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  • Is Apple TV the Bee’s Knees?

    September 8th, 2010

    I realize that Apple is being circumspect about the potential for the success of the latest iteration of Apple TV. Yes, there was that irony factor when Steve Jobs labeled it “one more hobby,” but hitting a home run is far from certain. Even at $99, the big question is whether millions and millions of customers will find it useful.

    At least with the previous Apple TV, there was a built in hard drive to store some of your stuff. That way, you didn’t have to worry about interruptions in the streaming process or, perish forbid, the occasion when your Internet connection went down.

    This is not a casual issue, folks.

    The other day, I was watching a Netflix stream on the family TV, and twice the signal dropped and had to be buffered again. Understand that I have a very fast broadband connection, and the Wi-Fi signal strength from home office to master bedroom is rock solid. I had my iPhone present, and the signal strength displayed was absolutely normal. So one expects the problem may have been due to a glitch on the Netflix servers.

    For the most part, my experiences with Netflix has been fairly positive. But the brief interruptions aren’t unusual, and sometimes I get a message that I’m offline. Yes, I grant this may also be due to a problem with my Blu-ray DVD player, which receives Netflix feed, but there are no obvious symptoms, other than the loss of a solid connection. Anyone else?

    Now it may be true that Apple’s own servers will run more efficiently with their movie and TV show streams. But think back to the HTML5 streaming video of Apple’s media event last week. I observed signal glitches, where the picture froze and some of the audio from Steve Jobs repeated itself.

    Before you suggest that’s also an artifact of my Internet setup, I was online with a colleague from France during that presentation, and he encountered similar symptoms. Well, maybe Apple’s servers were slammed, and don’t forget they have yet to deploy their new server farm in North Carolina. Once that’s in operation, perhaps we’ll see fewer signal saturation issues, assuming that was the actual cause of this problem.

    This isn’t to say that DVDs don’t occasionally exhibit hiccups too, but seldom. And usually a fast removal and a quick wipe of the readable surface with a soft cloth clears up that problem. Unfortunately, with most Blu-ray DVDs, the act of stopping or removing the disc means that you have to endure the introductory material, usually trailers of films long gone, and scroll to the point where you left off. This is one of the limitations of Blu-ray, as very few offer an auto-resume function. I wonder why this feature wasn’t inherited from the original DVD format.

    That being said, maybe Jobs has a point that Blu-ray is a “bag of hurt,” and won’t be supported on new Macs, at least for now. Apple is clearly betting on streaming video to ultimately dominate, and physical media to take a back seat.

    Now maybe he’s right on for the long haul. But right now, the streaming glitches I see — and I don’t think I am unique — make the experience less perfect.

    At the same time, I can see where simplifying Apple TV to the max may have an impact. People wanting to save on holiday presents might find the $99 price of admission not so daunting, and there is the cute factor. Put the tiny thing next to your flat panel TV, connect a couple of wires, and enjoy yourself; that is, assuming you have an account with iTunes or Netflix.

    I also expect that more entertainment companies will come onboard to join Fox and ABC to deliver your favorite TV fare at 99 cents per episode. That is also a casual price. Even if you buy just a few shows a month, that can add up among millions of potential customers to a fairly hefty profit for the networks who are already suffering big time from diminishing audiences and ad revenues.

    One criticism I have seen for Apple TV is the limit of 720p resolution, when Blu-ray, and some satellite Pay-Per-View selections, offer 1080p. That may seem a significant difference, except in the real world, where it takes a very large TV or close-in viewing to perceive the advantages of the higher resolution. Indeed, a large portion of network HD TV fare is at 720p, not 1080i, which is the best networks can actually deliver. It’s not a significant shortcoming, and Apple may have set that limitation to keep production costs down.

    While I’m not going to make a prediction that Apple TV will no longer be a hobby by 2011, it may well be that sales will improve enough to justify release of the upgraded version. But it’s not going to take over the living room, not until the current marketing scheme, with free or cheap set-top boxes, gets an overhaul. And that’s not about to happen anytime soon. Maybe Apple is going to have to build a TV set to gain the upper hand.



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    11 Responses to “Is Apple TV the Bee’s Knees?”

    1. jase says:

      One thing that I do not understand is why Steve Jobs describes blu-ray as a torturously difficult “bag of hurt” to implement. Honestly, what is he talking about? And why can HP seemingly have no trouble adding blu-ray burners to many of their laptop models, some of which sell for less than any MacBook? I see lots of moderately priced desktop and laptop PCs with blu-ray. I’m not being sarcastic, I’d honestly like to know why it is so difficult for Apple to offer blu-ray drives when other PC makers can do it.

    2. jase says:

      Gene,

      I’m sure that you are correct that licensing and format issues were obstacles in the past. But surely those issues have been largely resolved, just look at the increasing number of PC makers offering blu-ray on their cheap desktops and laptops. And right now anyone can go to Newegg, to take one example, and buy an LG blu-ray burner including 3-D software and 3-D glasses on sale for $109.

      http://www.newegg.com/Store/SubCategory.aspx?SubCategory=600&name=Blu-Ray-Burners

      Most of the time I agree with Steve Job’s logic, so maybe there is something else going on that I do not understand.

      • @jase, Well, actually they added BD Live one year, and this year, they added 3D. What’s going to happen next year to make today’s Blu-ray not fully compatible with yesterday’s version?

        Peace,
        Gene

      • Kaleberg says:

        @jase, Ars Technica had an interesting article on Blu Ray and operating systms some time back. Blu Ray requires extensive operating system modifications as part of any licensing deal. Basically, they don’t want anyone to be able to grab the decrypted videos from the buffers. Right now, OS X makes this kind of thing easy, so there are audio “hijackers” and video screen grabbers available. Windows, I think starting with Vista, has a whole pile of modifications that make this kind of thing, particularly at the speeds required for capturing Blu Ray, next to impossible. Remember, you can write your own kernel extensions and device drivers that have access to stuff that might let you grab data from the Blu Ray video stream. Windows compromises to protect the stream. OS X doesn’t.

        Blu Ray licensing also puts restrictions on how well certain real time interrupts can work, other than those needed for Blu Ray video. If I remember correctly, this is to make grabbing screen video harder, though I’m a bit fuzzier here. On the other hand, it does compromise real time capabilities such as those for interactive touch and animation. In other words, you have to slightly break your operating system to qualify for Blu Ray licensing. It’s like the Outer Limits. They don’t want you to adjust your set.

        I do know that Apple has some restrictions on its D Trace kernel debugging extension in that it is impossible to put trace points in certain parts of the system. (Obviously Apple can get around this by using special in house versions of OS X, but other kernel developers aren’t able to.) This is a bit of a compromise, but this is a relatively limited restriction, and doesn’t have much effect on most OS X kernel programmers who just want to use D Trace with those parts of the I/O system that interact with their extensions. Obviously, Blu Ray would consider this debugging ability a back door. Apple would either have to rebuild this light weight feature into a massive kludge which would impact all kernel performance or eliminate to satisfy the licensing requirements. Enough users complain about the availability of updated drivers. Apple isn’t all that keen on making things even harder for developers and risking further marginalization.

        Blu Ray’s attitude is good for streaming. The CD format, and now the DVD format, had much longer lives since it was possible to rip both forms of media. Blu Ray, with its powerful and pervasive DRM is much less useful to consumers. I’m not saying it will remain a niche market, like Laser Discs, but it hasn’t taken over the video section the way DVDs took over from VHS and it isn’t likely to.

        • jase says:

          @Kaleberg, Thank you for this fantastic explanation. I knew that there were some things about blu-ray working on the Mac that I did not understand.

          I could probably be satisfied if digital downloads could start offering the same extras that are available on DVDs. Subtitles, alternate audio tracks, and extra documentaries and deleted scenes/alternate versions. And offer the video in at least 720p format.

    3. jase says:

      Gene,

      Very good points. Some of these new and future features might be possible to add with software updates, but if they cannot be, then honestly, I will be happy if all I can do is enjoy blu-ray movies with the director’s commentary tracks and other included featurettes, just as I enjoy the extra content from DVDs that are not included in an Itunes store download. In my opinion, most people do not care about BD-Live content, whatever little of it there is available, or watching some new fancy 3-D software format that has barely begun to be supported.

      I actually do not mind watching movies and TV shows from a download from the iTunes store, but if I purchase a movie, I want all of the DVD (or blu-ray) features included on the discs such as the alternate audio/commentary tracks, the little “making of” featurettes and interviews, subtitle options, etc. I mean, there are now movies that come out sometimes with 2 or 3 DVDs of extra content, such as The Lord of the Rings Return of the King (4 Discs.) Blu-Ray disc format has more space than DVD to pack on extra content. It’s about giving the Mac user choices to enjoy their content the way that they want to. Since I often use my Mac Book to watch movies, either on the laptop display or hooked up to a large screen HDTV, I want the choice to be able to play my blu-ray movies on my Mac.

      And blank Blu-Ray Discs have more storage capacity for people who use their Macs to create and work with and distribute Hi-Def video.

    4. degrees_of_truth says:

      So far I have not been tempted to download movies at all. One reason is that I too want all the extras that come on a disc; when DVD’s began replacing VHS tapes, that was as attractive a feature to me as the improved picture quality.

      What I would really like to see is a model similar to Netflix’s for discs. For a flat monthly rate, allow me to have one, two, or three movies rented at a time. Have enough flash storage on the device to contain this content. Allow me to keep and watch downloaded content without restriction until it is replaced by a new selection. I would think that Apple could create a tight digital rights mechanism between local device and servers to convince content owners to permit such a model.

      • jase says:

        @degrees_of_truth, I agree with you. I’m not unhappy with the new Apple TV for $99 that allows streaming from your own PC hard drive, in addition to the Apple TV streaming of Netflix, Youtube and movie rentals. It’s a pretty good value for $99. But your concept is a very attractive one.

    5. […] Is Apple TV the Bee’s-Knees?: Gene Stienberg, TechNightOwl […]

    6. Apple touts the fact that it has a solid advantage by controlling both the hardware and software. Although this is true, what they don’t control is the content itself. The iTunes Store is their attempt to at least control the distribution of content. The iPad is their attempt at doing print media better than old tech. Now they want to take on television. As with music, their best bet is to deliver TV ‘better’ than the old media. Their best bet is to offer only what the user wants, in an easy way and totally portable.

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