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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.”

The Execution, Of All Things

It’s easy enough to get hits with bad tech journalism: just rile the Apple fanboys. The Mobile Technology Weblog’s Microsoft Announces iPhone Killer deserves accolades for not involving any kind of actual announcement, nor in any way substantiating how its topic might be capable of “kill”ing the iPhone.

Android is a far more credible competitor to the iPhone, and as I said earlier, I’m interested to see if it can disprove some of Apple’s assertions about the way it conducts the iPhone ecosystem, such as the tightly-restricted review process or the prohibition on background apps, or if it will fail and thereby vindicate Apple. Still, whatever success Android might achieve, it’s hyperbole to posit it as an iPhone killer, at least at this stage.

Honestly, the two biggest threats I see to the iPhone come from the iPhone ecosystem itself.

In the worst case, one leads to mere tragedy, the other to catastrophe. Not that I’m predicting such a thing; I’m not a Cassandra (except when playing Soul Calibur, but that’s another story). But I do think these are issues that have the potential to cause great harm to Apple, its users, and its developers.

1. iPhone development is a bubble economy, already severely overinflated

Rilo Kiley, “The Execution of All Things“:
Soldiers come quickly, I feel the earth beneath my feet.
I’m feeling badly, it’s not an attempt at decency.

Surely only the most foolish and greedy developers at this point think they’re going to write a simple game and make a million dollars, like Steve Demeter, who pulled $250,000 in two months with the indie game Trism. The easy, early money has been made. Now there are 100,000 apps to compete with for attention, and only the top 2,000 have any significant usership.

But still, lots of developers are picking up Objective-C, learning from books like ours (thank you!), and putting their own time and money into writing their own indie apps. Even if they don’t expect to become iPhone millionaires, they’d at least like a shot at being, as Dan Grigsby aptly put it, warm, clothed, and fed with the proceeds of their iPhone work.

It’s possible the door has already largely closed to this too.

When I say that iPhone development is a bubble, I welcome you to interpret that in very literal economic terms. A developer who puts time and money into learning iPhone development does so in hopes of realizing a significant return.

And if you’re well off, well then I’m happy some for you.
But I’d rather not celebrate my defeat and humiliation here with you.

Personal case study: I put about two months of full time work into RoadTip… actually, three when you account for the month spent on the nightmare of implementing in-app purchase. That was time that I lived off a credit card, meaning I used a high-interest loan from Capital One to fund my development. I also put fixed costs, like artwork for the icon (from a former CNN colleague who used to work in the graphics department) and trademark registration on my card. So this is serious skin in the game.

After two weeks of sales, it is clear that I will never make back this investment. Not even close. I may never even make back the fixed costs, to say nothing of paying myself.

OK, there are reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that there were no exit-finder apps when I started, and at least four others now (none of which seem to have bothered licensing their map data… would love to know how they’re not violating their providers’ terms of service). In the hit-driven App Store, you fall off your section’s “recently released” page after just a day or two, and unless you make the top 20 or have something else that makes you findable (a brand name, a well-travelled incoming link), you’re already dead.

Someone come quickly, this place was built for moving out.
Leave behind buildings, the city planners got mapped out.
Bring with you history, and make your hard earned feast.
Then we’ll go to Omaha to work and exploit the booming music scene, and humility.

If this is a hit-driven business, then the winners may be the ones who best understand marketing. And that’s the scenario by which we get lots of name-brand big-company apps, where there’s enough money to get the app in front of lots of people. The indie developer, who knows more about code than marketing, is at a severe disadvantage.

And if the risk of failure is not paying the mortgage, then it’s probably time for a lot of indies to bail out.

And this is still classic economics: too much money is in the iPhone market, chasing too little reward, and eventually there’ll be a pullback.

The question is if anyone will notice. Will the average user really miss 200 different Twitter clients or unit converters? Or is there some special, unique, topic-specific niche app that some tiny group of users would dearly love, and now will never get, because the developer who could write it is instead going to go take a contract to write the “American Idol Sing-A-Long Fun Kit”™ or god fucking knows what else?

Who knows? But much as I continue to think the world needs a touch-driven “IDE for podcasts”, something that might be extraordinary on a hypothetical OS X-powered tablet, I’m not going to risk any more of my own precious lucre developing such a thing. At this point, I expect my iPhone development to be largely for-hire works.

And we’ve been talking all night….

So that’s just sad, this one is dangerous:

2. Some of Apple’s iPhone development policies could violate anti-trust law

Anti-trust?! You should think I’m nuts. You’re probably thinking: Apple’s just a small player in a very competitive market, prone to lose their position at any time to strong competitors. You want to talk monopolies, let’s talk Microsoft.

No, I don’t want to talk monopolies. That’s the Sherman Act. I want to talk restraint of trade… the Clayton Act.

Consider this: the crux of the 90’s antitrust case against Microsoft — successfully prosecuted, if you’ll recall — was that Microsoft abused its dominant position by bundling its Internet Explorer web browser with Windows, to the disadvantage of Netscape Navigator, which had to be installed separately. Microsoft was branded as evil incarnate for the act of simply including a browser.

On the iPhone, Apple not only includes a browser, it prohibits developers from using any web-rendering technology other than WebKit.

Oh god come quickly, the execution of all things.
Let’s start with the bears and the air and mountains, rivers, and streams.
Then we’ll murder what matters to you and move on to your neighbors and kids.
Crush all hopes of happiness with disease ‘cause of what you did.

But that’s just the beginning. Consider some other technological and commercial restraints put on developers:

  • You may not use any interpreted language or a virtual machine in an app.
  • You must use Apple’s in-app purchase API, and pay Apple a 30% cut, for any post-sale commerce in your app.
  • Effective December 2009, streaming video to an iPhone can only be delivered with HTTP Live Streaming

There’s more, but that’s enough to get us started talking about tying, the practice of compelling a customer to purchase one product as a condition of buying another. The crux of my argument is: could this be applied to Apple’s App Store policies?

Maybe, if a court is sufficiently inventive. It’s been 18 years since I took Prof. Litman’s telecomm economics class in grad school, but he was particularly interested in antitrust law, and I recall the significant issues of that area of case law. In one case — and I’m sorry, I forget if it was FTC vs. Proctor & Gamble (the “Clorox Case”) or U.S. vs. Alcoa — the court was basically willing to invent a market within the defendant company’s operations, in order to claim that the market was closed to competition.

Let’s play with this line of reasoning. Can we imagine parties that might have a complaint against Apple for shutting off a market to them?

  • Sun (Java) and Adobe (Flash) for code-execution environments (i.e., interpreters and virtual machines)
  • PayPal and other payment processors for selling apps and handling in-app purchases
  • Adobe (Flash) and Microsoft (Silverlight) for video playback and streaming technologies
  • Opera and the Mozilla Foundation for web rendering technologies

All of these companies have services that they could sell to iPhone developers, but for the fact that Apple forbids their use on iPhone by fiat. Of course developers contractually agree to that, but they don’t really have a choice: it’s Apple’s way or the highway. And you may agree that it’s better that way; that’s entirely reasonable.

But if you successfully make the argument that things like in-app purchase processing or video streaming are competitive markets, then you might have a case that Apple’s App Store terms violate the Clayton Act.

Granted, I’m not a lawyer, and if it were such a slam dunk, then it’s fair to ask: why haven’t Adobe, Sun, PayPal and the rest sued on exactly this basis? Fair enough.

Still, if we woke up next week to an antitrust investigation of Apple’s App Store practices, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

And lastly, you’re all alone with nothing left but sleep.
But sleep never comes to you, it’s just the guilt and forever wakefulness of the weak.
It’s just you and me….

The execution of all things.
The execution of all things.
The execution of all things.

Travel Hazards

Sorry for the lack of updates. I’m traveling with family in San Diego, with the occasional futile one-day trip up to Disneyland (it may be the Happiest Place on Earth, but it’s no match for Autism Challenge Boy).

Anyways, had to get this off my chest. The Grand Rapids airport (GRR) has free wi-fi. Which is usually a good thing. They even have a special greeting page for iPhone users:
IMG_0101

This page then changes to a “click to continue” page:
IMG_0100

So you click the link to continue on to the original page you requested. Except that you end up back here:
IMG_0101

Yep, the whole thing is a goddamn infinite loop of two advertising nag pages. And with no way to spoof your user-agent on the iPhone, there’s no way to get around it.

And it was this way when I departed from GRR for WWDC back in June.

And when we went down to Florida in February. On that occasion, I sent an e-mail to the airport asking them to fix it, and got a brush-off “yeah, yeah, you don’t understand our awesome technology, little boy” reply.

Anyways, the “FlyGRR” network is useless, and if you’ve had the misfortune to connect to it, there’s only one sensible course of action:
IMG_0102

It’s annoying, but at least there’s no injury involved. That was reserved for our connection in Chicago. Ever heard those urban legends that escalators can rip kids’ Crocs, and sometimes some toes, right off their feet? Turns out it’s true. 4-year-old daughter Quinn was going up an escalator with my wife on the United concourse when her right Croc got caught. This is what it looked like after cleaning it (and her) up in the bathroom:
IMG_0103

Notice that there’s a tear coming off one of the holes in the middle. Quinn describes the incident as “the escalator tried to take my Croc”. I still don’t know WTF happened, but I’m glad she’s not injured, and I guess I have to take the legend of Croc-eating escalators a little more seriously.