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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Apple TV 2.0 Still Far From Being a Media Star

Apple excels in personal media, communications, and computing devices because their user interface and integrated hardware/software platform serves up the best experience for its owners. For that reason, I've found Apple TV is a surprise disappointment since the linearity and deeply embedded menu user interface in Apple TV is retro early 80s computing, albeit with nice fonts. With this media device they have fallen short of the standard they have set in personal computing.

Almost everything with Apple TV is an embedded text menu. Okay, there are some non-interactive pictures and icons but you really cannot point and click, drag-and-drop or more effectively organize with them. When you start up the Apple TV, you get a text list of seven items and moving the selector (or might as well be a cursor) down the list will produce a cascading list of items you can access with the right arrow on the remote to select yet more text.

The style of this interface reminds me of DOS in 1982 or the various shell programs (like Peter Norton's shell) you could install on your IBM XT to make it a more user friendly text menu system of navigation. It was slow and arduous back then and still is today.

Add to that the fact that searching is a one letter at a time process in .Mac galleries, Flickr, or YouTube that is slow and painfully unforgiving - push the wrong button and your back to letter "A" and the drawing board - this interface seems positively anti-Apple. It is almost as if a neophyte group of old Microsoft DOS programmers invaded Apple and said they would write the AppleTV interface.

The embedded linear menu system is almost forgivable on a TV but the spelling out of words in search one letter at a time is unforgivable. It neither embraces the advancement Apple makes with touch screen technology nor does it employ "ease-of-use" concepts the basic GUI Apple introduced more than 20 years ago.

One of my main objectives in buying 160GB Apple TV was to create Web Galleries where my family members and friends could go view and possibly download and print my photographs. I thought surely Apple will use its rich integrated environment between iPhoto, .Mac, Apple TV, iTunes and even iPhone to deliver ease, fun, and an awesomely simple viewer experience. Not so.

We are given few options for presenting the photos in the web gallery, no templates to speak of and I couldn't preview the final design. You have to anticipate what the outcomes will be while they are neither explained nor easily offered during the assembly and uploading process. The first few attempts at Web Gallery produced bad captions, random viewing order and "Ken Burns" that slaughters the cropping for pictures. Apple needs to figure out a "smart Ken Burns" effect in iPhoto. iMovie, and for Apple TV.

Then, when it came to viewing my web gallery on Apple TV, the apparent default was for Apple TV to randomly select music from my iTunes Library. And not just music but podcasts, audio books and sound effects. It makes no sense. I simply wanted to assign a song to a particular web gallery that was appropriate for the subject matter. Randon in this case makes non-sensical chaos of image and audio.

When I pointed out this randomizing problem to friend who is also a Apple TV owner, he said, well you have to set up a special folder in iTunes with just one song, sync Apple TV to iTunes then go to settings in Apple TV and pick that folder to play that song "randomly" and that's how you are suppose to do it. Suppose to? That sounds like a kluge and not a thoughtful design implementation made easy for the consumer.

Clearly, Apple has a lot of fixing to do here before Web Galleries and My Photos are useful.

Most of Apple's effort with their web software and Apple TV hardware efforts have gone toward getting you to rent or buy their content from the iTunes store. And thus, that is where you will find the graphical eye candy. Movies have their standard DVD box covers and posters to lure you to buying them but it is all very linear and multi-threading of downloads is still not possible. And it is slow as molasses in Mississippi in the summertime.

Apple obviously has voided the users chance to use the Apple TV as a jukebox for the movies Apple TV owners have purchased over the years on DVD. By some strange and weird definition, they've come to characterize ripping a DVD (not unlike ripping your CD collection to iTunes and your iPod) as a criminal act. Boy, it is funny what can be construed today as criminal.

Apple has limited the users ability to record and store TV programs and timeshift them off cable or broadcast stations. I think most people today are looking for their digital media devices to converge but with Apple TV, they've missed by a mile.

Another huge drawback to the Apple TV is that you must be able to sync your media content to a hosting Mac laptop or desktop. Under this arrangement, the hard drive on the host computer becomes a bottleneck for the media content you will be amassing for Apple TV. In most cases, a person with a 60, 80 or 100 GB hard drive on their host computer will never use even half of the capacity of a 160 GB Apple TV. And from a technology perspective the limiter Apple places on giving the user direct access to store, capture, and back-up Apple TV directly without have to duplicate huge amounts of space on a host computer is severe.

Expansion? It seems Apple TV remains a closed system. You cannot add hard drive capacity or link it to other useful devices to enhance its limited capabilities. I look at the back of the slender sleek box and see a USB 2.0 port but what is it there for? It would be great if I could use it to plug in a huge backup drive, and enhanced remote device that would speed the navigation between the deeply embedded menus, or even better a EyeTV USB device that would allow me to record digital broadcast programs onto my Apple TV drive. But there it sits with nothing to feed it. Why?

The potential with Apple TV is there but the question is what is holding Apple back for making Apple TV an insanely great product?

Monday, April 14, 2008

PsyStar Mac Clone: An Emerging Trend (or Prank)?

A Florida based PC maker has begun manufacturing a Macintosh clone called "OpenMac" at the retail price of $399. The machine has a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, a 20X DVD+/-R SATA drive, a 250 GB 7200 RPM hard drive and comes packed in a tower styled white case.

The open hardware comes with an OSX operating system written by an open project community and is widely available on the internet for Intel PC users to download. However, PsyStar says you can buy Leopard separately and install it on the Open Mac. Certainly, PsyStar would further provoke action against itself if it installed Leopard itself on this clone.

A Mac clone? Some might remember the days in the mid-1990s when the Macintosh was cloned by StarMax, Radius, DayStar, UMAX, and Power Computing. One huge difference between the Mac clones of that era was that Apple licensed these other companies to try and expand the Mac user base. The Apple brand was in trouble and clones were viewed as a way for Apple to stay alive. And then Steve Jobs came back to Apple and canceled or bought out all contracts with the cloners.

Since Jobs return Apple has taken the position, as Phil Shiller says, "We will not allow running Mac OS X on anything other than an Apple Mac." Jobs and Schiller knew that Apple needed to sell hardware and software to recover the cost of R&D. Apple being a technology innovator has heavy R&D costs and the only way to recoup their investment in innovation is by selling hardware and software at a slightly higher price than PC hardware.

When Apple decided to make the transition to Intel in 2006 they opened the doors to a new cloning threat and modified versions of OS X 10.4 and 10.5 or Open Mac projects to run on generic PC hardware. Since Apple moved to Intel, a number of hardware manufacturers including Michael Dell of Dell Computers have indicated they would like to make and sell PCs with Mac OSX installed as the operating system.

Many expect Apple to take tough measures against PsyStar and the news today reported that their web site where a person can purchase a OpenMac had been shut down for unknown causes. While Apple might avoid going to court to protect its copyright there are many options open to rendering this machine broken with system updates as they did with jailbroke iPhones. But actions Apple takes to disable users machines remotely comes at a price to their reputation as a company concerned with "customer satisfaction."

The question PsyStar raises is with the success of devices like iPods, iPhones and the widespread adoption of Apple software on PC computers, will we start to see an emerging new Mac clone industry?

UPDATE NOTE: One day after the story appeared, PsyStar brought its site back up and had changed the name of its computer from Open Mac to Open Computer. Then just as quickly PsyStar disappeared completely and attempts to visit the companies offices in Miami were found to be non-existent and PsyStar a faux vendor. I cannot believe how many of the mainstream tech media publishers were reporting this story with no names, bad phone numbers, web site down and no actual office location. Was this all some kind of weird late April fools joke?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Mossberg Confirms 3G iPhone in 60 Days


At about 6 minutes and 53 seconds into this video, WSJ Tech columnist Walt Mossberg discloses his knowledge that Apple will sell a 3G iPhone in June.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Future of Publishing

I think some publishers have got it right and others terribly wrong when it comes to the future of magazines and newspapers. Isn't that always the case with future predictors?

Mary Tyler "Molly" Ivins, the first woman police reporter for our StarTribune said before she died in 2007, and I paraphrase, that it wasn't so much the impact of the internet on newspapers that is devastating to the industry as the response of newspaper publishers to the rise of the internet.

Newspapers downsized staff writers and got rid of much of the perspective that made them an unique experience to online media. These daily sources for news, like Ivins former employer the StarTribune, redesigned themselves to be unreadable and pushed most of us to the internet for our daily bread.

The most successful (although it has yet to prove itself out completely) were those newspapers like the New York Times and San Jose Mercury who leaped forward onto the internet but branded their image and internet pages with their distinctive imprimatur on this new medium. The Times still looks incredibly similar on the web as it did at the turn of the last century in print. Both publications succeeded in taking their brand to a wider national audience and I'd say younger demographic than their print versions. That's boldface confidence and smart positioning of the brand. And they understand it is about brand and not instant face-lifts and shallow make-overs at the last minute. The NYT's was quick to get its content positioned for the iPhone and the other smart phones with web browsing capabilities coming to the market.

Many other newspapers made huge strategic errors in repurposing themselves for the internet. Case-in-point, again, the StarTribune that locked its content beyond registration barriers and timed their content to a pay-to-read scheme that violates most internet readers the sense of freedom the net provides. That's what is termed, not understanding your audience.

When I search and get down to the level of a StarTribune article from 2003 or an obituary, when the site asks me to register, sign in, or pay to read I am gone in a New York minute. It is almost as if publishers wanted to punish internet surfers out of a resentment for change the new medium represents. Punishment, however, will never win hearts or build readership.

The other ones who have it wrong are the Kindle "electronic book" advocates (see my March 3rd blog about Kindle when it came out), like Graydon Carter from Vanity Fair, believe we will all be carrying around an electronic gadget and get their pages, picture, and movie content we will pay to download off the internet. Nobody wants to haul around yet another electronic device or reader like Kindle especially with its retro-tech rice button keyboard across the bottom of the screen (Did Amazon miss the memo that touch screen technology is going to change the face of all our tech-devices?). We have our phones, our laptop computers, and some even have a PDA or Blackberry. Add a device just for reading news and magazines and news? No way.

Breaking daily news content has to flow to our mobile devices where people do seek electronic convergence. Yes, I believe the instant news will no longer find its home on the multiple edition inky cheap newsprint of my youth. However, the high quality magazine with a distinct perspective will not evaporate off the pages any time soon. The experience of reading a magazine for leisure, relaxation, and entertainment will not be replicated in digital form on the internet or with Kindle. And ultimately, publishers need to see what the use scenario is and fulfill the readers experience in rewarding ways.

In the 70s and 80s, we'd rush to the comic store and could not wait to get our hands on MAD Magazine, National Lampoon and later British Spy (political satire magazine) or the New York Review of Books simply because there was nothing like these publications in terms of the content, comedy or intellectual standards they set. These magazines became icons in their day, not because of the quality of the paper they were printed on. I have very little sympathy for those who preach that we must buy newspapers when those who run them make terrible decisions that drive me away from their pages.

It is still all about the quality of the content and the internet can't change that fact.

image provided by Uh... Bob

Apple Leopard Shows Great Promise, Needs Fixes

The top-billing with Apple's new operating system, code named Leopard or OSX 10.5 is the backup system given the marketing name Time Machine. Backed up with space age style graphics, Time Machine zooms you back and forward in time on a space continuum that makes you think your documents, images and movies stretch out into the galaxy.

Without going into Time Machine at great depth (many other sites and blogger have been writing about it since last year when Apple previewed it), Time Machine lets you restore documents going back to a specific day, week or year and does so with the speed and simplicity to make other back up systems seem old and outmoded.

Apple still has some fixing to do with Time Machine. It has yet to work with the Airport Express USB drives and prefers Apple's touted Time Capsule -- a Airport hub with 500 GB or 1 Terabyte drive built right into the wifi router.

Many Apple faithful who bought Apple's marketing back in the summer of 2007 to buy Airport Express with USB port for a backup hard drive have been mightily angry that Apple uses its programming failure to market a new device of their making. Their chant is "fix Time Machine to work with third-party USB devices." I agree.

STACKS & SPACES

Over time Apple has been transforming the Mac Finder and Desktop to make it more configurable to different use scenarios and assist the user with organizing and keeping their desktops clean. Stacks and Spaces are Apple programmers recent additions to this never-end effort to bring order to a chaotic universe.

Stacks throw all your download and desktop cluttering documents into a menu bar stack that expands out like a geisha's fan and flutter out before your eyes when you click and hold on the stack. It is a pretty cool solution to the way our desktop tend to become a litter box of document icons.

Spaces has the similar quality of organizing for the clutter-prone and seem to match Steve Job's zen-like obsession with neatness and orderliness. Employees of Pixar often noted that Jobs office was like an Oriental rock and sand garden where the only thing a CEO should do in there was meditate. Spaces is the desktop and finder equivalent, allowing you to order your workspaces, save them and flip spectacularly through to each. Spaces is almost an Andy Herzfeld type application, allowing you to flip the cube and view different Finders from different angles of the prism. Again, totally stylist and cool in that Apple way.

Often Apple's best advances are in the little areas of the operating system that let you do things more easily or do things for you that are laborious yet routine. I've owned a personal computer, specifically a Macintosh, since 1984. In all those years I have a mantra playing in the back of my head that says, "The computer should be able to figure that out so I don't have to."

Back in the 80s and 90s I wanted the computer to simply know what ports I had my printer or scanner connected to without having to tell and configure the operating system. I wanted my desktop simply to sense it was connected to the network and show me the volumes I could access. Most recently, I want my laptop or iPhone to sense and know when there is a wifi network I can connect to and prompt me to select it and authenticate.

DATA DETECTORS

One of the greatest and most mundane (DOH) features added to Leopard is data detectors. This is the feature that you've always wanted when you say to yourself "why can't the computer figure it out." Whenever Leopard sees text that resembles an address or date it gives you a pop down menu next to that data with the option to add it to iCal or Apple's Address Book.

Taking this a step further Apple has given applications like Pages the ability for you to draft a letter in a template and then go to Address Book select 1, 5, 10 or any random number of people in your address book and then drag the names into the address space at the top of the letter and it simple performs a mail merge with one complete letter per name you've dragged.

The data detectors even figure out that if you have a salutation, it will place the persons name in the appropriate spot at the top of the body text. No more of the stupid double brackets - field name coding to achieve a mail merge. Let the computer software figure out the details. That's what computers are for right?

iCHAT THEATER

iChat has gotten considerably better with Leopard. In the past, some of the ideas Apple built into iChat were cute but not too useful. Thus iChat hasn't caught on like other Web 2.0 technologies that improve IP communications. Now, with iChat Theater you can share photos, movies and Keynote type presentations across the internet with family, friends and business partners. If you are in front of the camera, iChat Theater makes a small window for you to live in and a big theatrical window for your picture, movie or slideshow.

While this concept is great and could bring more people to use the iChat feature of Leopard, my experience trying to use it with an Leopard upgraded Powerbook laptop and iMac have been mixed. The slideshow were slow, the audio failed and it seemed to be CPU heavy and brought all functions to a stuttering halt. Let's hope Apple works on fixing iChat and making it more stable and reliable because they could have a winner here.

SYNCING

Syncing has gotten some changes with the recent Leopard release. In the past, Apple has been all over the board with iSync, iTunes, .Mac and I think it has driven many Mac users to resignation with trying to sync across their desktop, laptop and mobile devices like iPhone and iPod. I know I've been frustrated and flustered with it and still in Leopard, syncing the Address Book between laptop and iPhone contacts -- is really funky. The sync feature likes to mix up the photos of different contacts just to confound you. So my friend Diane's picture got randomly assigned to my lawyer John contact on the iPhone. Go figure.

I hope this isn't one of those creeping Microsoft sloppiness problems -- where getting feature to work is successful only 35% of the time.

Within the Leopard Address Book preferences you will find setting that will allow you to sync your address book with Yahoo and Exchange mail servers. This ability to communicate and sync outside the world of Apple apps will be a big boon to the "switch to Mac" market and enterprise computing where Active List and other company served mailing capabilities are necessary.

The coolness of these and a bunch of smaller features makes Leopard well worth the price of upgrade, However, Apple has some fixing it needs to do to iron out the odd imperfections with this system version.