed with.

The AppleTV, as it used to be, was a pretty good attempt. Link it to your iTunes library, register it with iTunes, and you can bring all that digital content right into your lounge room where you want it to be. Brilliant. But it was kind of complicated to do certain things with it, and some aspects were downright baffling.

Take the syncing business. You could sync your content between your computer and your AppleTV — which involved actually copying files over so they were resident on the AppleTV's hard drive — or you could stream them from your iTunes library over a wireless network, so everything stayed on your computer. Which was better for what types of content? Hard to know. The device gave little guidance.

The revised AppleTV wisely does away with that. Your content stays on your computer now, none of it is copied over to the AppleTV. It streams wirelessly. Simple. Done. Great.

Oh, hang on. Doesn't that mean that I've got to have my computer on whenever I want to watch something? Why yes, yes it does. And doesn't that mean if I have any kind of network problem that the thing is effectively a $A129 cube of plastic? Why yes, yes it does.

Some people have fantastic 802.11n wireless networks that simply never fail and never get choked up because someone is Skyping and someone else is Warcrafting while you wish you were Simpsonsing if only it didn't stop to buffer every few seconds. Some people leave their computers on all the time day and night. and have enough computers in the house that someone can be Skyping and someone else can be Warcrafting and ot won't rob the computer that contains the iTunes library of any precious clock cycles.

Most of us don't.

For most of us, having some content on the AppleTV means that the thing is usable, even if the network and other computers in the house are down. That's what most consumer electronics are like: they don't need a whole bunch of other things to be silently working in the background to function.

Nonetheless, a choice has been made for the sake of simplicity in the interface and reduced cost of manufacture, and it certainly has its merits.

Of course at one point in his presentation Jobs said customers had told him they didn't want to involve a computer in the whole process, but the computer just became more essential than it ever was before. Way to give the customers what they want, Steve.

Speaking of giving the customers what they want, when did they tell you they don't want to buy TV shows? I get that some people might have said they'd like to rent, but not having the option to buy is a huge step backwards and utterly ignores the market.

People collect TV shows. Check the sales of TV shows on DVD and you can see that quite easily. Back in the VHS days people didn't so much, but higher quality and smaller space requirements meant that people bought DVDs and collected them, and TV shows in particular. I have a number of shelves crammed with DVDs of TV shows.

I also have a hard drive that contains every episode to date of House, Criminal Minds, Dora The Explorer, Castle and a bunch of others (I collected the first eight seasons of Scrubs, and one episode of season nine — ick). No matter how many episodes, seasons or shows I buy, the hard drive takes up the same amount of space on the desk. When it fills, I will buy a new hard drive that will hold more and quite likely take up even less space.

Do I watch them repeatedly? Absolutely yes I do. The most trotted-out one is of course Dora, as my kids seem to have an infinite capacity for watching the same thing over and over. If I had to rent each episode each time the kids wanted to watch it, well, I wouldn't.

And a lot of these shows are in HD. I have seriously considered buying HD seasons of shows I already own on DVD, just so I can get rid of the discs and free up some shelf space. It is so much better to be able to pick an episode on my iPhone and watch it than to try to remember which disc contained the episode I wanted to watch and grab it off the shelf.

Logically, it would seem to me, TV shows are a thing people want to buy from iTunes. Maybe the numbers don't support that, but I'd like the choice to be there.

Speaking of choice, Jobs said that only a couple of the networks had signed on to the whole renting TV shows thing. If buying is no longer available and most of the suppliers won't let you rent, doesn't that mean the iTunes Store, as accessed on AppleTV, just lost a significant proportion of its content?

Why yes, yes it does.

What I wanted from a revised Apple TV was more, not less. I wanted a bigger hard drive, preferably an e xpandable one (Seagate's GoFlex Home HD is a good example of the principle). I wanted a TV tuner, perhaps several, and maybe even the ability to decode (with permission and appropriate payment) cable TV services and an electronic program guide. I like my Foxtel iQ2 and I like my AppleTV, and I wish they were one box and I only needed one remote.

I disagree with those who say the AppleTV needed a Blu-ray Disc drive. It's addressing an entirely different paradigm (though Sony's Playstation 3 combines the media centre and Blu-ray Disc functions reasonably well). For the sake of everything in one box maybe, but there aren't clear advantages beyond that — other companies make perfectly good Blu-ray Disc players and Apple doesn't need to wade into that area.

What I really would have liked though is a reset button or a power switch. Contrary to what Steve Jobs may believe, the AppleTV crashes sometimes. It freezes and needs to be restarted. You can do this with the remote control if the freeze isn't so bad that it ignores the remote and if you haven't become so accustomed to using your iPhone as a remote that you have no idea where the actual AppleTV remote went. When it's frozen the AppleTV does not connect with the iPhone app.

You have to unplug it and plug it back in again. Clumsy, awkward and really irritating. In my case it means the powerboard with the AppleTV plugged into it is sitting next to the TV cabinet where I can get to it easily rather than behind the cabinet where I wouldn't see it and my kids would be less tempted to play with it.

In order to satisfy Jobs's "no buttons whatsoever" aesthetic, the AppleTV is unnecessarily cluttering up my living room.

So that was what I was hoping for: a more powerful, more fully-featured and fully-rounded media centre that filled in the gaps in what the current product can do. What I got was a significantly reduced and less capable one. It's smaller and cheaper and looks cool, but everything beyond that is a step backwards from the current version.

Apple had the opportunity. It is one of very few companies with credibility in consumer electronics and computing. It has the design skills to make a device that will fit in people's living rather than working decor, and with iTunes it is uniquely placed to produce the digital-media nirvana we all wish existed. It came very close with the AppleTV, and the path to getting closer was clear.

Instead it's walked away from that. It's made an AppleTV that is even more of a hobby — a toy — than it had been previously.

Maybe it will rethink this, and produce another model that actually fulfils the enormous promise of the AppleTV. I can certainly keep hoping.

I just hope it doesn't take four years.

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The case for thinking ahead

Written by Chris Oaten Wednesday, 01 September 2010 22:29

Here comes a tale of woe, good readers, and a cautionary one that should give Aperture users pause for thought along with a very good argument for referencing files rather than managing them.

How large is your Aperture library? 50GB? 100GB? 350GB? I’ve heard of libraries of 1TB and greater, with owners happily gloating over their massive collections. However, as I am about to reveal, libraries of such size can be a curse.

Here’s what happened.

My iMac, following a software update, became unstable. In trying to solve the problem by returning to an earlier version of the software via Time Machine, a power failure interrupted the procedure and the iMac became unbootable. All the data was intact, but I couldn’t boot the machine past the grey screen with the Apple logo.

To whichever question you are determined to post in the forum that starts with “Did you try...?” the answer is yes, so please don’t ask that question.

I gave up and sent the machine to my fixit guy. Sometimes, you just have to seek professional help. I write this on the family’s MacBook while harbouring a strong desire that my iMac has a failed component and the warranty will cover its replacement.

At times like this, users are well-advised to switch into damage control mode. If you can get access to any data not yet backed up on the hard drive, your first task is to make a copy of it. As I was able to tether the MacBook to the iMac booted into FireWire Target Disk Mode, this was exactly what I set out to do.

Here’s the problem. My Aperture library was 350GB. Just two new projects, about 20GB of images, had been imported into the library since I last backed up the library contents. Yet because those two projects hadn’t been exported as part of my usual back-up procedure, I was stuck with copying the whole of the 350GB library to an external drive for the sake of saving 20GB. Not an easy task, because not one of my external drives had 350GB to spare, so some shunting of data was necessary.

It was also a time-consuming task, even over FireWire 800. This is especially frustrating because the only reason my library had blown out to such a size was because I’d recently imported a few old projects looking for some images for a web site gallery.

Just so you know, my usual workflow is to import a set of photos into a project, complete the edit, and then export the project to an external drive. This makes it easy to recover the project at a later date. No, I don’t use Aperture’s vault back-up — it’s horribly slow and wraps the whole library into a single entity that is unwieldy and hogs a lot of space on a hard drive. Also, I exclude my Aperture library from my Time Machine backups.

Usually, my Aperture library is about 60-100GB, comprising current projects that are backed up as I go. I am methodical when it comes to managing my photos — or like to think so — but, as this sad scenario shows, it is possible that an unfortunate series of events can stymie even well-organised workflows.

If you’re an Aperture user, the question I want you to ask yourself is this: “How do I avoid this kind of horror scenario?” I’ll help you out a bit by pointing out two of my mistakes.

The first should be pretty obvious — before you go approving any software updates, make sure your back-up plan is up to date. The other mistake I made was bringing in so many projects looking for a few good pics. Much, much better would be maintaining a separate library comprising the very best shots from each project, a library of portfolio images, ready to go whenever I need them.

I must get on to that when my iMac comes back.

Some users will probably suggest a couple of other mistakes and I would expect among these would be my choice of managing files by storing them in the Aperture library rather than referencing them and storing them elsewhere. A desirable “elsewhere” would be on external hard drives but even better would be a Drobo, an external storage system that is expandable with hot-swappable drives and has automated data protection features. A Drobo is on my list of must-have hardware, but it’s fighting for top spot with a $3000 lens and a $6000 camera body, neither of which I can afford just now, and even in the face of this most recent disaster the Drobo is losing the tussle.

So what I want you to take away from this is this: Is your library back-up procedure coherent, consistent and easy to recover from? Have you considered the pros and cons of using referenced files instead of managed files? And is your external storage up to the task of responding to a disaster such as the one I endured this week? Bear in mind that when it comes to external storage that it’s not how much you have now but how much you’ll need in the near future that you should be accounting for.

Just something to think about.

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A support issue

Written by Alex Kidman Sunday, 29 August 2010 23:00

Apple's support is an interesting thing. On the one hand, the company consistently wins plaudits for the general quality of its support, while on the other hand issues with specific designs sometimes go unsupported for months upon months at a time. Specific graphics cards issues in notebooks, battery issues in phones, whether or not iOS turns the average iPhone 3G into a shiny brick — that kind of thing.

I've worked support (not for Apple, or indeed a computer company that, strictly speaking, still exists) in the rapidly ageing past, and I know it's a tough job. Sometimes an impossible job under the circumstances.

I had the chance over the past week to test Apple's support, thanks to a failing hard drive in an iMac. I say "failing", but I honestly never would have noticed if the iMac in question hadn't been kind enough to inform me of the fact. I'd ducked into Disk Utility to format a flash drive and I noticed something that can only be classified as "not that good". The main drive in the iMac was bright red, and I didn't think it was because it had something to celebrate. Except perhaps its impending death.

So off to the phones I trotted, to chat with an AppleCare representative. Here I'll give 10/10; I didn't have to go through 20 boring scripted steps to make it clear that I did know what the problem was, and indeed, the most likely solution. It's feasible that the drive controller could be flaky, but much more likely that the hard drive itself was failing. There are, after all, to borrow a much-repeated phrase, only two kinds of hard drive: those that have failed, and those that will fail.

You have backed up your files today, right?

It quickly became clear that I'd have to take it into a repairer to arrange an assessment and replacement. Being in Sydney, that gave me the choice of a number of Apple Stores, or a third-party repairer. Figuring there's nothing like going to the source, I picked the Chatswood Apple store. The Castle Towers one is technically closer, but, well, if you've never been to Castle Towers ... then I envy you.

That involved another phone call, and a slightly worrying one. The first support rep I'd talked to assured me I'd be able to make a Genius Bar booking by calling the store. The automated response system that the store used assured me that I couldn't actually do that. I suspect the support rep I finally got through to was getting ready to state the same thing as well, until I pointed out I'd already jumped through one set of hoops and, so, a Genius Bar appointment was made.

It was at this point that I remembered the only other person I know of that readily identifies himself as a Genius. That would be Wile. E. Coyote, and I'm well aware of the success rate of his plans.

(Editor's note: Wile E. Coyote is not, technically, a person. — M.JC.P.)

Still, as wacky and interesting plans go, actually dropping in the iMac went rather well. It should be noted that any owner of a 27" iMac can throw away the weights bench and dumbbells right now, as the only exercise you really need is lugging the box through a busy shopping centre on a Saturday morning. My right bicep is still throbbing, and I'm hopeful once it finishes I'll be able to act as a stunt double for Schwarzenegger, if not his actual replacement.

Waiting for a Genius Bar appointment also reveals a startling number of people using "I don't have an appointment, but I have a problem that will only take one minute ..." as their opening gambit. While I'm not a big fan of waiting myself, take it from me: people, your problems never only take one minute. Also, get an appointment.

I'm still out an iMac for a week while they wait for parts and fit them in — if you've never seen an Aluminium iMac being taken apart it's a rather fascinating prospect, which you can watch here, and while I don't mind tinkering, just given the weight of the screen I'm glad I don't have to.

Now, speaking of waiting, I've got a lot of waiting to do, a five-year-old MacBook to configure to work on in the meantime, and biceps that need a lot of work if I'm going to pick up the iMac at the end of the week and not break something in my arms doing so.

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I stand corrected, but I won't take it lying down

Written by Chris Oaten Thursday, 26 August 2010 00:35

A few weeks back, I lamented the fact that it was not possible to move image files between iPad apps. I was wrong. Sort of. Desperate to find a real-world, photography-related application for the iPad — well, real as in my version of reality, at least — I delved a little deeper into Bento.

For those not familiar with Bento, a quick primer. Bento is a simple database app that does something really neat. Using an iPad or iPhone, you can create and customise a database library that can be synced to the desktop version of Bento. And when I say lightweight, I mean Bento is to lightweight as Steve Wozniak is to computing genius.

This is not a putdown. Bento is, in and of itself, a nice piece of work as far as apps go, but when you’re accustomed to the power and versatility of Filemaker Pro, Bento always measures up poorly. But that's OK. Bento is what it is.

Wanting to find out if I could create a sales order library, I fired up one of the many templates that Bento offers and began modifying it. Soon, I discovered that a field can be set up to import media. Voila! That means I can generate a new sales order, populate it with data such as customer name and all the usual stuff and match it up to the file name of an image printed on the proof sheet my customer is looking at … oh, wait a doggone minute.

That horrible sound you’re hearing is my hopes being dashed.

Why is it, Apple, dear old Apple, love of my computing life, that I can’t see file names on an iPad? If I could see the file names of the images I’m trying to sell, it would be a doddle to import them into that media field in the Bento sales order. As it stands, however, I have to hunt around the album in which I believe the image I’m after will be, isolate it visually from the rest, and then choose it.

If I weren’t in front of the customer as I was trying to do this it wouldn’t be so bad — but this is not a back of house operation, it’s a point of sale operation, and fumbling about with a visual selection of an image file is just embarrassing.

Why is there not at least an option to display file names? Or better yet, a way to export an image from the Photos app to Bento? Creating a sales order with an image selection as the starting point — that would be perfect.

Well, yes, we all know the answer to that question, don’t we? Accessing files, folders and directories is just not something that fits within Apple’s vision for the iPad.

This is a gadget that holds consumption as its raison d’être, not creation, and the act of creating stuff relies at least a little on having access to a file system. Except that we have Pages and Keynote and Bento, right? Yes. Yes, we do. It is possible to create stuff on an iPad and these apps show the way, but only within the constraints of what Apple will allow us to do with an iDevice.

Which brings me back to where I was a few weeks back — looking for a way to use the iPad as a point of sale tool. Not a pretty show-and-tell device — that’s easy, and the iPad excels at it. I want a point of sale tool. The acronym for said tool is POS, and I'll leave it to those with a sense of irony to make what they will of the double entendre.

A local app developer, whom I know by his Twitter nick @alexeckermann — which, kind of surprisingly is actually his real name — tells me that it’s possible for any app to import an image asset from the Photo app. It’s right there in the SDK, and you can easily insert the code into any app. This leaves me wondering why on earth there aren’t iPad apps that can do what I want.

Of course, it’s about now I blame myself for not having yet made a fortune as an iPad app developer. I simply must sit down and nut it out one day. Unless someone else would like to give it a go. Hello? Anyone? I've got a good idea for an app. Hello?

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Dropping iClangers

Written by Alex Kidman Sunday, 22 August 2010 20:32

Somewhere in my office, there's a Clanger that I've dropped. He's gorgeous, with his little pink nose and strange honking noises, a present from a very nice lady I used work with called Lindsay. He's this kind of Clanger rather than the foot-in-mouth variety. I'm sure he's around here somewhere — unless one of the kids has run off with him.

The slightly more common foot-in-mouth variety came up at MacTheForum the other day in regards to predicting what Apple will or won't do. It's an exceptionally tricky pastime, whether you're in the rumours and speculation game, or just trying to analyse what Apple's doing and whether it will in fact work. And it's an area where I'm not too proud to say that I've dropped the odd clanger myself.

When the topic came up in the forum my mind was cast back to an Apple-specific prediction I'd made about eight years ago. In fact, as I write this, eight years and one month ago precisely. There's probably nothing numerically significant in that, but I'm not sure I can make that as an absolute prediction with any guarantee of accuracy.

Anyway, eight years ago was well before I'd bought my first Apple product, to give some perspective. It took some digging around, but on the web, nothing ever dies, and the column I originally wrote, entitled "iPod For Windows. What's the iDea?" is, pretty much exactly where I left it — although my headshot (which if memory serves featured me with a Lex Luthor style bald skull) is strangely missing.

Perspective is an interesting thing. For a start, a 5GB iPod doesn't cost $645 any more, something we should all be grateful for. I wonder if there's any 5GB Firewire-only iPods out there still ticking along? What happens if you take one into a Genius bar to get a battery replacement? Anyway, I'm skipping over the core thing, which is that I was, indeed, wrong.

At the time I figured opening up the iPod to the Windows market was a risky step for a company like Apple that, at the time, wasn't the healthiest of critters. History has proven me wrong; the iPod acted not as a single-unit purchase but a gateway drug for plenty of what used to be called "switchers" to jump over to the Mac platform.

Heck, I'm one of them, although not via iPod; my first actual iPod was an iPod Touch that's in front of me as I type this. Apple's still removed me from an almost embarrassing amount of my money in the intervening period, with a MacBook, iMac, two iPod touches and two iPhones bouncing around the house, so clearly it's not in particular trouble ... yet. But I'd better stop making such predictions.

If I am to salvage some credibility, I'll note that while Apple did step away from the Windows-only MusicMatch Jukebox software solution, it replaced it with iTunes. Ever talked to a Windows user about iTunes? There's not a whole lot of love there. The Windows version of iTunes is, to put it nicely, a dog. Really bad, really unstable code. Yes, OS X can have its problems, and as I've outlined previously, it doesn't always "just work", but the Windows version of iTunes is so particularly crash-prone, often (so I'm told by those that suffer with it) taking the contents of the iPod or iPhone with it, that it's almost enough to convince me that Apple's done it that way on purpose to shift Windows users towards OS X.

But Apple wouldn't be that deliberately devious — would it?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a Clanger to find. He's probably off conversing with the Soup Dragon about some other bold prediction I made years ago, and how daft it was in hindsight.

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