New Apple TV Experiences

I’ve now had the Apple TV for a week, and I’ve used it quite a bit since then. Being away from home for a month means it’s the only box plugged into the TV for doing anything. It’s therefore acting as our Netflix hub, the Plex interface for our home content and providing gaming entertainment for our son. I’m pleased to say that it’s been doing an excellent job of all of these tasks, although I’m not sure that it would replace our current solution at home – the Xbox One, which has the added advantage of having a tuner for live TV.

Siri works great, searching for movies, actors, genres or weird combinations of all three is fast and simple and it does a pretty good job of what me and my Scottish accent are saying. It is true that the Amazon Fire TV had the voice remote and searching first, but their software implementation was very basic in comparison to what is being offered here. The disappointing factor is that it doesn’t do more. No music integration should be embarrassing for them after the push for Apple Music over the past few months, and I also don’t understand why Siri neither talks back, or answers questions that she can on the iPhone or iPad. This was the opportunity for them to have a living room AI similar to what Amazon has with the Echo and it’s a chance they’ve so far squandered.

As I wrote before the Apple TV was released, the differentiator here is the App Store and the massive iOS development community. Nothing comes close these days to the number of active developers pushing out new software, and with the ATV being essentially the same iOS platform as all they are already used to, any other set top box is going to struggle to compete, even if most of them already have development environments of their own.

So far there are about 1500 apps, and a lot of them work really well. The most common so far has been games, and those are also what is sitting on top of the best seller lists. Many of these games work really well, something like Jetpack Joyride which only requires touching the screen on the iPad or iPhone easily translates to the single main button on the ATV controller. Even more complicated fare, like the twin stick shooter Geometry Wars, simplifies the gameplay when only the standard remote is available, but gives you the console like experience when you plug in a real controller.

If you really are going to play games on this thing, then a real controller is what you need. The SteelSeries Nimbus fills this hole admirably, providing you the two stick, 4 button Xbox / PS4 controller that you’re probably looking for. Once you have one of those, Geometry Wars plays like it should and Rayman becomes a real platform game rather than an endless runner. For the casual gamer with no console, or for somebody looking to replace their Wii as the family games machine, this could be a genuine option. Fire TV games tended to be poor Android ports, but already the choices here are more polished.

If Apple were truly serious about games though, they’d include a real controller in the box. They were selling the Nimbus next to the device itself in the store I visited, but that’s just not the same as bundling it in. Developers are forced to support the included remote, which just won’t work for a lot of titles. The concern is that it puts them off even trying to put their game on there, especially if proper controls are only available for a small set of users.

One thing that is impressive is that both the latest Skylanders and Disney Infinty titles are available, and not cut down versions either, the full console experiences. The graphics in Skylanders aren’t up to the Xbox One version, but the frame rate is still solid and frankly, our 4 year old didn’t even notice it was any different. None of those Android gaming boxes for your TV can claim to have the largest two family games out there.

On the negative side, the store is desperate for some better curation. It’s been a week and most of the editors picks haven’t changed at all, despite the constant stream of new apps being released. I understand that having categories and sections also doesn’t make sense when the number of apps is low, but I do already feel like I could be missing out on a lot of potentially useful apps because there is no easy way to find them.

All in all, I think it’s a great starting point. It’s fast, it’s nice to look at, the version of Plex is the best I’ve seen anywhere, and the games are already heading in the right direction. Let’s hope Apple puts the resources into it to help steer it on its way.

I’ve given up on the Apple Watch

I’ve given up on the Apple Watch. It’s been 2 months since I last wore it and any feelings of regret that I may have had from it not being on my wrist are now long gone.

It wasn’t really a slow burn down either, I just needed a break from the constant buzzing and took it off and decided not to wear it the next day. It’s just sat on the charger since, literally gathering dust.

Lack of granular notifications is certainly part of it. Some mail is important and getting it on my wrist is genuinely useful, but so much more of it is not and there’s no way to differentiate. Fitness data is nice, I enjoyed getting the occasional little rewards from it too, but I’m not sure having all that extra data has any real purpose. Apple, like every other fitness band manufacturer is doing nothing to provide insights into all the data you end up recording.

As for apps, I never used any of them. I just wasn’t interested in running anything on a screen that small. And despite all the demos that Apple have done showing what apps can do, I still can’t see any compelling reasons why my opinion on that is going to change.

So instead I’ve gone back to my stainless steel Fossil watch. I don’t need to charge it, it tells the time better and it doesn’t keep vibrating just because I got an email which really could be dealt with later.

Thoughts on Ad-Blockers

The release of iOS9 yesterday brings with it many things, but it’s the support for content blockers in Safari which has the Internet foaming at it’s collective mouth. That’s because those content blocker features are being used to create ad blockers, stripping away the very thing that’s paying for all the journalists, designers and developers who work for the sites you visit.

And it’s awesome.

And therein lies the problem for publishers everywhere, nobody at those sites is going to deny that’s not a significantly improved experience for users. Removing all those flashing banners, massive image downloads, poorly written Javascript and full site overlays results in a faster browsing experience with a reduction in data consumption of anything from 50-80% on some of the biggest sites on the web. That means that not only is ad-blocking making your browsing quicker, it’s also potentially saving you money in data charges.

There are those with a cynical view that this is a ploy by Apple to stop Google by attacking their business model, since they make their money through advertising and Apple make theirs by selling devices. That seems like a stretch, because it can’t be denied that supporting this kind of thing is good for it’s users, and that’s often the stick by which Apple likes to be measured. It’s also a stretch because on the desktop, every browser supports extensions like ad-blocking, and they can be found within Google’s own Chrome Extension store. So these aren’t a new thing, they’re just a new thing to the largest mobile browser.

In all honesty, I doubt that the number of people that will install an ad-blocker is going to be a particularly high percentage of the people who have an iOS device, and therefore the actual damage is going to be limited. But what it will hopefully do nonetheless is making the publishers take a look at what they’ve been shoving down the throats of users for the past few years, and realise that it’s only come to this because the experience is so poor. If 80% of the data that you’re transferring to one of your visitors is superfluous to the actual content the visitor came to see, then you have a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Your visitors are actually spending more money just to see your poorly constructed HTML palace.

Adapt or die is a phrase often thrown around by journalists when writing about the music industry or the movie industry, whenever one of them is trying to fight back against the march of technology, especially technology which brings users more choice and erodes at the control these behemoths have always had. Now that shoe is on the other foot, and it’s the publishers who are going to have to adapt or die. And if a bunch of them do disappear, apart from those that may find themselves out of work, is that going to be so bad for the consumer? We live in a world of massive Internet over-abundance. There are a million gaming blogs, technology blogs and general news sites, all writing about the same events, the same press releases, posting the same manufacturer supplied footage. Few will mourn the passing of these sites if they start disappearing. The ones that are left will find themselves with higher visitor numbers and a more unique proposition, something which they can sell directly and perhaps not rely on advertising. People always say that nobody is willing to pay for anything online, but that’s because there’s so many free alternatives, why would you. That trend could reverse in a hurry if the long tail of sites disappears.

Or perhaps somebody could just invent a form advertising that doesn’t cost my time, money and patience every time I see it. Stop showing me the same ad over and over again. Stop showing me ads for things I have absolutely no interest in (want to buy a car in a country you don’t live in? how about a pair of shoes that are the same as the ones you bought two months ago because the tracking cookies don’t know you purchased?). Good advertising should be like getting a recommendation from a friend. But most online advertising is from a stack em high, sell em cheap model. It’s mud against a million walls. As soon as I think the ads on a site might actually benefit me, allowing it to show me ads is only a button tap away.

And ultimately, maybe thats where we need to end up. I give you permission to show me your recommendations, because I know they’re not going to suck, and you will have curated them well for me and my tastes.

Or who knows, maybe the dead tree business will flourish again, when everybody returns to buying newspapers when they can no longer get anything online for free.

How the Apple TV can win the living room

The Apple rumour mill has now reached a conclusion; an updated Apple TV is finally (yes, I’m allowed to use the word finally) coming on September 9th.

It’s been a long time in the making. After years of speculation on the form it would take, whether it would actually be a TV or just another set-top box, whether it would have a cable-busting streaming service along with it, and exactly what Steve Jobs meant when he told Walter Isaacson that he had finally cracked it.

The smoke is billowing in the direction of it being a slightly larger device than the current Apple TV, but still very much a set-top box. No streaming service just yet, that’s more likely to come next year. The selling point is going to be the significantly upgraded hardware, software and remote, but most of all, apps.

I wrote years ago about how Apple could win the living room (a post I seem unable to find) if they would simply offer an Apple TV with an app store. It seems they are finally ready to make that happen. The Roku is a fine little box, the Fire TV is the same, but neither of them have thriving app eco-systems. They both have the same fare, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Plex, MLB… nothing too exciting. On the gaming front, a few badly ported Android games make up the bulk of what the Fire TV has to offer, hardly anything that’s going to send shivers down the spines of those in the corridors of Sony and Microsoft.

But an Apple TV, now that really has the opportunity to shake things up. The shrine of Apple, despite the best attempts of their competitors, are where most of the top app developers now worship. Strong developer tools, regular updates, good documentation and three platforms that share a common core has allowed developers to quickly take advantage of each new product Apple has introduced. The Apple Watch, for all I’ve found the apps to be a total non-starter for me, had hundreds of the things within the first few days. The introduction of a fourth product into that list, backed by tvOS and the same core, will mean a gold rush of apps hitting the platform within the first few months.

Apps are the difference between a successful platform and a failed platform. Once consumers start seeing all the things their TV can now do, and if they can do it with Siri, the same assistant they’re already used to on their phone, then it’ll win out over it’s competitors.

The XBone and PS4 both have app stores, but they’re still much more of a closed eco-system than the Apple one, and their higher price point and image as being “for gamers” put them on a different footing. And when it comes to that market, it’s unlikely the hardcore gamers are going to be switching over to the Apple TV any time soon. But the casual market and family markets? The market where Skylanders is king and their last full game already runs on an iPad just fine – that’s where they should be worried. Nintendo, even more so.

What will be the make or break will be the remote. You’ll get a real sense of what Apple expect people to do with this when that’s revealed. Exactly who they’re targeting. Don’t discount that the aforementioned Skylanders for the iPad actually comes with a perfectly serviceable Bluetooth controller, but if the new Apple TV remote looks just the same as the current one, you know they’re not going for the gaming market directly. If it has some form of motion control, touch pad or a significant number of physical buttons, perhaps with the ability to hold it sideways to make it more gamer friendly – you’ll know they’re firing a clear shot across the gaming parapets. After market third, or even first, party controllers are one thing, but if you really want the device to make a dent, and want developers to care, you need a pack-in remote that satisfies 90% of what casual gamers need. If I can’t play Clash of Clans on this thing, they’re shooting too low.

Games, apps, social media, pack an HDMI pass-through into this thing for iMessage popups over your existing TV signal, sell an external iSight camera for Facetime on the big screen, let me ask Siri to play the Apple music of my choice from sitting on my couch – the opportunities here are endless. They have the eco-system, they have the technology, they’ve spent almost a decade putting all the pieces together, now they just have to take the ball and get it into the end zone.

Next weeks event might be the traditional iPhone event, but the ATV has the potential to be the biggest Apple story of the year.

Apple Watch Experiences

I speculated before the Apple Watch was announced, and apart from the high end pricing, I think I came pretty close to what was ultimately released. It’s been 5 months now, and I’ve had my own Sport Edition since May, so it feels time to write about it again.

As a Pebble user since the original Kickstarter, and a happy one at that, the Apple Watch wasn’t a difficult purchase decision. I even switched from an Android handset back to an iPhone 6S so that I could use it. But the common question I get whenever people see me with it is “any good?” and even after 4 months, I’m still not sure I have a good answer.

Notifications are the bread and butter of the smart watch world, that was my main use case for the Pebble, and continues to be my main use case for the Apple Watch. I get a lot of server notifications from our Nagios monitoring system throughout the day, and getting those on my watch is genuinely useful. As are WhatsApp notifications when my wife is asking me to pick up milk, or when my NAS finishes downloading a file. For those apps that extend their notifications to be actionable, being able to approve my Duo Security two-factor push notifications without taking the phone out of my pocket is also great.

Battery life is also just fine, always making it through a day without a problem, almost two days at a push. I don’t find the user-interface confusing or difficult to understand, but I do sometimes find force touch unresponsive and I had to ratchet the Taptic engine up to full strength before I could feel alerts properly. The fitness features aren’t much more comprehensive than the Garmin fitness tracker I wore before, and in the area of actually being a clock, yes it tells the time just fine.

And now we’ve reached that point where I’m unsure what else to say about it. Not everyone is going to find notifications helpful, and even the most basic Casio watch can tell the time just fine. Apple call this the most personal product they’ve ever made, but I don’t think that’s because everyone can see it on your body, I think it’s because it’s usefulness is so varied from person to person.

I have a whole bunch of apps installed, but I never feel any reason to launch any of them. The slowness of launch and the random failures of not launching at all is definitely a factor in that, issues that I would hope are resolved by Watch 2.0 later this year, but even if they launched instantly, I’m still not sure what I do with them. Holding up the Shazam app to identify a song from your wrist is cool, but I find Shazam only useful about twice a year as it is. I don’t need to know the weather often enough that I need it right there at all times, and I never have a reason to follow directions, set alarms or timers, check stocks or view my Instagram feed on a tiny display.

For all intents and purposes, the entire screen of apps is pointless to me. Much the same as it was on the Pebble. I’ve used the directions once, and it worked pretty well, using different styles of tap on my wrist so I could tell when it wanted me to go left or right without looking at the screen – but the experience wasn’t that much better than just holding my phone out in front of me.

A whole button for communication? Never needed to use it. Ability to send drawings to other Apple Watch users? Don’t know anybody else with one. Apple Pay? Super futuristic when you use it, hobbled by lack of contactless payments at the shops I visit, and the £20 limit when I do. Siri? Something I wish was smarter, but constantly mis-understands me, or can’t do what I want anyway.

It doesn’t paint a rosy picture of a device that starts at £300.

Yet I put it on every day, and I like my notifications, and I miss it when it’s not on. That’s the real reason it’s personal, because it’s mine and I don’t want to give it away.

Just don’t ask me if it’s any good, because I still don’t think I have a good answer for you.

Apple Watch Speculation

The Apple Watch event may only be a little over 24 hours away, but that still leaves us with plenty time for idle speculation.

Like Gruber, I think it’s a lot of fun to play the guessing game, but unlike him, I don’t think the Apple Watch is going to have the stratospheric price points Twitter has been counjouring up over the past few months.

At first, I really believed all the comments that the tech-press was was going to have a shit-fit over the pricing, when it was finally announced. That the solid gold versions were going to be priced like luxury watches from Rolex, and come in at $10,000 and above. But further thought has lead me to believe that this is all wrong, because Apple are just not Rolex, and you don’t become them simply by releasing an expensive watch. Ford can’t become Bentley just because they release a Focus with a fancier leather and wood interior.

Collectors of luxury watches are not simply buying them because they’re made of gold, they’re buying them because they’re made by companies with a long history of craftsmanship. Hand built mechanisms with finely tuned components that will last your lifetime and beyond, heirlooms for future generations, an investment as much as a timepiece. An Apple Watch, mass-produced in a Chinese factory does not meet that criteria, and wrapping it in a gold box does not change that. Even if that model is assembled in the USA, the comparison is still not the same, since the expensive model is just the cheap model in a different outer. Those with a real interest in watches will find the Apple Watch crass.

And, even if they didn’t, Apple are also woefully under-prepared for selling that luxury. A man of gentry does not buy his timepiece from a spotty kid standing next to another customer buying a pink iPhone case. I can certainly believe it possible that Apple could create a special carpeted back-room for the sole purpose of purchasing one of these theft-magnets, but it would feel so out of place with the rest of what they do it would almost feel tone-deaf to their customer base.

And that’s my main argument against the high pricing, Apple is not a luxury brand. In the tech world, it may have a reputation for high prices, but that’s because most of their competitors are racing towards the bottom of the market as they try and stay relevant. Their rivals often chosen cheapness as a USP rather than quality or invention. Instead, Apple is a brand of the people. It is an aspirational brand, no doubt, but it makes products for everyone, and even high end devices like a Macbook Pro with their useful life of five years or more can be seen as a good value proposition versus buying a new Cheapbook every 18 months because the hinges broke, or the battery failed, or Windows has become unusable. There are many who will argue against that fact, who will always see them as just an expensive brand for snobs, but their success over the past decade is based on their wide range of customers, like the families that fill their stores, all of whom recognise the inherent value of quality design and integration.

Gruber quotes the section from the Apple website discussing the manufacturing effort which goes into one of their bands as a sign that they have to be expensive. To me, that just reads like typical Apple marketing copy, no different from their single piece of aluminium in the Macbooks, or the way the glass bonds to the screen in the iPhone. It’s part of that same affordable luxury message, and what allows them to convince you that $349 and above is a good price for a smartwatch, rather than Pebble’s $99.

I simply don’t believe that there’s a market for selling $10,000 smartwatches. Sure, the Kanye Wests of the world would be the first to show off their gold edition, but Apple didn’t build their business on that kind of customer. That is not an aspirational price, that is a ridiculed price. And in a world where most people have given up wearing a watch completely (largely thanks to the iPhone), and most of whom did before were unlikely to spend more than a couple of hundred dollars on one, I’m not sure how much market there is for a $1000 one either.

Which is why I think the top end models, even gold, will be more like $2500. I expect that top end to be more like a Mac Pro than a Rolex.

In the middle, the Steel, is probably priced like an iPhone, ignoring the irony of an accessory costing more than the item it’s an accessory for. Somewhere in the $500-$600 range.

And then at the bottom, we know, $349.

All of these models will have a number of straps available which will no doubt push the price further. A gold link strap for the gold edition is probably another $500-$1000 on it’s own. But the base prices, I think they’re all going to be much more sane than we’ve been lead to believe.

At $349, with the option of paying $100-$150 more for a nice metal strap, I think that’s a nice business to be in, with the potential for selling a lot of watches as you drive the pricing down to closer to $199 or $249 in year 2 or 3. But I question how much life there is in even a $600 watch business, let alone a $1000 one. It simply doesn’t smell right.