Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Apple TV - My Predictions

For almost a year now, rumors of an impending Apple TV have been hitting the various news & technology sites.  More recently it's even factored into many financial analysts' views on the future of Apple stock.  But in all this time, I've not seen a detailed description of what such a TV might be able to do that is different from today's existing hardware.  Many people think that it's main feature (aside from Apple's vaunted ease-of-use) will be the ability to subscribe to individual cable channels - a feature that will depend entirely on Apple being able to strike a deal with the cable companies.  So I thought to myself: hey, you're into technology and are using most of Apple's existing gadgets and various existing media/streaming sites - why not use that knowledge to describe what you think an Apple TV might look like.  So here I go :-)

First, the obvious: physical design & price.  I think Apple will continue its existing design language and make the TV look like a larger iMac or Cinema Display.  The new iMacs are razor thin at the edges and clad in aluminum like all Apple devices are these days.  I expect a minimum or non-existent bezel around the screen - i.e. the front will be all black with the back enclosure aluminum.  The stand will likely also be an aluminum contraption similar to the Cinema Displays.  There will probably be two or three sizes (42", 55", and maybe something even larger, to accommodate its more affluent customers who have gargantuan rooms).  Price-wise, I expect the 55" version to be around $2500-$3500 (based on the fact that the top-of-the-line Samsung LED TVs cost that much).

Next, the user interface.  Apple already has an "Apple TV" product that might give a hint as to how one might interact with the actual TV: basically a grid of icons that get you to the content you want.  Since the remote on the existing Apple TV product, while sexy, is somewhat lacking in basic usability (if you ever tried to enter a search keyword using its onscreen alphabetic keyboard, you'll understand what I mean), the TV will come with an iPodTouch-like remote control that duplicates what you see on the TV.   Essentially "mirroring" (a feature that newer Apple devices already support) in reverse.  There will be an app for existing iDevices that can do the same thing - so any existing iPod, iPhone, or iPad can become an additional remote control for the TV!

What about content?  Well, some of the content will be exactly what you already get with the existing Apple TV box: access to iTunes content, Netflix, Pandora, etc.  But, no doubt, there will also be real-time TV channels to choose from.  How these channels get into the Apple TV is an interesting bit to conjecture on.  It could be that there will be the traditional coax connector in the back of the TV and either software or a hardware "module" from your local Cable provider that will emulate the cable box (sort of like the failed CableCARD standard of yesteryear).  But I don't see Apple allowing something as retro as a coax cable to come into its beautiful devices - Apple is renowned for simplifying the cabling to its devices - why would they want to propagate such an antiquated connection?   I think Apple will do all the work in its data centers and simply stream the content to your TV.  The channels you "see" will depend on what deals Apple can strike with which content providers and what you subscribe to.  So if Apple strikes a deal only with Comcast and your current cable company is Cablevision, the programming you'd see on your Apple TV will be Comcast's rather than Cablevision's (so you'd use Cablevision only for your Internet).  If Apple strikes a deal with both cable companies, you might even get a choice on which cable company gets to bill you!  Although, either way, you'd simply be paying through your iTunes account :-)  Finally, depending on what deals Apple can strike with these cable companies, you'd either continue to have to buy "packages" of channels or you might get to pick individual channels.  I hope it's the latter - I only really watch a couple channels - why am I subsidizing all the other crap that's in my "package"?
The channel guide will be on a "time line", initially centered around the current time.  But you can slide backwards in time and access TV programs that have already happened (i.e. no more DVR needed).  Maybe those shows will even have advertising automatically (or, more likely, for a price) stripped.

What am I missing?  Oh yeah, since it's an iOS device, it'll have all the existing benefits of being part of the Apple ecosystem: any Apple device can stream content to the TV (AirPlay, Mirroring).  Apple might also figure out a way for multiple iOS devices to share the same Apple TV - thus allowing for multiple player games on the same big screen!

Well, that about does it.  What do you think?

Friday, October 5, 2012

iPhone 5 - Owners Impressions After Android

I got an iPhone 5 two weeks ago and thought I'd share my impression after being an Android user for a year.

First some background: I used to be an iPhone owner who, a year ago, was seduced by the impressive hardware specs of the Samsung Galaxy S2 - see my initial, agonizing decision making here and my impressions after one month of ownership here.  My main gripes with the Galaxy S2 were its poor battery life and the poor operating system support by the telecom (it took months for AT&T to make operating system updates available - presumably they need the time so that their crap-ware stays compatible with the new O/S :-(

Anyway, a couple weeks ago, I was so fed up with constantly "managing" my battery usage (by turning off wifi, bluetooth, and GPS whenever not needed, lowering screen brightness, exiting apps so they wouldn't try to talk to their backend server, disallowing all sorts of pushed notifications, etc.), I broke my contract to get the new iPhone 5.  What follows are my impressions after two weeks of use:

First the good news: the phone is beautiful.  It's difficult to explain - it simply feels luxurious!  Perhaps it's the feel of the cold metal after the phone has been sitting on my desk for awhile.  Maybe it's the tight fit and finish.  Better still: the phone manages to keep a charge much better than the Galaxy S2 - in the two weeks I've had it, it never once got below 20% by bed time.  And that's with the screen at default brightness and with wifi, bluetooth, GPS always on.  The Galaxy S2 would always get into "battery critically low" before 10pm unless I took the above-mentioned battery conservation measures - despite it having a higher-capacity battery!

Less important but also worth mentioning is how easy it is to operate the iPhone 5 with one hand - something I used to do all the time with my iPhone 3GS, but which I had to abandon when I moved to the Samsung Galaxy S2 with its 4.3" screen and the ill-conceived placement of buttons in many Android applications.  Let me be clear - the iPhone 5 is not as easy to operate one-handed as the 3GS due to its 4" screen (my thumb can no longer easily reach the "back" button in the top left of the screen), but is still much better in this regard than the Samsung Galaxy S2 (I imagine single-handed use is impossible with the newer Galaxy S3 and other 4.8"+ phones).  Similarly, the phone's onscreen keyboard is much better (at least for me) than any of the Android keyboards I've tried.  I can't explain it easily, but I simply don't make nearly as many mistakes on it as I did on the Galaxy S2.

Finally, I want to mention that our cable provider's iPhone/iPad app is much more capable than the Android version.  The OptimumOnline iPhone app lets me remote-control all aspects of the cable box as well as stream channels directly to my device.  The Android version just had a channel guide! (to be fair, supposedly, it could also manage the DVR functionality of cable boxes - but since I didn't have a DVR function on mine, I could not try that).

But the move back to iPhone land wasn't entirely positive.

As was reported prominently, Apple Maps just can't hold a candle to Google Maps.  I often search for business locations in maps.  It seems like 1/4  of the time, Apple Maps doesn't have the answer.  Google Maps always does.  I put a shortcut to the web version of Google Maps on my home page, but obviously that's not a perfect workaround.

Related to Apple Maps, I should mention that I was really disappointed with Siri, Apple's much hyped voice assistant.  I tried, on several occasions to initiate navigation using Siri.  Alas, half the time Siri remained silent.  Initially I thought the problem was network connectivity, but Siri was also often silent when I was at home, using wifi.  Eventually I figured it out: sometimes Siri wasn't actually silent - I just didn't have enough patience waiting for her - if I waited half a minute or more, she would eventually come back with her interpretation of what I said and do her job.  I began to suspect that Apple's servers were just getting overloaded - they seemingly weren't ready for all the traffic!  This was confirmed when on a couple occasions, after I waited several minutes, Siri would come back with the apologetic "Sorry, I can't fulfill your request at the moment." :-(  Although Android doesn't sport a fancy voice assistant, Google voice searches never gave me any trouble and were always answered promptly.  I.e. they were reliable, unlike Siri.

I also miss Android's physical "Back" button.  Aside from being in a good location for my thumb to reach, it also works universally - not just within applications.  The Apple "Back" button is, as mentioned before, on the top-left of the phone and, thus, harder to reach by thumb now with the new 4" screen.

Finally, I wish they iPhone 5 came with a micro SD slot like the Samsung.  The 16GB card I stuffed in into my S2 prior to a recent vacation came in very handy.  Friends traveling with us used an iPhone 4s and had to upload pictures to the Web to free up some space for more pics/videos.

The iPhone 5 is supposed to have a great display - Apple even gave it the "Retina" designator.  But in reality, the screen wasn't really noticeably better than my Galaxy S2.  But since I had to keep the Galaxy's screen on minimum brightness all the time to save energy, the iPhone's display wins :-)

Did I make the right choice?  Definitely.  We have a few other Apple devices in our family and aside from the above-mentioned benefits, my new iPhone integrates much better with these devices (e.g. AirPlay to our Apple TV).

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Samsung Galaxy SII and Ice Cream Sandwich

I gave up my iPhone 3GS last year for a Samsung Galaxy SII last year.  I previously described my experiences on my blog and am providing this update because I had high hopes that the new Android release (Ice Cream Sandwich - ICS) would help alleviate my main issue with with the Samsung Galaxy SII: it's horrible battery life.

After waiting months for AT&T and Samsung to make this release of Android available, it finally happened a week ago.  Although the upgrade was not available over-the-air, it was a relatively painless affair to do so via the desktop and Samsung's otherwise horrible Kies desktop software.  Other than losing all my direct-dial shortcuts and app icons from my home screens, everything seemed to have been preserved.  Has it been an improvement over the existing Android release?  I guess so - but not in huge ways.  There are still the duplicate/redundant applications (e.g. mail & gmail; AT&T Navigation & Google Navigation); some apps have different but not perceivably better layouts/menus (e.g. Google maps); many apps still don't use the standard Android "Menu" button (e.g. Words-with-Friends).

Did it improve my phone's horrendous battery life?  Not initially.  But I didn't expect it to happen on its own.  But I knew that ICS sported a new feature: the ability to "disable" some of the built-in apps.  So that's what I did.  Below is a list of the apps I disabled so far (via Settings->Applications->"All"):

  • Accuweather Weather Daemon
  • AT&T Navigator
  • Buddies Now
  • City ID
  • Exchange Services
  • Face Unlock
  • Home Screen Tips
  • Media Hub
  • MusicFX
  • News & Weather
  • Remote Controls
  • Social Hub (two entries??)
  • Swype
  • Talk
  • Yahoo!Finance
Some of these might be apps I installed, but most are built-in processes.  There are many other processes listed under "All", but since there's really no way of knowing which of these services are required for Android to function properly and which are optional, I had to guess.  If you know of more apps that can be deleted, please let me know and I'll add them to this list.

After disabling these apps, I also went to Settings->Accounts and sync and turned off auto-sync (on my phone the list of apps under this heading consisted of only two: Facebook and Google)...I have no idea what this menu actually does - even with it turned off, I still get notifications of mail arriving in my Google mail account - but I don't appear to be betting Facebook notifications.

After these changes, I tested the battery by no longer turning off wifi whenever I wasn't at a wifi location.  Lo and behold, my battery still lasted all day (well, it did go into the red once at 10:30pm, so it obviously still depends on where I move throughout the day)!  So I'm a bit more likely to keep my Galaxy S2 for the term of my contract (I was ready to give up on it already).

I may still eat the AT&T penalty and get the iPhone 5 when it comes out - because iOS is just more intuitive/consistent across all the applications (Apple's toolkits, style- and approval-guidelines are just more strict than Android's, I guess) and, most importantly, Apple, unlike Google, doesn't have to wait for the telecoms to make its system upgrades/improvements available to its phone customers and Apple doesn't allow those same companies to preload the phones with bloatware that can cause the slow-downs/resource drain my Galaxy obviously suffered from.  I will decide once I know how much better the iPhone 5 hardware is from the iPhone 4s.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Facebook - Heil to our new Data Overloard

As the Facebook train rumbles towards its potentially record-breaking IPO, I decided to play 'the boy who cried wolf' (all puns intended) and point out the danger that Facebook presents to the World Wide Web.

First, a little background.  Since the dawn of civilization, people have known that information is power.  Thus, throughout history, the folks in power have tried to limit dissemination of information in order to maintain or enhance their positions of importance.  Then, in the early 90's, a little thing called the World Wide Web came into existence and, with it, the possibility of ubiquitous access to the world's information.  As more and more data came online, companies that helped us find it flourished - the most successful of which, of course, being Google.  Google crawled the WWW, indexed all the information it was allowed to access using massive server farms so that when we entered our queries, it would instantaneously be able to point us to the web pages containing the desired information.  As the underlined statement suggests, there have always been "dark pools" of information - stuff which companies kept hidden behind firewalls or in proprietary databases.  But, by and large, the WWW was beginning to deliver on its promise of delivering data to everyone.

That is until the various "social network" companies came into being, chief among them Facebook.  These companies are accessed through the World Wide Web, but they represent the antithesis of the idea behind the Web.  The information in Facebook is not accessible to everyone.  Search engines cannot access it - unless you're logged into Facebook, you can't search for the pithy post a friend put up last week regarding your boss; you can't find that awesome picture you uploaded only a month ago for everyone to see.  Facebook is creating a gigantic "dark pool" of information.  It's balkanizing the Web.  On purpose.

Facebook and its ilk ask us to accept a devil's bargain: in return for letting us easily "share" our information with our friends, it asks us to give up sharing it with the rest of the world.  The reader's response might be: "What's the big deal? After all, everyone can get an account on Facebook."  That's certainly true.  But even a Facebook user doesn't have access to all user posted information - you have to be "friends" with someone to share information with them.  With 800million users, I'm reasonably certain that there's lots of interesting information on Facebook that I might find interesting/useful, but which I will never see - simply because the author wasn't a friend.  And, in most cases, the author - had he cared to think about it - probably wouldn't even have minded if it were shared with the world.

Is that what we really want?  To be beholden to Facebook for all the precious information you upload to it?  Are the alternatives to Facebook any better?  To be honest, I don't know.  Google recently started their own social site, Google+.  It has a nice user interface.  But not many of my friends & relatives have gone on it - pretty much for the reasons Facebook had hoped all along: they've already made a heavy investment in Facebook by uploading content there and all their friends are on Facebook doing the same thing.  But suppose Google+ could overcome this problem (they're trying really hard by integrating Google+ with their other services) - wouldn't they just become our new Data Overlord?  I suppose it depends on their policy toward the data you upload there. Google is already integrating Google+ information in its searches.  Will it allow other companies to search for the same data?  I have a feeling they would!  Not because I'm a big Google fan, but because they're asking other social network companies to let them search their databases - it would make sense for them to do the same thing.

But I have no doubt that Facebook would never share its data with Google.  It needs to keep this data to itself so it can maximize its ability to monetize on it.  After all, if the data were accessible to Google and other search engines, advertisers might send their dollars to them rather than to Facebook!