August 13th, 2012 § Comments Off § permalink
The hockey-puck-sized set-top box is called Apple TV, and that makes things confusing when you want to talk about a hypothetical Apple TV set, by which you mean a big screen you can watch shows and movies on.
Tim Bajarin of PC Magazine thinks Apple is going to stick with the hockey puck for now:
The problem with TVs is that people buy them and hold on to them for five to seven years on average. While Apple could design a TV that could be upgraded in software, it makes more sense to create a sophisticated box that works with all televisions and allows the company to innovate around this model.
This argument is compelling if you imagine that the Apple TV set will simply be a television set with the Apple TV box integrated. And that’s what most people are imagining, because that is what every other attempt at a “smart” TV has been: just like your last TV, but with more items on the on-screen menu.
If you’re a patriotic American, you have a TV in your living room. It has a remote that you use to change the volume and choose video input. It is probably connected to a cable box and/or DVR, which also has another remote which you use to change the channel and, if you have a nerd in your family, also changes the volume. You also have a DVD player or Xbox or Blu-ray player or PlayStation or who knows what else. When you want to watch a movie, you need the nerd in your family to show you how to work the “choose input” on — which remote is it now? Oh hell, I’ll just watch the news in the kitchen.
The problem with modern TV sets is that they are a mess of boxes and wires. A coaxial cable enters your house. It connects to a splitter, which sends one wire into a cable modem (for your Internet) and another into your cable box/DVR. The cable modem is connected to a Wi-Fi router; the cable box is connected to your TV. The TV is connected to a bunch of other devices. There are a half-dozen remote controls. Worse, at least two of the remotes attempt to be “universal” but aren’t really because there is no interoperable standard for remote controls, so it must be “programmed” for the particular devices you have, and even professional programmers aren’t good at programming.
If somebody (it doesn’t have to be Apple, but, seriously, who else will?) wants to manufacture a TV that will solve this once and for all, they are going to have to build a TV that takes responsibility for all of the support functions that these separate devices provide.
What would that look like?
- One coaxial cable comes out of the wall and connects directly into the TV set.
- The set contains an integrated cable modem. Thanks to DOCSIS, most cable modems are interchangeable. Oh, now the TV set is your Wi-Fi router, too.
- The set also contains an integrated cable TV tuner. Thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, your cable company will provide you with a CableCARD that you can insert into the TV, to make it compatible with your service.
With the above, we have eliminated the cable modem, Wi-Fi router, and cable set-top box. Now we just have a TV set with two wires coming out of it (coaxial cable and power). We’re assuming the Apple TV software is integrated, so we could stop here and have a pretty good product: one simple remote, live TV, plus iTunes and Netflix and Hulu Plus streaming.
What are we missing?
I didn’t include DVR yet; since it has to sit between the tuner and the screen, it would have to be integrated. You could argue that, given all the streaming options, it isn’t entirely necessary, but given how weird and inconsistent the streaming agreements are among various TV shows, most people would want DVR today. I could see it going away in the future, though.
You could watch DVDs and Blu-ray discs on an integrated player. Then again, depending on who you ask, optical discs are legacy technology already, so maybe we should lump disc players in with the consoles as optional, alternate video sources.
But if we add a couple of HDMI ports on the back, won’t we be going back to square one, and reintroducing the problem of choosing inputs and teaching your mother how to read a wiring diagram?
Perhaps. But I think we could handle it for two reasons:
- We have already replaced the old TV remote and cable box remote with a much simpler remote. Those two were always the worst offenders, each fighting the other to be the One True Universal Remote, but failing since the only way they know how to fight is by adding more and more buttons. On the other hand, it is pretty clear which thing on the coffee table controls the Xbox, it looks nothing like the TV remote.
- Because we have integrated the cable tuner, the TV “knows” which video source is which. So we can put a “Home” button on the TV remote which always shows you a helpful menu like Live TV, Recorded Shows, Netflix rather than HDMI 1, HDMI 2, HDMI 3. Heck, I bet if the software was written by smart people, it could even identify which ports have something plugged into them and maybe even what that something is. And then you don’t have to name inputs by using up and down arrows to spell words.
So there you go. We solve the TV problem by integrating all of these utility boxes into the screen itself, and writing well-designed, responsive software to control it.
Note that we haven’t used Siri to control it, so plenty of tech journalists will still be able to dismiss it as unimpressive when it is announced. But my parents, who would only have to plug in a coax cable and a power cord, would love this.
July 30th, 2012 § Comments Off § permalink
Apple launched a new series of “Genius” ads last week. The tech press, who has trouble relating to regular people, thinks they are terrible. Here is a typical piece of critcism:
But the Mac owner is clearly a simpleton who puts computer help ahead of his own laboring wife and apparently can’t operate a phone. And why is he taking a random Apple employee along to the hospital?
These are fair points, if you are questioning the reality of universe in which the ads take place. Guess what, Trekkie? That is not how people watch ads.
People, in general, watch TV to relax. Sure, some people try figure out the identity of the killer before the last commercial break, but most people are happy to let the detectives do it. You already know this, but I’m spelling it out to emphasize that pointing out that real Geniuses don’t sleep in their uniforms is, well, pointless.
Complaints that the ads make Mac users look stupid are just, well, weird. First of all, have you ever seen an ad for anything else? The vast majority of ads that take place in a household setting involve a husband who does something stupid and a clever wife who must come to the rescue. The vast majority. Yet I never hear anyone complaining about how General Mills is insulting its customers.
Nobody watches a beer commercial and thinks, hey, that could be me on that beach with those bikini girls! If you think that’s how it works, you have a seriously low opinion of people. The fact is, people don’t project themselves into ads. That’s not how it works. People watch these 30 second short films and have an emotional reaction, which the advertiser hopes is associated with their product.
Nobody thinks the beer will get them a bikini girl, but when they see the beer, it feels nice, like a watching a bikini volleyball game does.
Here is what “you people” are missing:
- These ads are not for Mac, they are for the Genius Bar.
- These ads, like every other ad, are about emotion.
On the first item, this is a good move, because the Genius Bar is something almost completely unique to Apple. I’d even wager there are people out there who have set foot in an Apple Store and still aren’t completely clear on exactly what the Genius Bar is all about. Their only point of reference is Best Buy’s Geek Squad, whose primary focus is technical issues, repairs, upgrades, etc. They are auto mechanics. Geniuses, on the other hand, also help you use your Mac to do things like edit a home movie. The purpose of these ads is to communicate that idea.
On the second item, the way an ad communicates is with emotion. I thought that with Mad Men on the air, we were all supposed to understand that. The reason the ads feature over-the-top situations with people acting in extreme ways is to heighten that emotion. If you just played a video of someone going to an actual Genius Bar with an actual problem, it would be an insanely boring 30 seconds.
Here is what happens in the Genius ads. Try watching with the sound off.
Mayday. It’s very serious. Genius is needed. Passenger is having a problem. Genius keeps his cool, tells Passenger to calm down. Genius and Passenger become a team. It is intense. Passenger: Oh no, we’re not going to make it! Genius: We are going to make it. Problem solved! Yeah! What’s this? New problem. Let’s go!
Basically. Green Shirt taps Genius on the shoulder. Friendly hello! Green Shirt is proud of what’s in his bag. Genius is concerned. Green Shirt is confident. Genius asks a question. Green Shirt starts to look concerned. Shakes his head, no. Gesture at a man leaning in a door way. Genius has pained expression. Sorry. Everybody is sorry.
Labor Day. Urgent knock on the door! Lights on! Out of bed! Man is excited! Genius was woken up but he is not angry. Genius is paying attention. Man is excited! Genius is calm, offers a plan. Man is excited! Genius closes the door, let’s go together.
The situations are silly in order to heighten the drama of the situation, but in every case, the Genius is helping someone, and keeping calm while doing so. That’s the story that these ads are communicating. The Genius will help you.
People are pointing to the “Basically” ad as an example of condescension, but honestly this is about the nicest way you can react if a friend you know has made a mistake and you want to let them down gently. You don’t tell them they made a mistake; you give them the benefit of the doubt (so the computer you got has iPhoto, right?); and then when they realize it you try to be sympathetic. You can argue that Apple shouldn’t have tried to tell this story, but I don’t think you can argue that there’s a “nicer” version of it.
I’m almost angry about how “certain” everyone is that these ads are not good. This is coming from the same tiny faction of people who are “certain” Twitter needs to support the 3rd party clients that nobody but themselves is using, or else!
For all the criticism I’ve read, I haven’t seen any suggestions about how Apple should do it differently. There is some rosy retrospection regarding the PC vs Mac ad campaign (it was never universally liked), but that’s about it.
July 19th, 2012 § Comments Off § permalink
I found a theme I don’t absolutely hate, so, for now, I’m going to give WordPress another chance.
It’s going to need some tweaking, though.
April 4th, 2011 § Comments Off § permalink
A touchscreen is not just a fancypants alternative to using a mouse.
To push an onscreen button with a mouse involves several layers of indirection: you move your hand to push a device to move a tiny arrow across the screen until it is over the button, then you move your finger to push a physical button.
To push the same button on a touch screen, you just reach out and tap it.
This is the reason Apple uses the word “magical” in iPad marketing material. Being able to manipulate these virtual things directly, with your hands, is a big deal.
I don’t remember how long ago I had the idea for Fingerpaintball. There were a half dozen Breakout derivatives on the App Store already, but they all required the player to swipe a finger to move a paddle to hit the ball. While it works well with a joystick or a mouse, the interaction feels needlessly artificial on a touchscreen.
In October 2010 I started work on a Breakout-type game that would take advantage of iPad’s touchscreen. Instead of moving a virtual paddle, the player would draw a line, and the ball would bounce off those lines. The project was also a good opportunity for myself to re-learn OpenGL, since I hadn’t used it in so long.
Work slowed in November, due to demands from a part-time tech support role. It all but stopped in December, due to family obligations involving a trip halfway around the world. In January and February I was busy with client work, and Fingerpaintball was firmly on the back burner.
One does not usually need to register an app with iTunes until you are ready to upload a finished binary, but certain functionality, such as Game Center and In-App Purchases, require that you register the app in order to test it. Registering your app reserves the name you choose, but it also starts a countdown: if you don’t upload a binary within 120 days, the registration will be deleted and you won’t be able to use the name any more.
So in mid-February I received a warning: if I didn’t ship by March 17, I’d lose the name Fingerpaintball. Other developers on iphonesb advised me to simply delete it myself to avoid the penalty, re-registering it later when I was ready to finish the app. Ignoring them, I decided to use the deadline as motivation to finish the damn thing. Real artists ship.
It wasn’t until March 11 that I had time to work on the game again. I originally had a sizable list of things that “needed” to be in the 1.0 release, but with only a week remaining, I quickly learned what was really essential and what was not. For example, my intention from the start was to release the game under a fremium model: free to play the first few levels, pay to play the rest. Designing all the levels and implementing In-App Purchase was therefore necessary for 1.0, until I realized it wasn’t.
The advanced levels and the purchasing could wait for a later release. Bonuses could also wait. Multiball could wait. Sound effects could wait. It turns out that, when a hard deadline is approaching, a lot of things I thought were necessary could wait.
I thought I understood the idea that You Should Be Embarrassed By Your 1.0, but I didn’t really understand until now. In the past I would write what I believed to be a minimal feature list, and as I worked, adjust the release date accordingly. Now I see I had it backwards: I should have been picking a release date, then trimming feature list as I go.
So far there are two reviews on the U.S. App Store and they both basically say the same thing: a good concept but kind of boring to play. I tend to agree. I am embarrassed by Fingerpaintball in its current form. The parts that are there work well, but it’s just not enough.
I wonder, though, if iterative development applies to games. Changing the interface of a utility doesn’t have the same implications as changing the rules of a game. If people are competing via a leaderboard, an update can create an uneven playing field. But these are not insurmountable problems: new leaderboards can be created, or people can simply deal with it. World of Warcraft has an enormously sophisticated set of rules that has changed several times over its lifetime; if Blizzard can find a way to manage, so can I.
If you have an iPad, install Fingerpaintball and tell me what you think. Then stay tuned: I don’t intend to stay embarrassed for too long.