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CES Keynote

The first full day at CES was great, with lots to see and a couple amazing advancements. It all started the night before with the Keynote by Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer.

Like last year, Ballmer didn’t have much to say, but he was helped in saying little by Ryan Seacrest. I’m not sure if this was a good idea though, as the contrast between the clear communication style of Seacrest and the geeky rants of Ballmer were at times awkward and even distracting.

But it was a well produced keynote, with effective demonstrations of Windows Phone, Windows 8, XBox with Kinect, and even some ultrabook glamor shots (although they never used the word Ultrabook – why?).

Windows Phone
Windows Phone was first – and every time I see a demo of it I simultaneously wonder why more people aren’t using it, and see with crystal clarity why it will fail without changes. The people-centric approach is great, and really does add value in a way no other phone has yet done. Grouping social media, other communications like text and email, photos, and pretty much everything by each group of people is an extremely effective way to manage information. Add to that the active tiles, native Office, and some of the other features, and functionally it’s a winner, right?

Nope.

To understand why not, we need to get through the next two demos.

Windows 8
The Windows 8 demo was similar to what has been done before, showing some of the new features since the last public demo, like photo unlock. It looks peppy, and pretty, and seems somewhere between a simple skin on top of Windows 7 and a full rewrite.

But it still makes no sense to use this clearly touch-based UI with a keyboard and mouse. Sure, I get that it’s possible, but it seems impractical and a waste of time, and will get frustrating quickly. In this case other than a skin on the “normal” way of accessing programs and data, the Windows 8 UI feels like its in your way.

But on a tablet, it’s a whole different story. For a touch interface, it’s a massive improvement over the current “slate” model of layering touch on top of Windows 7. It’s a native touch interface that clearly was designed for touch. In fact, it’s what we’ve been saying for years now – that the new Windows Phone interface should be the tablet interface. Great! Just no idea why it also has to be the desktop/laptop interface.

And already we see some of the issues with the Microsoft approach – there’s almost no mention of Windows Phone or XBox, and the only content mentioned is the App Store. What about all that other content, and the Zune marketplace?  Shouldn’t these all be tightly integrated?

XBox and Kinect
This was by far the most impressive piece of the keynote, and if Ballmer was paying attention, he would take the approach being used within the XBox division and use it across Microsoft.

The XBox demo showed a fully integrated ecosystem (the appropriate, albeit already overused buzzword of 2012). Unified search across all media, human language interpretation, social and mobile fully integrated.

A single place where the hardware takes a back seat to the content and user experience. They’re getting it right!

Sadly, Windows Phone was mostly a remote control, and Windows 8 plays no part. We know there is more sharing across the platforms – like XBox Live on the Phone, and Games shared with the Phone and Windows 8, but that wasn’t the focus.

So if Microsoft is on the right path within the XBox, why can’t they make this their overall approach?

Windows, Windows, Windows
At the end of the keynote, Ballmer summarized his strategy by saying, multiple times in his own special way, “Windows Windows Windows Metro Metro Metro”.  Emphasizing his continued almost blind devotion to Windows, and their new focus on the Metro UI.

It seems like he’s totally missing the integrated ecosystem.  And strangely, they seem to have all the pieces.  And even more strangely, the XBox team seems to get it (within their own world).  But Microsoft as a whole doesn’t get it at all.

As Gary Shapiro seemed to indicate in his intro, perhaps the new Microsoft CEO will have a more cohesive approach to Microsoft and will talk about it when he or she does the CES keynote in a couple years.

 

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Apple TV adds streaming purchases – Cutting the cord a reality now!

Apple recently added the ability to stream iTunes purchases directly to your AppleTV, without having to download them first.  While this is an amazing and crucial addition to the iTunes ecosystem, I’ve found that many people don’t really get the importance of it.

This is something I asked for not too long ago, right before/after the iTunes music re-download announcement.

So why is this so important?  Because it means you can actually cancel your cable, and stream nearly everything you currently watch directly to your TV, paying less per month.

Previously Apple had only a small percentage of iTunes TV content available for streaming, and this was via their rental service.  This was a great, inexpensive way to stream content – usually at $0.99 cents per show.  That means a typical US TV show entire season was less than $25.  So to equal a $75-$100 cable bill, you would have to watch three to four entire TV seasons in a single month – for most people this much more than their typical viewing habits.

If you add an OTA (antenna) for recording HD local networks, which are usually half or more of the TV viewing hours, you can make all broadcast network shows free, so you’re only paying for cable shows.  That means you are closer to 200 hours of TV viewing a month for $50-$100 a month – wow!

But the issue (before this iTunes change) was the limited selection of TV shows available for rental.  If you wanted more, you needed to:

  1. Purchase a show on a PC/Mac through iTunes
  2. Download it somewhere (and hope you don’t delete it or have a drive failure)
  3. Stream from that “somewhere”, through iTunes, to your AppleTV
  4. Figure out what to do with the show once you watch it – since you purchased it, there’s a sense that you need to keep it

Ugh.  A dedicated iTunes server just for streaming inside your house, and terabytes of storage to keep the shows you download since you can’t (couldn’t) redownload them.

But that’s all changed!  Now you can buy a show on iTunes – from your PC/Mac, iPad/iPhone, or AppleTV – and stream it directly to your AppleTV.  You never need to download it anywhere – but if you do or want to, that’s cool, you can still stream it to your AppleTV whenever you want, direcly from the iTunes “cloud”.

No more local PC/Mac with iTunes acting as a server.  No more terabytes of local storage.  Just direct access to almost every show on every TV channel!

So where does that leave us?  Well, it’s not a utopia yet, as there are still some hurdles before this becomes mainsteam:

  • It’s hard for people to believe that the pay-per-show/season model will actually be less expensive than their cable bill
  • The cheaper rental model (when available) can be restrictive and therefor off-putting with it’s 48-hour watch window
  • To make it cheaper, supplementing with an OTA antenna for broadcast networks can substantially reduce your purchase costs since all network shows are free; but many people don’t want to bother with an antenna
  • The AppleTV has a really good user interface, but the only current way to set up a TiVo “Now Playing List” equivalent is using Favorites; this is great in that the Favorites synchronize across all your AppleTVs and it’s visually effective, but it’s bad in that it takes 30-60 seconds to load up once you put all your shows in the list; I can’t find a better way to keep track of what I want to watch covering purchased shows, rented shows, and shows I might be interested in
  • Sports (and news) is still an issue for some; Once DirecTV allows an internet-only NFL subscription, and AppleTV/Roku/etc. are allowed to stream it, this problem will mostly go away
  • Not every show is actually available on iTunes – all the shows I watch are, but if you have a favorite show and it’s not available, that’s a problem
  • Cutting cable usually means an increase in internet monthly fees, and sometimes there is a cap on usage which is a bigger issue once you stream more

Where are we?  Technically, most of the pieces are in place to make cutting the cord a reality now.  You can stream all your TV shows directly to your TV at a cost that is often much cheaper than cable.  It’s not yet at the point where anyone can easily use it and understand it, but we’re close.  If you’re on the leading edge, you can now cut cable fairly easily and still watch almost everything.

More to come once I have this going for a couple months, and the other “normal” people in my house tell me how they like it.

AppleTV – Great for NetFlix, Good for some other streaming, but not quite there yet…

The new-ish Apple TV is a fairly nice device for what it is, which is a streaming client focused on iTunes content and limited other Internet services.  If you’re looking for a broad-spectrum media streamer, this isn’t it.  But if you want to stay in the Apple ecosystem, and you watch iTunes TV and Movies, this device should probably be part of your collection.

However, if you use NetFlix, this is the best NetFlix client out there.  For $99 up front and no additional monthly fee, this is probably also the cheapest NetFlix client out there.  If you’re a big fan of NetFlix, you should seriously consider getting an AppleTV.

For NetFlix, and overall, the AppleTV has a silky smooth UI – something lacking in every other media player.  How important this is to you is a personal decision, but the smoothness and responsiveness of the UI makes this very easy for almost anyone to use.  The navigation is very simple, mostly due to the limited functionality in the box – iTunes local content, iTunes streaming content (rentals), NetFlix, YouTube, and a couple other Internet channels.  That’s it.  So it’s easy to navigate and easy to use, but very limited in content options.

For iTunes rentals, it’s great.  You can quickly and easily navigate the on-line iTunes content that is available for rental, pick what you want, and usually within a couple of seconds start watching it as it streams to the AppleTV (depending on your Internet bandwidth, of course).  You have to start watching the rental within 30 days, and you have up to 48 hours to finish watching it once you start.  This is a big differentiator from other services like Amazon where you have to finish within 24 hours.  I’ve always said you need at least 36 hours – the first night when you fall asleep in the middle, and the second night to finish.  24 hours isn’t enough, but 48 hours is great.  I have no idea when this change occurred for AppleTV (it was originally 24 hours), and I don’t know why Apple doesn’t promote it more.

The rentals are often fairly cheap as well, which is great.  The big issue is that they are also very limited.  Only about half the studios are lined up, and they only provide a subset of their content.

So – buying (not renting) your content from iTunes is the next best thing in the Apple-verse.  You have access to the entire iTunes library – which seems to have almost everything ever made (in the last decade give or take), and is very current with new episodes of TV shows appearing usually within 12-24 hours of air date.  And if you buy a season pass to a TV show, it ends up being fairly inexpensive, and often close to the rental price per-episode (once averaged out).

The issue is that you first have to download the video to a computer running iTunes, then stream it from that computer to the Apple TV.  This is slow, tedious, and requires lots of storage.  And since you can’t re-download any TV shows or movies, you feel obligated to store it somewhere forever, which quickly is not maintainable for most people.  And discourages you from buying frivolous content on iTunes (maybe this is a good thing?).

The one thing that would make this amazing is if Apple allowed you to buy something from iTunes, then immediately stream it from their “cloud” to the Apple TV.  No downloading to a computer, just direct streaming.  And since I bought the video (and didn’t rent it), it’s permanent.  At any time, I should be able to browse my iTunes or “iCloud” video library, see what I’ve watched, what’s new, and pick anything to watch instantly.

I doubt the Apple TV will ever replace multi-format media streamers (like Boxee and Popcorn Hour), but AppleTV could definitely replace cable TV for many people if they just supported streaming my purchases directly from their “iCloud”.  It would become like a TiVo in the Apple iCloud.  And for many people, the cost of purchasing TV from iTunes (if done via season passes) is substantially less than their monthly cable bill, and doesn’t include commercials.

So if you love NetFlix, the AppleTV is almost a must-buy.  If you want to cut the cable cord, let’s see what Apple does on Monday.

Hopefully Apple will announce TV and Movie support in their upcoming iCloud announcement, and we can finally enjoy a real alternative to hardwired, curated cable providers and channels.  And then the AppleTV will be a must-have for many more people.

Apple’s “iCloud” – Please help me cut the cord

Amazon and Google are offering seemingly weird solutions where I copy my music library up to them, and then play it back. Even with the best de-deduping SAN available, this seems like a terribly inefficient and old-school way to handle this.  They are basically storing a copy of every song for every person who owns it, wasting tons of disk space, and creating a mess of cloud storage.  For music.

I get that the technology-phobic RIAA keeps trying to make everyone live in an analog world, and without the proper license agreements, the one-copy-for-every-person is a reasonable way around it. But this is still all a joke, or some silly intirim step, right?

What I mean is, hasn’t this problem been solved already?  Like, years ago?  With services like Rhapsody, Spotify, Mog, Rdio, and others, we can already get nearly all the music we want, when we want it, on demand, on any device, for a relatively small monthly fee.  Sure, it’s not everything-everything, but when each of these providers has in the 10-million-plus range of songs, I think they probably have enough music for most people, right?

I guess I’m saying – music isn’t really the problem here.  That’s been solved, and now we just need to refine it.  I’m hopeful Apple’s solution will be better than the silliness that Google and Amazon offered, if for no other reason than they’ll have the license agreements in place.  But even if it is – so what?

The real issue is video.  Yes, video.

The whole model of the DVR (sorry, TiVo), is nearly dead.  It’s absurd to make everyone who wants to time-shift a TV show have to record it on a little hard drive in each of their houses.  It’s the same data, recorded millions of times.  What a waste!

Instead, it should be recorded once “in the cloud”, and then anyone who wants to watch it can simply stream it from the source.  One set of bits (cached, of course).

Does this sounds like Hulu, and Netflix, and others?  Well, it is.  That model is moving in the right direction.  And as the media player devices get better, it’s even more practical.  Roku, AppleTV, GoogleTV, Popcorn Hour, Boxee, and the list goes on and on…

The problem is that the existing set of streaming service providers don’t have a complete (enough) set of current content.  Netflix content is almost by definition a year old or longer in most cases.  Hulu has a very limited set of networks (when you factor in cable), and the commercials and playback are like going backwards 10 years.

Then we have Amazon and iTunes.  Amazon has a lot of good movies, but they haven’t yet penetrated the streaming media player market.  You can get them on devices like a TiVo, but it’s a fairly painful experience, and it’s really a supplement to my cable company, not a replacement.  Apple’s iTunes is the closest to a complete set of content, across all broadcast and cable networks, movies and television shows, with nearly real-time updates (usually within 24 hours of airing live, often same-day).

The problem is there’s no easy way to get that iTunes content to my TV.  The AppleTV Internet streaming is for rentals only, and there is such a small amount of content available for rentals, it’s barely worth using for that.  And for buying content, you have to jump through some crazy hoops – first downloading it to a local iTunes client, then enabling home-sharing on iTunes and the AppleTV, then streaming from the local iTunes to the AppleTV.  And if you want to take advantage of things like a Season Pass, it gets even messier.  And the local storage requirements get crazy since you can’t redownload the videos after the first time.

I’m fortunate in that I have a couple of RAID-5 NAS devices, so I have the storage capacity.  But I don’t want to have to store this media locally.  I want Apple to store it for me!

In comes iCloud.  Forget about music, if Apple’s iCloud allows me to buy videos and subscribe to season passes from iTunes, and then stream it from the Apple cloud to my AppleTVs, then I can cancel my cable subscription.  The cost analysis (I’ll post on this later) shows that with season passes through iTunes, even buying everything I watch (and I watch a lot), it’s still hundreds of dollars cheaper a year than cable.  The only barrier is the current requirement for local storage and the somewhat cumbersome local iTunes setup needed.

iCloud with TV and movies, and ideally an interface to buy stuff through the AppleTV, and we have what amounts to a TiVo in the iCloud.  I “schedule” my season passes to shows I want to watch, and when I sit down at my AppleTV, I can immediately see what’s new.  It already works this way for local content, and for podcasts, it just needs to support an iCloud that has my TV and movie purchases in it.  But instead of storing anything locally, Apple just manages it all for me in the iCloud, with access to me (through my authorized account, feel free to DRM like crazy) streamed to my AppleTV, and even perhaps my iTunes client.

What do we lose?  Whatever iTunes doesn’t already have (which is minimal, but it’s missing some significant things), and of course anything live like sports.  But the sports leagues seem to be building their own direct-to-consumer streaming services already, so it’s only a matter of time before sports are a non-issue as well.

So Apple, please help me cut the cable cord, and include iTunes Videos, TV, and Movies in your upcoming iCloud announcement!

Home Internet – Bandwidth Usage Caps, and My Prediction

Home Internet use is at its highest ever, with Europe in 60% of homes, and countries like the U.S. and Japan in around 80% of homes.  One of the only things that exceeds that is home TV use.

And the technology continues to improve, with cable modems advancing to higher bandwidths, and many areas getting fiber to the home.  It’s not unusual to see 30-50mb/s as an entry-level offering.  And the price for Internet use continues to stay at roughly the same level as it has for years – this can only be good for us, right?

Well, maybe not.

First it’s important to understand the multiple uses of the term “bandwidth” as it tends to be over used and underexplained:

  • Bandwidth speed, or bandwidth just by itself measures the maximum amout of bits you can receive per second over your connection, or more simply it measures the speed of your connection.  So a connection rated at “50mb/s” means fifty megabits per second, or roughly 50 million bits per second.  A bit is a one or zero, and 8 bits equal a byte, which is how disk space and memory is usually measured.  For example, a modern consumer digital camera produces photos that are about 2-3 megabytes, which is about 16-24 megabits (2-3 times 8 bits-per-byte).  So theoretically, you could send 2 photos over a 50mb/s connection in about a second.  But even if you’re sending very little over your connection, it’s still being sent at a speed of 50mb/s.  There is a lot of overhead when sending data over the network so it’s not quite that simple, but you get the idea.
  • Bandwidth usage is how much data you send over your connection over time, no matter how quickly you can send it.  So if I send that 3 megabyte picture over my internet connection one day, and then the next day send it again, I’ve used a total of 6 megabytes of bandwidth.  It doesn’t matter what speed my internet connection is, this measurement is about how much data I send over it.  So someone with a faster internet connection, say 50mb/s, will likely send and receive more data over that connection in the same period of time as someone with a slower internet connection, say 8mb/s, simply because they can.

Bandwidth Speed is like the size of a water pipe, and Bandwidth Usage is like the water being sent through it.  The size of the pipe dictates the maximum amount of water that can ever be sent at a time, but if you just keep pumping water through it, your usage will continually increase.  Someone with a 3″ pipe can push a lot more water through at maximum use than someone with a 1/2″ pipe, but both the 3″ pipe and 1/2″ pipe can send as much water as you want through, it will just take different amount of time.

Why does this matter?  Faster Internet connections mean that we can enjoy a richer experience when using the Internet.  The current speeds are improving to the point where many people can enjoy high quality HD video.  Since HD video needs a lot of data to be sent very quickly, this is all about your bandwidth speed.  Just like how BluRay discs have a lot more data stored on them compared to DVDs, even though the movie playing times are the same – this means more data is being used per second to display the video.  If you’re streaming that data over the Internet, you need a bigger “pipe” so you can receive a steady stream of the video at the highest quality.

That’s great, so faster Internet connections are good for everyone!

Unfortunately, we’re seeing a disturbing trend of ISPs putting up bandwidth caps.  What they really mean is bandwidth usage caps.  That means that after a certain amount of usage, they’re going to either cut you off, or charge you more.  So you’re basically being charged twice – once for your maximum bandwidth speed, and again for your bandwidth usage.  The problem is that, even with a great bandwidth speed, your cap will cut you off or charge you more once you use a certain amount.  And the faster your connection, the more likely you are to hit that cap.

And for streaming video over the Internet, you’re extremely likely to hit a cap, in some cases after just a few days of normal usage.

The goal here is to cut the cable and stream everything over the internet.  But if your ISP puts a cap on our bandwidth usage, then you won’t be able to stream everything without paying a lot more.

Why would they do this?  Because in almost all cases, the company providing your Internet connection is the same company providing the cable you want to cut.  They make an enormous profit on the cable connection, partly because you are paying for 100s of channels you never watch, and partly because the pricing model is ridiculous.

So if you cut your cable, and only keep your Internet connection, they lose a ton of money.  So by charging you for the data you send over that Internet connection, they’ll make more money again.  And since bandwidth usage costs them almost nothing, it’s even more profitable than the cable channels they’re providing you.

If you care about this at all, write your congressman, write the FCC, and make your voice heard that you don’t want this to happen.  If you’re currently being capped, even if you’re currently not exceeding the caps, you need to stop your ISP from doing this now, otherwise when you want to exceed the cap you’ll be screwed.

Okay, so what’s my prediction?

The current model can’t survive.  We can’t have the people with a huge vested interest in maintaining the dying model of multi-channel distribution over a closed system also in charge of our connection to the Internet.  So either the government will step in and prevent them from putting anti-competitive bandwidth usage caps in place, or other players will step in.

Someone like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, or new players will become the Internet providers of the future.  They want you to get Internet as cheaply as possible so you can use their services.  And if you use other people’s services as well, that’s great.  Google is already running a trial in one small city, but who knows if it will go further.  Companies like Microsoft and Apple have massive cash reserves that could easily fund an effort of this sort, especially if the Federal Government supported the effort.

So in the future, we’ll see the end of the Time Warner, Comcast, and even Verizon ISPs, and the introduction of the Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and some new companies as ISPs who want you to use your Internet connection as much as possible.

What a wonderful future!

Streaming (not Snakes) on a Plane!

I know that WiFi on planes has been around a while.  But I don’t fly all that much, and when I do it never seems to be on my plane.  But I just flew SouthWest from Texas to Maryland, and the flight had WiFi – so I had to check it out.

I was fully expecting, and would be fine with, 3G-level access, given that I’m in a plane.  Any Internet access at all while trapped in the aluminum tube is a plus.  So I was figuring this would be like using a MyFi-type access point, perhaps even slower, and with some hiccups along the way.

I enabled WiFi using my iPad right after take-off so I could use it the entire time.  I first just tried poking around various sites, like Twitter and Facebook, and it was surprisingly snappy.  There was this annoying header on top of every web page, but you could close it.  I figured there was some proxy in the middle, and they probably didn’t have anything but HTTP/S open.

Hmmm…  Well, let me try to push the limits.  So first I tried to RD into a remote machine, and to my surprise it worked, and fairly well!  I guess they aren’t blocking any ports.

Then I decided to really test it out, and I started up my Slingbox client on my iPad.  After the standard few seconds, it opened up and was streaming at a fairly high quality from my bedroom Tivo at home.  I showed it to my wife, who wasn’t nearly as excited as I was.  I used the (painfully slow under any circumstances) Slingbox UI to change the channel to HGTV in the hopes of getting more emotion from her, but to no avail.  Then I got distracted by the home improvement show that was on, and I watched it for about 30 minutes.

After having almost no streaming hiccups at all, I realized it was about 6:30pm ET, and that I might still be able to watch some live TNT on TWiT (I can’t get enough of Tom Merritt and Sara Lane – the journalist, not the ballerina).  I first tried the web site, but it doesn’t work very well on the iPad.  So I quickly fired up my TWiT app with live streaming (the ShiftKeySoftware one), and was watching live TWiT in about 10 seconds!  Although I had missed TNT and instead was greeted by Brian Brushwood on Framerate.  The quality again was great, and I ended up watching it the rest of the flight home.

Overall the ability to stream live on a plane is extremely realistic and practical.  Most of the apps self-adjust for bandwidth, but even so I was seeing a very high-quality picture (better than on 3G).  There were minimal hiccups, and they seemed to occur about once every half-hour, and seemed to either be a reset of my WiFi connection due to bandwidth use, or a general plane reset (the browser banner would reappear around the same time as well).

So if you’re wondering whether you should buy that WiFi on the plane, go for it!  (And the iPad is treated like a mobile device, so it’s usually cheaper.)  And it’s fun to check-in on FourSquare or Facebook Places to an airplane in-flight.

4G/LTE phones – first generation of phones are a waste

I just learned that the current wave of 4G phones have to use two sets of chips – one for 4G, and one for everything else, including 3G, and non-3G, and voice.  Even worse, the current 4G/LTE technology (and chips) only do data, not voice.  So even if you said “that’s okay – I’ll do 4G only” you still need two sets of chips, one for 4G and one for voice.

Lame!

The power consumption alone makes this almost useless, especially when searching for a signal or switching between 3G and 4G, or using data and voice at the same time.  And having to keep both chips powered all the time – which has to happen to use data and even be aware of incoming phone calls – means there’s really no way to conserve power (although the new 3G + voice saves a tiny bit of power, it has it’s own issues).  Add to that the space issues, you end up with a too-big phone + battery, that will last all of about 4 hours.

The next generation of chips, like those from Qualcomm and Altair, will have an integrated 4G/3G/voice chip.  That’s a lot more practical, and makes a lot more sense.  It should be a lot more power efficient as well, and will obviously take up less space.

This is a bit of a bummer though, as it means no usable phone, Android or iOS, will be able to use 4G until at best early next year.  And that assumes the first generation of the single-chip 4G/3G/voice is low-power enough and small enough.  Given history, it’s possible it will take another generation of the single-chips before the phones are something most of us will tolerate.

And that’s ignoring the complete outage of Verizon’s 4G/LTE network over the past couple of days.

The 4G MiFi’s are fine, as the power draw and size are much less of an issue, and there’s no componding voice issue at all.

So for now, stay away from the 4G phones, except as a novelty or if you only need around 4 hours of battery life.