Some Thoughts on the Next Apple TV

According to the folks at 9 to 5 Mac, we could be getting a new Apple TV in the first half of this year.

From 9 to 5 Mac:

The reference is inside of an Apple TV framework related to the device’s AirPlay functionality. The mention of the next Apple TV is the highlighted “AppleTV4,1.” The current Apple TV is “AppleTV3,2? while “3,1? is the 1080P model introduced in March 2012, and 2,1 is the first iOS model introduced in September 2010.

The most current version of the Apple TV, the 2012 model, runs on a single-core Apple A5 and contains 512 MB of RAM and 8 GB of storage. In terms of processing power and memory, it comes in near the iPhone 4S or the iPad 2.

With games and apps becoming more demanding, those specs aren’t going to fly if Apple plans to do more with the Apple TV. Now’s the time to significantly update the company’s “hobby” box.

Obviously, upgraded hardware is important. I think Apple will bring the next Apple TV in line with the iPhone 5S and iPad Air. If we’re going to get apps and games — especially games that give consoles a run for their money — the next Apple TV will need more powerful guts.

Can Apple beef up the specs and still keep the price at $99? That’s the big question. I wouldn’t put it past the company to work some magic, but this could be a $149 or $199 Apple TV.

If that’s the case, we might see the current 2012 model stay at $99 for those who only want to stream music, movies and TV shows.

As for the rumor about the TV tuner — that is entirely possible. With HDMI-in, the Apple TV can act as a sort of “middle man” and pass content from a cable or satellite box through to a TV; the perk being that we interact with an Apple user interface instead of the default cable box UI.

I believe that Apple, at one time, wanted to play a bigger part in delivering live TV content. Unfortunately, it’s an enormous industry that is extremely resistant to change. The pass-through model (that is also used by the Xbox One) is probably the best we’re going to do for a while.

WWDC is coming this June, so Apple could either announce before that (say, March or April) or at the conference itself. Then we’ll see what Apple really has planned for TV.

A Relaunch, of Sorts

I last published something to this blog on December 5, 2012.

Since then, I’ve barely stopped by to blow away the dust, much less share anything with the world. I do plenty of writing elsewhere, but that’s a poor excuse to let the cobwebs creep in.

So here I am, broom at the ready.

I’ve made a few changes to the site. I’m also working on an “Disclosures” page that lays out past tech-related employers/clients and the devices I use personally. It’s just a good thing to do, and I’m a bit late to the game in doing it.

The content here will be mostly tech-related, though I reserve the right to venture off topic occasionally. And I’m sure some of you are aware that covering tech isn’t my only job — it’s actually not even my full-time job. Forty hours of my week are spent working with intellectually disabled adults at CPARC, and I plan to help push that organization’s message somewhere. Just not here.

Now, let’s make this place look less abandoned, shall we?

Thoughts on CAT & Google Transit

I became a resident of the city in November 2010 (yes, I just celebrated my 28th birthday and 2nd Burgday, I suppose). In my short time here, I’ve learned that, despite the city’s very well-documented troubles, there is quite a bit around to be thankful for. This includes the city’s wide-reaching transit system, CAT.

I’ve used CAT a number of times — when my car was being fixed, or when heading downtown, for example — and, aside from late buses, my experiences have been good. That said, “good” doesn’t become “great” by resting on its laurels. There are ways the system could be improved to entice new riders and make life easier for those who already use it. In the case of this one, there isn’t really a purchase necessary, other than the price of someone’s time to make it happen.

Google Transit

I’ve harped on this quite a bit. CAT needs to get its routes into Google Transit. Through the miracle that is Gmail search, I was able to track down an email I sent to CAT back in February 2011 in which I suggested the agency look into Google’s free transit mapping solution. The response I received back then from a Mr. Tom Collins was, “Currently, there are no plans to add our routes to Google Transit…..” Just for kicks, I tried to get transit directions between two locations in the city last night, to no avail. Almost two years later, it looks like nothing has changed in terms of CAT’s plans.

To be fair, putting together the data feed necessary for CAT’s routes to show up in Google Transit would likely require a significant time investment. This is because CAT currently operates its routes on “timepoints”; major stops are the only ones that have an arrival/departure time listed, though there are many stops in between these timepoints. To put together a Google Transit feed that provided real value to CAT riders, CAT would have to enter every single bus stop in the city — not just timepoints — as well as which buses went by those stops, and at what times.

If done correctly, a rider could enter two city addresses into Google Transit — let’s say, my old apartment to the Colonial Park Mall — and be told that a bus arrives at the stop at 3rd & Graham at 1:08 PM, and stops near 3rd & Forster around 1:18 PM. You can then hop off of that bus and (if you’re lucky), catch the bus coming north on 3rd on its way to Colonial Park. Pulling off such a trip now requires that you know where the non-timepoint bus stops are, as well as which buses travel on the routes you need, and when they arrive at the stops. For most people, this means experimentation (hope you have lots of quarters) and a willingness to stare long and hard at PDF documents.

By the way: if you would prefer to just go to the Transfer Center and wait for the Colonial Park bus, your arrival time for the mall jumps from 1:30 PM to 2:15 PM. Get ready to play lots of Angry Birds while you wait.

I happen to think that CAT would be a more viable option for many if they had all of this information in front of them and easy accessible. For those simply looking at CAT’s overly simplified timepoint schedules, a trip like the one above might look like a multi-hour ordeal when it really doesn’t have to be.

Anyway, just thoughts.

(and wow, I posted something.)

The Evening Edition Approach

The more options you have, the more you think.

The more you’re thinking, the more you aren’t doing.

It is one of life’s great illusions; that it is a sign of freedom to have so much choice. But when the choices are inconsequential — what kind of cereal you’re going to buy, for instance — it is the exact opposite of freedom. You are a slave to the decision-making process. It’s true while you’re in the grocery store. It’s true when you turn on the TV and are so overwhelmed with choice that you watch nothing. Sometimes, it is a relief to take the only thing you are offered and move along, especially when you have other things to do with your time. This is why I’m extremely fascinated by Mule Design’s Evening Edition project.

One page. A snack-sized look at the day’s top news stories, published at 5PM PST. ReadWriteWeb’s Jon Mitchell commented, “A Web design studio built the first news site I’ve ever read from top to bottom two days in a row, and it did so as a side project.” It’s true. Mule Design is a Web design company at heart; in fact, you might be familiar with one of its designs (which doesn’t do much to espouse simplicity but is an enormous improvement over the previous design).

What Mule’s Evening Edition project does differently is that it targets ordinary content consumers, and it could care less about the numbers. It gives those who just want to quickly catch up on the news a way to do so without dozens of menu options, and without having to click through multiple pages to get the gist of the story. It is extremely functional because, from the start, it tosses out the benchmarks used by every other media site for success: page impressions, clicks, social shares, etc. Those benchmarks can become a site’s obsession, and lead it to make a lot of really bad choices (how user friendly are those multi-page slideshows?). You might push those pageview numbers up a percent, but you’re also taking an enormous crap on your readers.

The Evening Edition format looks more the format that belongs on the front page of a news site or a blog. Let those who simply want to find out what happened in the world do so, and do so quickly. Provide an avenue for those who want to dig deeper. Basically, provide the same service a low-tech, traditional newspaper provides. Offer a good experience, and you’re more likely to get a daily visit. It’s strange that a few steps back can be seen as innovative, but in 2012, where ridiculous linkbait headlines and cheap pageview pumping are the norm, it is just that.

Seriously, how wonderful is this?

Enabling Chrome to Mobile for your iPhone and iPad

For those who have installed the new Chrome app on your iDevices, you now have access to one of the features I really loved when I had an Android phone: Chrome to Mobile. Of course, before Google made Chrome available to users in the iOS universe, the feature was called Chrome to Phone, as was the extension that needed to be installed in your desktop Chrome browser.

If you’ve been clicking the Chrome to Phone button and wondering why your Web pages aren’t popping up on your iPhone or iPad, I’ll save you a little bit of trouble: uninstall the Chrome to Phone extension.

Google decided to (wisely) change the way the extension works and, in the process, also renamed it; a nod to the fact that it also works with devices that aren’t phones. It seems they didn’t really make a point to tell anyone, though. So you’ll have to download the new extension.

Click here to visit the Chrome app store and install the new Chrome to Mobile extension.

After you install the new extension and sync it up with your Google account, you’re pretty much set. If you haven’t already, you’ll need to sign into mobile Chrome using your Google account, and the Chrome to Mobile feature will be enabled automatically. Now, when you visit a site on your desktop and you want to send it to your iPhone or iPad, you can click the tiny mobile phone icon on the right side of Chrome’s address/search box. You’ll be asked which device you’d like to send the page to, and then it’ll be zapped over instantly. See my demo video below for an example.

The Twitter & Pocket Experiment

One of the things I really hated losing when Google started its Google+ push was the sharing feature inside Google Reader. Over the course of a few years, I had developed a pretty good list of users to follow, and I barely had to read my own feeds, as they were reading and sharing all of the good stuff. That feature was dropped, and it forced me to start sifting through content on my own.

Fast forward to tonight. I had been wanting to completely wipe out my Reader subscriptions and start from scratch, and I finally did it. Right around that same time, I was poking around and checking out the new features of IFTTT. When I saw I could create a trigger from a friend’s tweet that contains a link, the gears started turning. Could I potentially replace the Google Reader shared articles functionality by automatically saving links from Twitter?

So tomorrow, I kick off a one-day experiment to see how well the 1,000+ people I follow curate content. Every link tweeted out by someone I follow will be saved as a new item in my Pocket account, where I can read it on my own time without having to keep my head submerged in the Twitter stream, or go through a bunch of feeds myself. There will always be items I’m not interested in, but my biggest concern at this point is the sheer number of links that will likely accumulate. I’ll take a screenshot tomorrow. It’ll probably be frightening.

Check back tomorrow for results.

Scratching the Surface

So, the Microsoft Surface.

There are some reasons to be very excited about Microsoft’s jump into the tablet wars. There are also reasons to shelve whatever optimism you have about the product. It’s apparent that Microsoft is taking a few pages out of the Apple playbook. My beef: it isn’t taking enough of them.

Look at yesterday’s event. For the number of great products Microsoft has put out over the years, not one event has experienced the buildup and excitement that Apple generates, particularly because Microsoft never tries. For Apple, a product unveil is a well-orchestrated affair. It’s drama. It’s watching an elaborate magic trick and feeling legitimate excitement during the prestige. Microsoft launches… not so much.

But Redmond shook things up this time around. It added some mystery to the event. It intrigued. It had the tech press abuzz in a way it hasn’t been able to achieve for a long time. And when it pulled the curtain away and showed off the Surface, a lot of people liked what they saw. And, from what I’ve seen, without specs to go off of or any kind of feel for the device, it looks very nice. The Metro UI is great — I’m a fan of it on Windows Phone 7 — and the keyboard covers are nice additions.

I fear, though, the devices will suffer from the same issues that have plagued past Microsoft products, as well as other tablets that have tried to take on the iPad:

  • Inconsistent, confusing branding
  • A focus on features instead of use cases
  • No compelling reason to choose over an iPad
  • Microsoft is releasing two versions of Surface, each run by a different architecture, each packing different operating system features, and each with a different full product name. Simplicity is not Microsoft’s forte.

    One of the big missteps Android tablet manufacturers make is that they sell features instead of use cases. Look at any Apple ad. They aren’t selling the processor or RAM. They’re selling the experience. Microsoft needs to do this. I don’t think they will.

    Consumers have given two past platforms a shot to build up developer support, and have been bitten by both; the HP TouchPad was discontinued, and the BlackBerry PlayBook is dead in the water. Microsoft will now attempt to woo devs to Metro for tablets. If Microsoft can’t get developers on board, consumers won’t have many compelling reasons to pass on an iPad, or even an Android tablet.

    Microsoft channeled as much Apple as it could for its big day, but when it came time to offer up details, there weren’t many to be had. This is a place Microsoft needs to improve. Apple can build buzz and capitalize on it with quick launches. Microsoft (and Google does this too) tips its hand months in advance and releases the product after the furor has died down. By the time Surface releases, the market could be full of Android devices ready to eat its lunch, and a new iPad could be right around the corner.

    I guess we’ll see in the coming months how for-real the Surface is. I want to believe that Microsoft is putting more of an emphasis on design and hardware/software integration, but the way they’ve handled a few things so far has me feeling some déjà vu in a bad way.

    Post-WWDC Crow Eating

    So hey, guess what didn’t happen today?

    No upgrade to the Apple TV software (which is basically a special version of iOS). No Apple TV SDK for app developers. Zilch. An entire section of the 2 hour keynote presentation focused on iOS and products like the iPhone and iPad, but the Apple TV was shown just a brief moment of love — a few seconds where the new AirPlay mirroring feature in Mountain Lion was demoed.

    Does this spell the end for Apple’s rumored push into television? I don’t think so. Apple likes to put a focus on media in the fall, and that might be a great time to blow the doors open on some Apple TV changes and help move some units going into the holiday season. Or Apple could just keep teasing everyone with it. Either or.

    (Quick sidenote: Check out this article from AllThingsD’s Peter Kafka about how the Apple TV revolution might actually come in the form of AirPlay and app-mirroring — a damn good theory.)

    I’m pretty impressed with the changes coming in iOS — specifically the way Siri’s knowledge is being beefed up. As a sports fan, I’ll definitely be making use of Siri’s new ability to fill you in on scores and stats. The ability to tweet using Siri also made it into iOS 6 — a welcome addition, and one that was inexplicably left out of iOS 5. Siri also makes the jump to the 3rd generation iPad (which is the one thing I predicted correctly out of 603 words).

    On the notebook side of things, the spec bumps for the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro lines are pretty par for the course. They usually get an annual refresh, and this was it. The next-generation MacBook Pro, though — wow. Apple went all out, and it shows in the $2199 price tag. On one hand, I know people are going to pay that, and I know the margins on the new MBP are likely huge and Apple will be just fine. But it’s a bit baffling that Apple would stick hard to a $499 iPad price point, but let the MacBook Pro’s price get out of hand.

    Mountain Lion got a significant amount of time in the spotlight, too. OS X and iOS continue to bleed together, as Messages, Notes, Reminders, Game Center, and Notification Center make their way into Apple’s desktop operating system. The ability to use AirPlay to mirror your computer’s screen to an Apple TV might be the most interesting addition, and one that Hulu might not be too pleased about.

    Overall, WWDC’s 2012 keynote brought some cool new features to both OS X Mountain Lion and iOS 6, and provided some nice spec bumps to the notebook lines. I’m still not sold on the new MacBook Pro, but we’ll have to wait and see how it’s received and check back on it in a quarter or two.

    The iTV? It’s the Apple TV

    I could be proven very wrong come December, when the supposed iTV is rumored to be launching, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Apple is not entering the TV set business anytime soon.

    That’s not to say that the industry isn’t ripe for disruption; it is, but I don’t see that being the case on the hardware side of things. Television sets themselves are increasing in quality and decreasing in price rapidly, and if 3D taught us anything, it’s that the TV is one device people aren’t looking to replace as often as, say, a smartphone. Again, the sets themselves are good in terms of hardware. It’s the user interface that no one seems to be able to get right, and that’s not just the fault of TV manufacturers, but of cable and satellite set-top box manufacturers, too.

    But why should Apple get into the low-margin TV hardware business to fix that when it can sell TV owners a better experience for $99?

    The current Apple TV is plenty capable in terms of hardware; it just hasn’t had the software in place to start a revolution. The new UI upgrade that came with the March model is a step in the right direction, but there’s no arguing that, at this moment in time, the Apple TV actually offers less than competing boxes like the Roku. There are fewer content sources available by default, and there’s no system in place to add new ones.

    I think this will be rectified in a few weeks at next month’s Worldwide Developers Conference, a place where Apple regularly unveils important chances to the iOS platform that powers devices like the iPhone, iPad, and, yes, the Apple TV. Here’s what I’m expecting for the Apple TV:

    • App Store (finally)
    • Siri voice control through Siri-enabled devices like the iPhone 4S… and the 3rd generation iPad, which I believe will be blessed with Siri in the next iOS version
    • Partnership announcements with cable TV providers where the Apple TV acts as a IPTV set-top box (much like the Xbox 360 is doing with Comcast and Verizon FiOS) — the perk here being that Apple controls the user interface

    Three big upgrades and three ways for Apple to finally assert itself with the Apple TV. No more playing around. Support for applications that can finally begin to tap the potential hidden inside the Apple TV for years. Siri to give you a faster way to navigate through your content (“Play ‘Quantum of Solace,’ please”), both from the Internet and from your cable TV provider. And yes, cable. An Apple-designed interface to smoke the user interface on that Motorola box you rent from your cable provider. I hope this is the area that Steve Jobs cracked, because it’s been very bad for a very long time.

    To me, it would make sense when adding Siri integration for Apple to also put out an upgraded remote with an embedded microphone (keep in mind — the 3rd generation Apple TV has a Bluetooth chip!), but Apple could also decide to leave that as a perk for users who are part of the mobile iOS ecosystem.

    WWDC isn’t too far away (June 11), so we’ll find out fairly quickly how right or wrong I am with these predictions. I just don’t see the TV set industry as one Apple would jump into when it can insert itself into the conversation with its $99 “hobby” box, an OS upgrade, and the tireless work of its innovative developer community.

    Improving the Website News Experience

    There are a lot of great things about Twitter. One that sticks out to me is how often the service breaks news stories. When a Twitter user learns of something or sees it, a few taps can relay that news to hundreds of thousands of people as quickly as you can send a text to a friend. It’s phenomenal. Another great thing is Twitter’s ability to act as a live blogging platform, of sorts. For those who are on Twitter, it’s a great way to get filled in by someone who is witnessing a news event unfolding first-hand.

    When you go to a news organization’s website, however, you don’t get near-instantaneous news. Most of the time, you get someone rushing to update a post in a CMS each time something of note happens. The front page of a news site hardly captures the sense that news is happening everywhere, every second. It shows whatever someone typed up 5 minutes ago, or an hour ago, or even half a day ago. Newspapers have a cutoff before they go to press, and they’re printed on paper. That content is static. They have an excuse. A website does not.

    It’s 2012, and visiting a news website still feels like it did in 2002. These pages don’t feel alive. They don’t do enough to pipe in content that someone is rushing to put out with their thumbs. They don’t try to include people who might not be reporters, but are on the scene nonetheless. There’s an awful lot of “don’t” without any signs of “do” now or in the future.

    I toyed with this the tiniest bit using the @Hashburg account (that I tried not to annoy people with), but I wasn’t pleased with the results I was getting using existing platforms and tools. The idea was that certain hashtags (#news, #weather, #traffic) were being searched for within a 25 mile radius of Harrisburg, and those tweets were being retweeted automatically. My goal was to eventually collect these tweets and present them in an easy-to-read format on the Web. But that was going to be more static, and lacked the human curation I feel is necessary. It was not at all what I envision now.

    So here’s my pitch. If you’re a dev, designer, or someone interested in contributing to a project that does not compete with but enhances current news offerings, shoot me an email – shawnfarner@gmail.com. In the meantime, I will be trying to transfer what I’ve been whiteboarding into something that is a bit more clear and a bit less babblish.