Corollary to the definition of insanity

[This was originally written in March, but I apparently forgot to post it...]

I’m currently on an airplane. Aisle seat, exit row; little to complain about there.

After listening to two Developer Lives podcasts (Brent Simmons and Daniel Jalkut) I decided I needed some music. Philip Glass’s Cassandra’s Dream was a good choice, as this was to be background to reading XCode documentation (NSXMLParser as it turns out).

At some point the music sounded repetitive (even for Philip Glass. I know, I know.). My iPhone’s key lock came up, meaning I’d been listening more than an hour.

The first track to Cassandra’s Dream, at approximately two minutes and twenty seconds, was set to auto-repeat.

It took me more than an hour to realize this.

[Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.]

Apple TV, what it could be

I recently bought an Apple TV. I’ve had a Mac Mini connected to our TV for 2+ years, but it never got the use I was hoping. The Apple TV is quickly becoming a big hit in our house due to its ease of use. It’s a great little device, especially considering it’s just a “hobby” for Apple.

I have several suggested improvements for the next generation of hardware and/or software. I have no expectation Apple will either see or pay attention. I’ll also not attempt to turn the Apple TV into something Apple clearly doesn’t want it to be. So no push to support every codec under the sun, no tuner/recorder, no blu-ray player, etc. Might be nice but a waste of time to suggest.

This has been in my drafts folder for a while. It’s way too long as-is, so I’m getting it out there.

Software Changes

Network sharing: Allow local computer users to share (play) media stored on the Apple TV. Basically, make it act like iTunes and iPhoto already does. This should follow standard restrictions on protected content, again just like any computer. This should also allow one Apple TV to share the content of another Apple TV. We’re having so much fun, getting a second may be tempting someday – but only if all content were accessible at all times.

Podcast improvements: I’m having a blast with video podcasts. First, we need better searching. The current Apple TV search is titles only, while an iTunes search is much more thorough. Also, allow subscribing to podcasts directly on the Apple TV. (General theme: do as much as possible through the Apple TV interface, not requiring constant access to the host computer’s iTunes.)

More codec support: I’m not suggesting XviD, WMV, etc. I think the Apple TV should support every codec available on the Mac desktop using QuickTime. This would allow users to play DV files, videos made on digicams, etc, without going through lengthy conversions. Some of these are better kept on the host computer to save space; the intention here is to save conversion time. Some large codecs might require more CPU power, or a hardwired ethernet connection, but most should be fine.

Also, for conversion, some simple batch-convert process for video. We can batch-convert music to MP3/AAC in iTunes, why not video? I know there are third-party solutions to this, but it should really be integrated. NEVER MIND – Advanced->Create Apple TV Version. I haven’t tried this yet; curious if it’s the same as Quicktime’s Export to Apple TV (a very high quality/large file size conversion with no options).

Manually set the poster frame: This is a lame one, but I’d like it. Pause a movie on your favorite frame, then set the poster frame. Also, manually add chapter markers the same way. These should be synced back to the host computer.

Sync while playing: The Apple TV can’t seem to sync with the host computer while playing video. That’s silly.

The ability to play more HD formats, specifically 720p/30 and 1080i/p (24 and 30). Most large (and more smaller) HD TVs are 1080p now. All my home video is shot 1080i/30 (or 1080i/60 if you count fields). It’s a shame I need to scale that down to 960 x 540. There might be a hardware component to this as 1080p video stutters even on somewhat modern computers.

Ditch the stupid .m4v format. I don’t get this one, although it has little to do with the Apple TV itself. .mov is a great container. Why the new format? Was it to say Apple was producing an open format? Try changing some tags in a large .m4v file. Takes forever. A .mov? Barely noticeable. Yes I can use .mov fine, but the quick exports from iMovie, Compressor, etc, all go to .m4v. Plus .mov can have multiple audio tracks, closed-caption tracks, etc.

Support multiple tracks of .mov files. Following from the above, allow the user to choose which audio track to play when watching a movie. When I RIP DVD’s for flights I include the main audio and any commentary tracks, all in the same file. In Quicktime Player I just select which I want to hear. The same should be possible on the Apple TV. (And imagine how many more movies Apple would sell if they included director/actor commentary tracks?)

Multiple users. This is a big one, and an easy one. We have three people in our house – why would we want the same set of favorites, or the same playlists, or the same YouTube account? I’m not suggesting a completely separate library (although some might want this). My wife doesn’t need to see my WWDC videos in her listing, and our daughter doesn’t want to see anything other than Sesame Street and Curious George.

EXIF/IPTC tags while watching photos. While watching photos, we’ll sometimes wonder when the photo was taken. How about a popup of basic data? (And oh, by the way, iPhoto should embed this info into photos instead of storing the data elsewhere. Major multi-year pet peeve here.)

Be a wireless access point (and for some a repeater). My Apple TV is on Ethernet. Why can’t it be another access point for my home LAN? For those using the Apple TV on WiFi, making the Apple TV be a repeater might be nice, although throughput would drop in half so mixed feelings here.

Hardware changes

Apple will inevitably ship a new hardware version of the Apple TV, unless they kill it off of course. I’ll assume the device will have a better CPU and graphics card to support 1080p, etc. So that’s a given.

Gigabit ethernet and 802.11n WiFi. Obvious – move those video files faster.

A desktop (3.5″) hard drive!!! This is my biggest complaint about the first generation Apple TV, and the Mac Mini as well. Why on earth did Apple see it necessary to use a 2.5″ laptop drive in a non-portable device? They saved roughly six-tenths of an inch of space (height) on the device. Hip hip hooray. But they lost a ton of storage space – for a device where storage is key. Many 3.5″ drives are plenty quiet (I’ve had a Tivo for eight years, never heard anyone complain). A quick check at my favorite drive vendor shows 160GB laptop drives roughly the same price as a 500GB desktop drive. Apple is using desktop drives in the Time Capsule, and I’ve never heard anyone complain it’s too large. A perfect example of form obliterating function.

Bluetooth – to support more devices, remotes, etc. See theoretical changes below for more rationale.

External hard drive support – I think this is possible, but unlikely from Apple. They like closed devices. I disagree with their decisions here but accept them as part of the big picture.

Theoretical changes

SDK. Apple has the iPhone SDK, and it’s a huge success. The Apple TV is running OS X too. A real SDK (combined with the better processor and GPU likely coming anyway) could turn the Apple TV into a competitive gaming platform. I don’t play games myself so I don’t care, but it would make the device very popular. Integration with the App Store, etc. Apple would limit SDK functionality (muck like the iPhone), here to prevent the Apple TV from becoming too much like a computer and competing with their own Macs. That’s ok.

Through that SDK they could open the Apple TV to other content providers. (Whoa, is that the third rail I sense?) I don’t see Apple’s content being all things to all people. Access to NetFlix, Hulu, more photo/video sites, etc, is necessary. Apple has conquered music. They haven’t conquered video, and they won’t. Apple has not positioned the Apple TV as a loss-leader to content (like game consoles do). Open it up to the wider world, and Apple will own this market.

Give the remote an accelerometer. Just like the iPhone (and just like the Wii from what I understand). Would be fun for gamers, and probably useful for something. Otherwise the current remote is fine. Simplicity is Apple’s forté, and most do-everything remotes are horrid.

Subscription video service. Ok, this isn’t really a software feature. I think Apple did the right thing by avoiding subscription music. Video is another beast. Netflix’s video subscription is proving popular, at least among the tech crowd. Already multiple hardware boxes support it. If Apple could get the studios on board they could have a great offering.

Ok, I’m done.

iPhone SDK, NDA, and October 17

Once upon a time there was an iPhone. Developers wanted to write code for the iPhone. On October 17, 2007, Apple announced they would indeed provide an SDK. The beta SDK was released a few months later, under a strict but understandable NDA. All was good in the world. SDK went final. The App Store was flooded with applications, several of which weren’t flashlights.

The NDA remains.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google it. In brief: Apple wants me to write iPhone apps, but doesn’t want me to talk to other developers about how to write iPhone apps. I can’t learn, and I can’t share.

October 17, 2008, will be the one year anniversary of the iPhone SDK announcement. I would be thrilled if Apple celebrated that anniversary by dropping the NDA.

If the NDA remains in place, how should the iPhone Developer community celebrate this anniversary?

I’m NOT proposing that on October 17, those developers who wish to share their knowledge simultaneously post information online.

I’m NOT proposing that developers learning the SDK post their questions publicly.

I’m NOT proposing that authors who have eBooks complete but under NDA offer those books for sale.

I’m NOT proposing that developers begin to share code, work on joint open-source projects, release podcasts, or offer video training.

I’m NOT proposing that every iPhone developer simultaneously submit flatulence humor apps to the App Store. Please.

How should we celebrate in keeping with the iPhone SDK NDA stranglehold?

As Marie Antoinette famously suggested, we should eat cake.

[Update: This entry obviously sent shivers up Apple's spine. On October 1st Apple announced the NDA was coming down. It took them until October 23rd to officially do so, but I'm still happy.]

iPhone 3G Upgrade? – The App Store Question

★ The iPhone 3G Upgrade Question

For the rest of us who lack such common sense and are considering upgrading — yours truly included — it’s not a sure thing. The only significant differences between the iPhone 3G and the original iPhone are the 3G networking and GPS. That’s it. (Daring Fireball link & quote)

This has been going through my head, and is the common response whenever I’m asked if I’ll be in the lines for the new iPhone. I’m not even convinced there will be lines akin to last June 29. Nutty people like myself A) have a really good iPhone already, and B) know Apple will have plenty to sell on day two.

3G would be nice, but I haven’t missed it. I use my phone mostly for email. Despite the hype, email will rarely benefit from 3G. It’s just (mostly) text. Sure attachments will come in quicker but no big deal.

Most serious iPhone web browsing I do is within WiFi range. AT&T hasn’t added 3G to my local towers yet, so useless when elsewhere in town. Tethering would be great, but no tethering allowed.

I have a Garmin Nuvi 360 which is a great GPS unit. Thus far no traditional GPS direction software is on the iPhone 3G. We don’t know if the GPS chip is good enough, and some signs point to Apple refusing to even allow such software.

All the above is based on the existing iPhone software. The 2.0 iPhone OS upgrade is minor from a user application standpoint, and all iPhone users get it for free.

The key is the App Store. Will there be a killer app for 3G or GPS?

If someone creates a great app that, for me, demands 3G and/or GPS the scale may shift the other way.

3G I’m not so sure. The 3G Mystery App would demand high-speed access and would demand I use it when away from WiFi. That’s a possibility.

GPS intrigues me. Shortly before the iPhone 3G keynote I was telling a friend how I didn’t care if the new model had GPS or not. My Nuvi is great, and I don’t see the iPhone (a more generalized device) topping its capabilities. Frequently updated maps would be nice, but Garmin could do that too. The current pseudo-GPS tells me where I am, kinda-sorta. But I hadn’t considered what else a GPS might provide beyond getting me around town.

The first hint came from Apple itself, when I saw the iPhone beta OS included geotagging for photos. Hmmmm. Now the camera itself is just a tiny thing, and the pseudo-GPS I already have is good enough for how I’ll use it. I’d rather see true GPS on my DSLR. But I get the point. iPhone GPS isn’t about driving. It’s all about the apps I haven’t seen yet.

I really think the App Store, or more accurately the developers behind it, is the key to the iPhone’s leap to the next level of success.

So my current plan is to avoid the mall on July 11th, but keep a keen eye on the App Store.