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Rok, Rok, Rok, Rok, Roku Roll High School

I mentioned a while back that I was bored now with Apple apparently deciding to take the first few months of 2013 off, at least in terms of shipping anything interesting. With all the laptops on a schedule of updating mid-year for back-to-school, and all the iOS devices apparently on a holiday season update, and the SDKs getting revved annually at WWDC, it leaves a big gaping hole of nothing at the beginning of the year.

I’d hoped we’d see an Apple TV SDK by now, and since we haven’t, I’ve gone looking for something else to do. I bought a Roku 2 XS Player (just in time for the Roku 3 to come out, wouldn’t you know), since the Roku platform is highly welcoming of third-party developers, and features a broad selection of third-party content (including, of course, another means of getting my Crunchyroll fix).

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Bored Now

A thought occurred to me last year when Apple moved the new iPhone model to a late-year release, along with the new iPad mini, and a rev’ed iPad: what are they going to do in the first half of 2013?

Think back a bit: when the iPhone first came out, it was announced in January and went on sale in like July (months are approximate… I’m trying to avoid using seasons for fear of Northern Hemisphere bias. You’re welcome, Australia.) For a few years, iPhone was a mid-year product, with a corresponding iPod touch coming out later in the year. Then the iPad came out in early 2010 and was updated again in early 2011 and early 2012. But now, all of these products got late-2012 updates. So… what does that leave for the next six months?

Macs? The iMac got updated in late-2012 too, and the laptops have moved to a mid-year schedule (with an announcement at WWDC), better suited to back-to-school buying. Even if we do get the Mythical Modern Mac Pro in the next few months — and I am by no means optimistic about that — it’s a niche product.

And as developers, everything interesting is now a once-a-year update to iOS at WWDC. OS X is supposedly moving to an annual schedule, so that should be getting previewed soon (with an eye to mid-year release), but the simple fact is that very few of us can get Mac programming gigs, so it’s not worth the time of tracking an OS X beta and its new APIs very closely.

If Cocoa development is indeed a cargo cult — and it’s a pretty comfortable cult to be in if so — then the planes aren’t coming back with new stuff until July. Literally the only thing I can imagine happening before then is an Apple TV SDK, and there are few signs of that happening soon, or ever.

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2012: Three Things

I usually don’t have much use for year-ender type pieces — not sure if I’ve ever done one on this blog — but I’ve got an accumulated bunch of thoughts that I might as well just work out in one big brain-dump. With luck, some of it will actually tie together.

Gonna talk about three things:

  1. No politics
  2. iOS Development
  3. Anime

It’s about 4,000 words. Grab a pop/coffee/beer if you need to.

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Reflecting and streaming

I’m testing the viability of a project I’d like to launch soon, one element of which involves doing an internet livestream of iPhone and iPad apps. Not from the simulator, but real production apps running on real devices. And I’m going to need some advice from you people who know your networking.

The various streaming services make it possible to stream your desktop easily enough — so far I’m really impressed with UStream producer and I wonder why the kids I see livestreaming are all doing Justin.tv or Twitch instead of UStream or LiveStream (is it the cost? Streaming Media had a nice comparison by Jan Ozer of the different streaming platforms an issue or two ago). So that means you just have to get the iPhone output to the screen, and there you go.

So how do you do that? Amit Agarwal has a nice roundup of the options, saving the best for last: AirPlay. Using Reflection or AirServer, you can mirror the screen from a suitably new iPhone or iPad to a window on your Mac.

I evaluated the two and eventually bought Reflection, based on what seemed like much superior audio performance. But still, it seemed glitchy, and tended to freeze frame frequently. Reflection has a handy recording feature, so here’s what that looks like when playing the action game Deathsmiles:

Note that this video is somewhat deceiving in that the audio gets at least 10 seconds out of sync in the recorded version (you can hear the boss battle long before you can see it), which didn’t happen while I was playing it. Nevertheless, point being that this kind of freeze-up glitch would totally unacceptable to livestream viewers.

But AirPlay works great on my AppleTV, so what’s the deal? Before hanging the problem entirely on Reflection, I played another round much closer to the wifi access point. Flawless. The video I mean… my gameplay leaves much to be desired:

The size and compression on this mp4 is a little different… the point is that the video doesn’t freeze as long as I’m close enough to the wifi access point.

So, the problem is that when I play down in my office, the wifi signal gets weak (I sometimes see 2 or even 1 bar), and that presumably drops below a threshold that’s practical for AirPlay. How do I fix this? This is where I need help. Here’s a simplified look at my home network:

The DSL (U-Verse now, I guess) comes in on the first floor on the left, behind a TV, where it then connects to a D-Link router and wifi AP (shown as an AirPort base station in this picture, uses network 192.168.2.x). I don’t use the U-Verse built-in wifi because the D-Link has such better range, which is important for getting a strong signal to the Mini on the top floor, which was not pre-wired for ethernet. We have ethernet (cat 5e) on the first floor and the basement, so one of the ethernet cables coming out of the D-Link goes down to a switch in the basement, and one of those connections goes to a switch in my office (shown with the Power Mac… hey, old stencils on Graffletopia, OK?)

So… how do I get a better wifi signal in the office? I have ethernet down here, so I’ve generally not really cared about wifi being any better than adequate. I have old wifi routers lying around, so I could easily set up another wifi network in place of the switch in the office, but then I’d be on a different network (192.168.3.x, I guess), and so I’d be cut off from the rest of the house, which hoses me out of my Subversion repository (on the Mini) and everyone else out of the color laser printer (in my office).

Another option would be a wifi repeater, I guess, but where to put it? On this floor, but directly under the wifi AP? Or just in the office itself? Is it going to make enough of a difference to be worth it?

Or is there some other kind of device I don’t know about, one that extends an existing wifi network via ethernet (so that the new AP, presumably down in my office, isn’t in the business of handing out DHCP addresses, but instead can relay it over ethernet to the AP on the first floor)?

Bounds on this problem: there’s no point spending more than $200 on a solution, because at that price-point, I could hard-wire the connection from the iPhone/iPad with VGA or HDMI output and either a VGA2USB or a BlackMagic Intensity Pro.

Comment section below, or @invalidname on Twitter and App.net. Thank in advance for any suggestions you guys and girls care to offer.

Apple TV prediction party

WWDC is just two weeks away, and this is my last iDevBlogADay spot before then (actually, yesterday was my slot, but I got thrown off by the holiday). Everyone else is going to be chiming in with predictions until then — put me down for something specific, like “Core Audio changes the canonical data types to floating-point, since ARM7 is perfectly capable of doing float” — and I don’t have much to say that I haven’t said before.

A lot of the talk is about the possibility of an Apple TV set, or an Apple TV SDK. I talked a bunch about this in my Anime Central-inspired Mac/iOS media post, but to summarize…

AirPlay is Apple’s secret weapon, to a degree that has not fully been appreciated by many. I mean that literally; Time Warner Cable’s CEO admitted to Engadget that he doesn’t know what it is. But by turning every iPhone/iPad/iPod-touch into a de facto cable box, powered by hundreds of video apps, there’s a huge potential for distrupting the existing industry. At this point, Crunchyroll is surely my favorite iOS app of all, given that it has effectively become my very own personal anime TV channel (four words, folks: Puella Magi Madoka Magica). Multiply this by a hundred niches and content providers (including 3 of the 4 big team sports in the US) and you’ve got a tsunami.

The trick is that Apple didn’t scare the incumbents with a frontal attack — they’ve let content providers slowly build up the streaming content collection. All that’s needed now is to remove the AirPlay link and run directly on the box via a Apple TV SDK. And if you’ve ever plugged an Apple TV into Xcode via the micro-USB (to test betas, as I did last year while working on AirPlay support for a client’s app), you know that Xcode recognizes the Apple TV as an iOS device and even offers a (non-functional) “enable for development” button. This is something that they could enable at a time and place of their choosing, and maybe that’ll be in two weeks.

That said, developers might not have an accurate view of what Apple TV development would be. Someone at A2-CocoaHeads said he wanted an Apple TV SDK so that he could write a game where an iPhone or iPod touch served as the game control for a TV-based game. Of course, this is possible now: the Apple TV shows up in [UIScreen screens], so you run the game logic on the handheld device and just draw graphics to the second screen.

And who knows what kinds of apps will be welcome or permitted? It would be uncharacteristic of Apple to require or even tolerate substantial keyboard-based entry on Apple TV apps — Google TV shipped a keyboard-based remote control, and how did that work out? Someone’s going to say we need streaming video apps with integrated chat, but if you really have to do that, again, you could do that today by running the app and hosting the chat interface on the iPad and streaming the video to the Apple TV.

If there is an Apple TV SDK, it should neither surprise nor disappoint anyone if the only apps that Apple accepts for it are streaming media. It’s called focus, people, something that distinguishes Apple.

AppleTV SDK? Please say yes.

I’m writing this in flight, Grand Rapids to Denver, connecting from there to SFO and WWDC 2011. Screen typing isn’t the most fun thing in the world, but the small size of the iPad, combined with its shape (no fold open screen like on a laptop, which would only collide with the reclined seat in front of me) makes it reasonably practical.

Lots of people precede WWDC with predictions and wish lists… I’m going to use this blog for a justification, in other words, why the thing I’m hoping for might make sense.

The surprise I’m hoping for is an Apple TV SDK. Not that I’m the biggest Apple TV fan… not only do I not have an Apple TV, I don’t even have a TV that will accept its HDMI connection.

But man, would I get on board quickly if there were an SDK.

And no, not to play Angry Birds on the TV. If anything, the potential for general-purpose apps on the TV is badly overstated, and has been for years, if not decades. QUBE, WebTV, various cable box standards (what was that Java one that I used to write about at java.net and was roundly ignored?)… the space has been an unbroken string of failures.

But let’s narrow our foucus. What if the SDK was optimized for streaming AV content, and providing just enough UI for browsing and choosing content (i.e., nothing more than Electronic Programming Guides [EPGs]), ignoring most of the power and elegance of the underlying iOS frameworks? What if Apple only allowed apps in this genre, rejecting anything that wasn’t an AV streaming client?

It would be awesome.

Here’s the thing: the iPhone and iPad gold rushes have motivated a lot of content providers to make their stuff available in iOS formats. Movies, TV shows, live sports, niche programming, tons of stuff. More variety and depth than you can get from a cable TV subscription, without the tyranny of the cable company taking away your favorite channel in a carriage dispute, with no recourse for viewers. And it’s a la carte: buying the Major League Baseball app doesn’t require you pay for a CourtTV or Lifetime app.

Yeah, you see where I’m going with this. Using apps as a content delivery platform, Apple TV could grab a lot of those monthly subscriptions that are currently going to cable and satellite television. And with providers taking 70% of content subscriptions sold through in-app purchase (or 100%, if users can be convinced to purchase via the provider’s website instead), there’s huge money to be made in cutting out the middle man.

More content for viewers, just the stuff they actually want, and more money for the people who actually make the stuff. Win-win. The only loser is the middle man – the hated cable companies – who get cut out of the equation because they’re no longer necessary.

So what’s the case against? Apple is careful to pick its battles, and this may not be a hornet’s nest it wants to kick up this year. Let’s war-game it: what would cablers do in response? They’re dreadfully afraid of becoming “dumb pipes” (even though that is clearly their destiny), so they can be counted on to fight this as hard as possible. They might want to block the offending streams, but the nature of HTTP Live Streaming makes that difficult: you can’t just switch off port 80, nor can you block content delivery networks without collateral damage. So they could be counted on to revive the “content providers are getting a free ride off us” spin.

More importantly, cable companies by their nature are whores of local governments, and could get legislative and regulatory attention by pointing out how much cable fees go into local government coffers. An Internet TV world is one without public access channels, without the goddamned useless “city council meeting that lasts forever” channel, and who would want to live in a world like that? Well, pretty much everyone, actually, but good luck getting a bureaucrat to listen to that when their paycheck is partially funded by Charter.

Local cable franchises are a relic, but a lot of parties have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Apple would have to be eager for a thousand little battles to pull this off.

Provided, of course, that cable sees it coming. They might not.

For all you conspiracy theorists…

One more nugget about the I-AP subscription dustup (my previous blogs: 1, 2), particularly for all you conspiracy theorists who loves you some nefarious skullduggery!:

What if the real story here is that Apple has decided to release an AppleTV SDK later this year? Streaming media apps would be far and away the most appropriate use of such an SDK — nobody needs Twitter clients for their TV or Angry Birds with a tiny D-pad — and by establishing a 30% tax on content now, it would be a fait accompli by the time the first Hulu, NFL, and Crunchyroll streams roll through port 80.

Not that I have any reason to think this is what’s going on. I’m just putting out there now in case I get lucky and get to do the “told you so” happy dance later.

You’re welcome. Happy conspiring!

Beauty and the Box

Yesterday, I took my 5-year-old daughter, Quinn, to the Beauty and the Beast sing-a-long event. Quick summary: would have worked better with more people (we only had about 20, and most were shy), but helped to be in front of some theatre girls who knew the songs by heart and were into it. Still, one of my favorite movies, one I’ve surely seen 20 or 30 times. But let’s get back to digital media…

The event was meant to promote Tuesday’s re-release of Beauty and the Beast on home video, this time in its first HD edition. I’ve already owned B&tB on VHS and DVD (the 2003 edition cleverly contained the “work in progress” film circuit version, the original version, and the IMAX re-release that added an unneeded song). So I found myself wondering if I would be buying this release. Probably not, since I don’t own a Blu-Ray player and now that we’re many years into the Blu-Ray era, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. We don’t do a lot of movie watching anymore, as most of what we watch is DVR’ed off the DirecTV, and I didn’t fall for the “PlayStation 3 as Blu-Ray trojan horse” due to the PS3’s absurd unaffordability. And I don’t feel like we’ve missed it.

Then I thought: “wait, Blu-Ray isn’t the only form of HD.” There’s also on-demand from DirecTV, and what about iTunes? A little search there shows that yes indeed, the B&tB platinum edition will also be available on iTunes: $14.99 for SD, $19.99 for HD.

Of course, these Disney classics are usually only available for a short time before they “go back in the vault”, to enhance demand for the next re-release. So if I felt I did need to grab an HD version before it went away, which would I get?

Thinking about it, I think I’m more likely to buy an AppleTV — or at least rig a Mac Mini to a TV — before I get a Blu-Ray player. As it is, I could play the HD .m4p on a bunch of the devices I currently own (computers, iPhone, iPad), and the only thing that’s missing is connectivity to the TV. In fact, various video out cables allow for iOS devices to serve as a sort of “poor man’s” first-gen AppleTV, depending on your available connections, how many videos you’ve loaded on your iPod, and your tolerance for SD. A Blu-Ray disc would be locked to the TV the player is connected to, and wouldn’t be rippable for the iDevices (though this particular bundle may come with a digital copy… haven’t checked).

Still, I’m surprised to find that I’ve blundered into exactly what Steve Jobs purportedly told a customer in one of those alleged off-the-cuff e-mails: Blu-Ray is coming up short, and will eventually be replaced by digital downloads, just as CD successors were beaten by downloads (anybody spun up an SACD lately?).

BTW, Apple’s resolute anti-Blu stance is made all the more interesting by the fact that Apple is a board member of the Blu-Ray Disc Association.

Another note about the AppleTV: teardowns and other spelunking reevel that the new device runs iOS and has 8GB of storage, which would be suitable for apps, should Apple ever choose to deliver a third-party SDK. Clearly the UI would be different — perhaps it exists not as an “AppKit” or “UIKit” but rather a “TVKit” atop Foundation and the rest of the usual Apple stack — but there would be all sorts of interesting opportunities.

One of the most obvious would be for all the existing iOS streaming media apps to connect to the TV. This includes the sports apps — everyone knows about the MLB app, but look further and you’ll find apps for major events like the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup also have their own apps with live video available via in-app purchase, DirecTV’s “NFL Sunday Ticket” streams to phones, etc. There are also specialized video apps for all manner of niches. For example, as an anime fan, I use Crunchyroll’s streaming app, and might someday sign up for Anime Network Mobile. I imagine every other little video fetish has its own streaming app, or soon will.

(By the way, none of these apps can use the standard def video out cables like Apple’s iPod or Videos apps can. When you connect the composite video cable and do [UIScreen screens], you only see one screen, so these streaming apps can’t access the video out and put their player UI over there. rdar://8063058 )

By Apple fiat, essentially all of these apps need to use HTTP Live Streaming, and an AppleTV that permitted third-party apps would presumably drive even more content providers to this standard. I had previously wondered aloud about doing an HTTP Live Streaming book, but if we get an AppleTV SDK, it would make perfect sense for the HLS material to become one or two chapters of a book on AppleTV programming, along the lines of “if you’re programming for this platform, you’re almost certainly going to be streaming video to it, so here’s how the client side works, and here’s how to set up your server.”