Archive for the ‘Consumer technology’ Category

Apple iPhone & Apple TV improvements

Phil Windley couldn’t have summed up my own thinking better:

In all the years I’ve owned mobile phones, not one ever got better as it aged. The iPhone has gotten better three times now and promises to do so in the future.

My upgrade was seamless and two new features were ones that have a significant impact on usability. The first was the pseudo-GPS feature. I was very surprised that it worked from my house Where I was connected via WiFi, since my house isn’t a public hot spot. Is it GPS? No. Is it good enough? Absolutely. The second feature is the ability to have web sites show up as buttons on the home page. There are three sites that I visit regularly on my iPhone: Gyminee, SportsTap, and Facebook. While navigating through bookmarks wasn’t that difficult, navigating to them with at most two touches (home button and an icon tap) is superb. It was only about two weeks ago that the thought of having buttons on the home page for web sites occurred to me, and now great that Apple’s provided it.

The only thing I’d still like to have is a native (not web-based) instant messaging client. I rarely use SMS, so multiuser SMS isn’t a big deal for me. With the SDK due out in a month, I’m sure an “approved” IM client will appear in short order. There’s only two reasons I can think of for why it doesn’t exist. First, SMS generates revenue for AT&T, IM will not. Second, IM could be a drain on battery life. I don’t know the first thing about the IM protocols and how often it would require the phone to be sending data for an “always on” approach, but I do know that my old Motorola V360 had it, so it can’t possibly be that significant.

The other interesting announcement was the Apple TV Take Two. I’m hoping to get HD into my house in the spring, and with the new announcements, I’m now including AppleTV into my budget. I had previously said that the key to success would be adding video rentals, and it’s now happened. I’ll admit that I was a bit concerned about the 24 hour rental time limit, but the caveat that it’s 24 hours from when you start watching it helps a bit. I’d still like to see this longer, as I’ve watched movies in 30-minute segments during my daily workout, but at least I can rent 2 movies before a trip somewhere and watch one on the flight out and one on the flight back. I still think it would be cool if Apple would embed the Apple TV into an actual TV, but that’s a pretty crowded market right now. I also wish they would have lowered the price of the 160GB model. But, they’ve made just enough changes to convince me to get one in the near future.

Making Apple TV Better

I just saw this article on AppleInsider which stated (not surprisingly) that first year Apple TV sales are coming in far below expectations. While I am definitely an Apple fan, I don’t currently own an Apple TV. I also don’t own a HDTV, but, if I did, the key to me purchasing the device would be video rentals.

Right now, as it currently stands, Apple TV is not a good value proposition for me. First off, I’ve only purchased one video from the iTunes store, and that was because something got screwed up on the DVR and my wife wound up missing an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. I already pay enough for my satellite TV, and am not about to drop it in favor of purchasing individual shows via iTunes. On top of that, the only physical video media I’ve purchased have been kids DVDs. I have, however, rented a few movies. More often than not, this has been associated with some plane travel where I’d really just like to put it on my iPhone. I’ve never done the NetFlix thing, but I think something without a due date but with restrictions on number of times it can be viewed would work best. Trying to find 2+ hours to watch a movie with three young kids running around the house is all but impossible.

The second feature that I’d like to see would be a device that would only be a streaming video recipient that could hook up to the TV. How I really want my video to work is to have one central server that has all of my video and can then stream it to any TV in the house. I’d rather not have to have computers hooked up to each one, however. Take Apple TV, strip out the hard drive, leaving just the HDMI out and the wireless connectivity, and now it’s at least getting tempting. You could either use it in conjunction with Apple TV (if you need external storage of your video) or simply with iTunes on a Mac/PC in your house. It would be the video equivalent to AirPort Express where it connected to your stereo system.

In reality, the best scenarion would if Apple would release a real Apple TV as a competetively priced 42″ or 46″ 1080p LCD TV to the higher end competition that contained a hard drive and wireless capabilities. While I doubt they’d do it, Apple could OEM it to other manufacturers, since the integration with the display should be pretty standard at this point and not get in the way of the user experience. Add in DVR capabilities, the ability to sync recorded programs on the DVR with iTunes so I can move them to my iPod/iPhone or watch them on another computer or TV, and the ability to auto-tune my satellite receiver, and I’d be all over it. Who knows, maybe Steve will announce something close at the next MacWorld.

Dish DVR Upgrade

Last night, my wife asked me how to get to the timers on our DVR from Dish Network. This was somewhat surprising, as we’ve had our DVR for over 6 years now, and I knew that my wife knew where the appropriate menus were. It turns out that Dish Network upgraded the software on their DVRs sometime between Monday night and Tuesday night. While the upgrade added some great features that bring the DVR much closer to technology that Tivo provides, the way it happened was a good case in poor customer service.

Focusing in on the bad news, the fact that this software upgrade was occurring was unknown to us. Dish Network has my email address, and it’s associated with my account, so there’s no reason why I couldn’t have received an email telling me that this upgrade was going to occur. I have no idea if there were any messages about the upgrade on channel 101 or any of the other channels that provide help about the Dish Network hardware, but that would have been a pretty poor way of communicating it because I can’t remember the last time I tuned to those channels. The bigger problem, however, is that the upgrade wiped out all of our timers on one of our two DVRs (the second DVR still had the timer). This meant that the show we normally record on Tuesday nights didn’t get recorded. The fact that the little red recording light wasn’t on when it should have been was what clued us in. Had we not happened to notice it, we probably would have lost Wednesday night programs as well. So, the impact was relatively minor, but still inconvenient.

On the bright side, Dish has finally upgraded their software so that it is more resilient to programming schedule changes, etc. It used to be that recording was strictly time and channel based. While it would capture the name of the show currently scheduled to be on, if that show got moved, you’d miss it. This also meant reseting all timers at the new season for shows that changed their time slot. Now, they properly leverage the program guide so you can select shows by name or by keyword, select whether you want only new episodes or all episodes, and it will automatically create events regardless of when the show is on any particular week. About the only problem that still isn’t resolved is what to do with shows that follow sporting events. I’m a big fan of The Amazing Race, which is scheduled to air at 7 PM Central Time. This past Sunday, it didn’t start until almost 8 PM due to the NFL game that was on CBS that afternoon. Because the program guide never updates to reflect these delays, the timer doesn’t shift accordingly. My solution for the problem is to record for 2 hours rather than 1. I suspect this will still be the case, but I’ll find out the next Sunday that CBS has a late game.

Now if Dish would only allow me to pull the shows off the DVR via USB or other connection for playback on my iPhone or iPod, I’d be really happy. Until then, there’s always the Neuros MPEG4 Recorder.

More on Music eReader

With the added attention on eReader’s with Amazon’s Kindle announcement, I thought I’d actually do a little bit of research and see if an eReader for sheet music actually exists. It turns out there is one, the MusicPad Pro Plus from Freehand Systems. Unfortunately, it costs $899, which seems horribly overpriced to me, especially for a device with only 192MB of memory. You could buy a cheap laptop for less than this. While it has a touch screen and some features that are specific to reading sheet music, it still doesn’t justify it costing 2-3 times that of the book eReaders from Amazon and Sony. While some professional musicians could afford this as shown in their case studies, it doesn’t work for the Sunday singer like me. I’ll at least keep an eye on it and hope the price comes down.

Music eReader

I was just reading a review of the new Sony Reader, and it reminded me of what I’d really like to see: an eReader for sheet music. I sing in a church choir every Sunday, and lug two large choral books, plus a paperback choral book with me. It never fails, however, that my father-in-law will pick out a song that morning for which I have an octavo with parts, but that octavo is sitting in a file cabinet back home. Personally, I would love to be able to simply download octavos/sheet music, stick in the memory of an eReader, and just carry that to church every Sunday. It should be able to store far more songs that the typical hymnal, and always allow me to have the music I need.

There are two challenges with this given what I read about the Sony technology. First, the two+ second delay to turn a page would be unacceptable. When you’re singing, you can’t pause for two seconds. Second, the device is not music aware. That is, if I’m singing from an octavo, the refrain may be on the second or third page, and there may be a repeat symbol that sends me back to it from page 6 or 7. While I’ve never used one, I’m guessing that the Sony Reader primarily supports single page turns. I would need something where I could simply tap on the repeat symbol and have it automatically jump back to the page where it needs to go. Of course, the more likely solution would be to simply store music without repeats (i.e. cut and paste the refrain to everywhere it appears), because there’s really no way for the eReader to know what verse you happen to be singing. Without knowing that, it wouldn’t know when to take first or second endings, for example. I’m sure I could work around this as the technology evolves, though.

So, I’m giving up my idea in the hopes that someone may read this and actually try to build such a device. It would certainly be worth it to me, and I’m guessing there a lot of Sunday church singers that could find it valuable as well!

Gift idea: Neuros MPEG 4 Recorder

It’s holiday shopping season, so I thought I would give some kudos to a product I picked up earlier this year, the Neuros MPEG 4 recorder. It’s a small device that accepts composite video (sorry, no hi def) via the included cable and encodes it to a MPEG-4 file on a CF or SD card. I then simply drag it into iTunes for playback on my iPhone or iPod. While I was initially using it for video on plane trips, now I use it for video while I churn away on the elliptical machine in the fitness center. My DVR doesn’t allow access to the files, so this fills the gap. I considered getting an EyeTV, but in my house, the satellite DVRs are the “master video source.” The only glitch I had is that UltraII CF cards don’t work well. Once I switched to a Kingston CF card, it has worked like a charm. Check it out at Amazon or at Neuros Technology.

The pains of being an early adopter

Steve Jobs and Apple cut the price of the 8GB iPhone to $399 from the $599 that I paid for it. This is a very unusual move by Apple, as they traditionally have not changed their price points, but instead, offered more limited capabilities at a lower price point. I think it is a smart move, however, as it puts the price point at a much a closer level to phones that are considered its competitor. Unfortunately, I bought my iPhone on day 1, but I’m not going to complain. Sure, I’d love to have that $200 back, but the ultimate question we all must ask is whether or not the money spent has been worth it. For me, it’s a resounding yes.

As for other announcements, the key question is whether people will choose to keep their old cellphone and get the iPod touch. Personally, if I were buying an iPod, I’d certainly go for the iPod touch, regardless of whether or not I wanted the Wi-Fi web browsing. The quality of the video is a no-brainer and at least for my use, 16GB would be fine. On the topic of Wi-Fi, however, I have to admit that the only time I use Wi-Fi on my phone is at home, and on the rare occurrence that I’m in a restaurant with free Wi-Fi. Probably 95% of my usage is over the EDGE network, so the Wi-Fi capabilities isn’t as important to me. But, given that there’s probably a large contingent of iPod owners in the 17-24 range that are leveraging the Wi-Fi capabilities of their university or college, I’m sure this will be a big win.

SOA in the home

I’ve previously posted on SOA in the home. Well, Peter Rhys Jenkins of IBM is doing it. I heard him speak once in St. Louis and he was very entertaining. Anyway, here’s the article on what’s he doing in his house.

Is Apple in the home like Microsoft in the enterprise?

I was just having a discussion with someone regarding Apple’s recovery over the last ten years and what the future holds for them when it dawned on me that there are parallels (sorry, no pun intended) between Microsoft’s efforts in the server-side space in the enterprise and Apple’s efforts in the home.

There’s no doubt that Apple’s strategy has always been about having end-to-end control of the entire platform, from hardware to software. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, with the clear disadvantage being market share, but the advantages being user experience. On the Microsoft side, when they entered into the enterprise market, and this still holds true today, it’s really about getting as much Microsoft software there as possible. They would like to own the software platform from end-to-end.

The parallel in this is that when Microsoft moved beyond the desktop, where they had nearly all of the market share, they suddenly had to deal with a heterogeneous environment rather than a homogenous one. Microsoft’s strategy is not one of integration, however, it is about replacement. Over time, they’ve had to yield to the fact that integration will always be necessary, and that many infrastructures are too well established to incur the cost of a migration to an all Microsoft environment. That being said, Microsoft would be happy to take your money and do it, and they still continue to position their products so that thought is in the back of your mind. I don’t know of anyone who would argue with the statement that Microsoft solutions work best in an all-Microsoft environment. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work really well in a heterogeneous environment, it simply says that if you want the best Microsoft has to offer, you have to go 100% Microsoft.

Now let’s talk about Apple. I’d argue that the state of the market for the integrated, intelligent home is around the same point (maybe a bit less mature) that enterprise infrastructures were when the whole middleware rage occurred in the 90’s. Companies were just starting to realize the potential and the importance of integrating their disparate systems. Today, consumers are just starting to realize the potential of integrating the technology in their houses. I’m not going to make any predictions about when it will become mainstream, as they’re usually wrong, but I do think it’s safe to say that the uptake is definitely increasing in slope rather than remaining flat. Apple is in a very similar position to Microsoft. The home is a heterogeneous environment. Apple works best in an all Apple environment. Will Apple take a path similar to Microsoft to where they integrate where they have to, but are really focused on getting a foot in the door and then it’s all about more Apple? Or will there be careful decisions on where the strategy is about integration and where the strategy is about extending the platform? To date, I think they’ve done the latter. We don’t see an Apple-branded TV, instead we have a set top box that talks to TVs.

The biggest factor may not be what Apple does, but what everyone else does. Microsoft continues to gain market share in the enterprise because integration of heterogeneous environment is still a painful exercise. As look as there is pain in integration, there’s always opportunity for platform-based approaches to gain ground. Integration in consumer technologies is certainly a different beast, as there are standards and a certain level of status-quo. It’s not a painful effort to hook up stereo components from multiple vendors. At the same time, however, it’s ripe for improvements in the experience, case in point, the 100+ button remote control associated with most receivers. Likewise, the standards change all too often. Back when digital camcorders came out, Apple had a big win with integration with iMovie that no one else had. Over the past 8 years however, the digital camcorder manufacturers have changed formats to the point where you can’t say whether a digital camcorder will work with iMovie or not. It just shows that if you don’t control the platform end-to-end, your entire strategy can fall apart quickly based upon those pieces outside of your control.

I think Apple’s taking a very careful approach on what problems to tackle and when. The one thing I’m sure of is that Apple’s presence in the consumer will make the next 10 years in the home very exciting. While one could argue that the availability of the Internet in the home started the process of the demand increasing at a faster pace, I also think you can that Apple’s products, more so than any other consumer products company, have enabled that pace to continue to increase.


This blog represents my own personal views, and not those of my employer or any third party. Any use of the material in articles, whitepapers, blogs, etc. must be attributed to me alone without any reference to my employer. Use of my employers name is NOT authorized.