Burning at Both Ends

Anyone who has read this blog in the past (thanks, Mom!) knows that I’m a fan of Netflix as well as the Fox Network show Arrested Development. Today, Netflix announced that it is going to be bringing back Arrested Development in 2012 exclusively to their streaming video service; firmly placing them in the category of a premium cable channel. I’m also a fan of Apple and Amazon, who along with Netflix, are businesses which represent the future of the entertainment industry and media consumption, though in significantly different ways.

Jon Gruber stated the other day that he didn’t think Netflix was capable of creating hardware to support an “end-to-end solution.” I don’t disagree that there’s essentially no chance Netflix will move beyond the app business and into actual hardware1. But I disagree with the notion that Apple and Amazon are providing end-to-end solutions. In fact, what Apple and Amazon are really providing are middle-to-one-end solutions. That is, they take content licensed from a studio and serve it over their systems to their hardware2. Netflix, however, is moving to the other end by creating content to serve on their systems to someone else’s hardware platform via an app. In doing so, they get a wider installed base with no hardware investment (which no one other than Apple has really yet to crack; though the Kindle Fire from Amazon is just a week old).

Netflix has dabbled with being a studio in the past, or at least a financier of independent film. Their folded Red Envelope Entertainment—which backed some really great indie films—was a worthy try, but competed against some of their bread & butter content providers. While that fact hasn’t changed much, the stakes have. When Netflix made the decision to close their Red Envelope Entertainment division, the Apple App Store had just launched and the iPad hadn’t even been announced yet. That landscape has completely changed, with premium network HBO having a really terrific app now that lets subscribers watch their shows on demand. The ability to watch Game of Thrones anytime, anywhere has surely helped HBO’s subscriber numbers and I think this is what Netflix must have it’s eye on.

The price of Netflix’s streaming service puts in the range with HBO and now Netflix has the killer content which will compel fans to sign up if they weren’t already subscribers. Thus they stand a chance to gain subscribers at the expense of premium cable providers like HBO, especially among the growing number of cable-cutters (you don’t need a cable subscription to watch Netflix shows; you do for HBO’s).

So, which is a better business to be in between hardware and content producer? I honestly don’t know, but given the nightmare of content licenses all these tech companies are having to navigate, I have a good feeling that producing premium content might be more as appealing as getting into the hardware game. Though the markets for iPads is essentially the same age as the market for streaming video apps on such devices, the playing field among studios looks a lot more leve than having to taken on a juggernaut like Apple’s iOS devices from scratch.

You’re move, Amazon.

  1. This is the company that is racing to dump physical media, for one thing! []
  2. Note that, in the case of Amazon’s print publishing, they are consuming the entire business between author an reader. Now that is as much an end-to-end solution as one could have, short of providing advances to authors. []

Getting iPhoto to recognize your updated iOS 5 device

It’s almost embarrassing that I hadn’t tried transferring my photos off of my iPhone 4—running iOS 5— in nearly a month since upgrading. I suppose with the iCloud service, many users won’t ever have an issue with this. However, Angela and I share a iTunes account and don’t really care to have our photos doubled on one another’s computers. She doesn’t care about my goofy Instagram photos and don’t need to see the photos of some office baby shower. Therefore, we still back up our photos on our computers manually via iPhoto, or at least we’d planned to.

When we plugged our phones into our computers today, we realized that the iPhone device or camera roll weren’t showing up in iTunes. Even checking the Image Capture on the mac didn’t show the camera. After some hunting around, I finally found the solution. It’s not one I would have ever thought to do and it really strikes me as odd that Apple didn’t hammer this out already with all the other upgrades required for using iOS 5.

To get iPhoto to recognize your iOS 5 device, do the following:

  1. Eject your iPhone or iPad if it is connected.
  2. Using Finder and select the iPhoto Library file in the Pictures folder in your home directory.

  3. Right click and select Show Package Contents from the pop-up menu.

    The internal folder structure of the file is displayed.

    Tip: It may be helpful display items in a list, as there are quite a few files in the iPhoto Library.

  4. (Optional) Right click on the folder named iPod Photo Cache and select Compress “iPod Photo Cache” from the pop-up menu.

    This will give you a back up copy, in case something should go wrong. However, this is an automatically generated folder so you really shouldn’t lose anything.

  5. Right click on the folder named iPod Photo Cache and select Move to Trash.
  6. Reconnect your iPhone or iPad to your computer

    You should see the device appear in iPhoto, where you can import photos and videos as with previous version of iOS.

    If you happen to still have the contents of the iPhoto Library still showing in Finder, you’ll notice that the folder you just deleted gets generated using the new database structure used in iOS 5.

According to Royalwise Solutions, this issue stems from a change in the database used by iOS versions 2 through 4.3.3 is no longer used in iOS 5.0. Thanks to them for providing the details on how to fix this issue. Easy solution but not something most users are likely to figure out on their own (I know I couldn’t, anyway).

Windows Explorer in Windows 8

I read this post on Improvements in the Windows Explorer earlier today with quite a bit of excitement. There’s a lot to learn in here about the thought process that goes behind the Ribbon UI which was developed at Microsoft and is finally reaching the Explorer window. I, personally, welcome the changes and think it is great that they are exposing so many power features but with the ability to make the interface as minimal as needed for someone who won’t use them. As someone who’s getting into more UX design, particularly when it comes to Ribbon UI applications, this sort of stuff is invaluable.

Gruber mentioned it in an aside piece, pointing out that Apple and Microsoft are really diverging in terms of UI design1. This is certainly true when comparing the (still in Alpha) Windows 8 Explorer window with the UI changes in OSX Lion. While it is fair to argue that Microsoft’s UI is busy, I think Apple has gone a bit too far in the other direction. My largest gripe is that all the color has been removed from most icons, making it a bit harder to differentiate one gray square from another. The ribbon can be minimized in any Ribbon UI program—resulting in what are functionally just graphical menus. There is a tool (oddly, with a gray gear icon) in the Finder which is “Perform tasks with the selected item(s)” which generally accomplishes the same task. Of course, it is just a menu and limited to practical menus sizes (no different than a right-click contextual menu at all).

Context menu in the OS X Lion Finder, or, as I like to call it: the puddle of gray blocks

The Windows 7 Explorer dialog is similarly simple, with a menu-ish toolbar providing some context-sensitive tools along the top. This interface looks a bit like Internet Explorer 8, but that is still different enough to most Windows programs that I think many users just never got used to the controls. In IE, the main purpose is browsing. Hiding settings, etc. aren’t needed most of the time and I’d wager many users don’t even know about them. However, I think anyone using a file manager is often looking to do more than just browse those files.

Windows 7 Explorer
The relatively stripped down Explorer interface in Windows 7

Windows 8—assuming that many of these features don’t get stripped out or watered down by some larger committee (as has happened to Windows releases in the past; thus Vista)—seems to try to cater to both casual users by way of the collapsable Ribbon and even the Metro UI (which will prevent many users from even seeing the Explorer window) as well as to power users who think that reducing the number of clicks to show hidden items from five down to two is awesome. Trying to have it both ways may very well not work, as is too often the case.

But, right or wrong, the Finder in OSX Lion is still going to be nearly as lousy after Windows 8 as it was when OS X first launched2. At least the Windows team is willing to listen to criticism and make some drastic changes.

  1. Fair to point out that Gruber didn’t mention any criticism of either, though if I had to place money on where his preferences lie, I’d go with Apple. []
  2. There seem to be nearly as many Finder replacements for OS X as there are Explorer replacement/add-ons for Windows. However, the popularity of the $40 Path Finder really suggests how cumbersome Finder can be. []

On Jobs’ Retirement as CEO of Apple

I’m an Apple fan and as much as I’d like to write something on Steve Jobs’ retirement, the Internet is pretty much already filled to the brim with ruminations on the topic. If you do choose to read a piece on this, I suggest MG Seigler’s piece at TechCrunch. It summarizes why Jobs’ leaving is broader than just a tech news piece and delves into what is next for Apple.

I will summarize why this matters to me: Apple was formed a few months before I was born and Jobs retired on my 35th birthday. I have grown up with Apple in a very real sense. From playing "Oregon Trail" on an Apple ][ to carrying a device ripped from a science fiction novel as my phone, these devices have really mattered to me. The attention to detail in them and the amount of vision it took to get them in my hands has always been phenomenal. The fact that so many others are taking note of this change in leadership means that they meant a lot to all of us, regardless of what computer of phone we use. It was always so much more than just that.

Printing in iOS With Your Old Printer

The feature that I (and I’m sure, many) was most looking forward to in iOS 4.2 was printing. Apple advertised this as one of the main features and, having used Bonjour to configure many a printer in the past, I looked forward to actually being able to use it. Bonjour is Apple’s nearly-zero configuration utility for sharing resources (mostly printers) among computers on a network. It is one of the best examples of Apple’s it just works motto. If you’ve never tried to configure a printer on a network then you can’t really appreciate the special level of Hell from which this little technology saves you.

Not having any printers makes my iPhone sad.

So, despite this, I was upset that Apple had all but canned printing in the final release of iOS 4.2. Oh, sure it works with a handful of new HP printers. However, I wasn’t really interested in purchasing a fancy new printer when I have an old HP that works just fine, thank you very much. I am holding out hope that this is a matter of not releasing the feature until it really does just work. Regardless, it seems like a half-baked way to put a feature out there. I had even told friends that they should consider buying an iPad because printing would becoming soon. I’m not looking forward to explaining the rest of the story to them (as they are not really techies and are likely to simply blame me).

Fortunately, there are a couple of nice mac utilities that can at last bridge the gap for our household (an OS X computer which is on and shares a printer): Fingerprint by Collobos and Printopia by Ecamm Network. I downloaded a copy of Fingerprint (free seven day trial which allows you to ensure it works with your network & printer). Open the application, select my shared printer, and then print from my iPhone 4.

That’s it.

The Fingerprint utility window. Not really much else to show here, actually.

Zero configuration. It simply uses Bonjour to tell my iPhone that there is a printer available. I select that printer and set the number of copies I want. All other settings are just the default for the printer (so, no grayscale printer, for example). I can also save to my desktop or DropBox folder in .PDF file format, which is great for saving and sharing things which I don’t really need tp keep a hard copy. Fingerprint even includes the capability send it your print job to iPhoto, which is a nice touch. In fact, that is how I transferred all the iPhone screenshots for this post.

Note: Apparently, Printopia does all these things as well (minus the iPhoto bit) for a couple of dollars more, so I chose Fingerprint. However, Printopia is nice in that it is added to the System Preferences panel instead of being a separate application.

The printer options screen and printer selection screen once Fingerprint is running on any machine on the same network.

Fingerprint is $7.99, which is a lot cheaper than a new printer and easily worth it for our household to have this feature. The application has in-app purchasing and licensing if you decide to purchase and they accept credit card or PayPal.

We still do print things from time-to-time and having that ability on our iPhones (and iPad, someday… right, dear?) is awesome. Because Apple may never release this for just any old printer. They really aren’t known for supporting legacy hardware, after all.

Here’s a video of how simple printing in iOS is, once it works:

Printing in iOS 4.2 using FingerPrint from Jason Coleman on Vimeo.

iPhone for the Deaf

deafmac.org on the WWDC keynote by Steve Jobs yesterday:

The “one more thing” from Steve Jobs was something we all expected – video calling on the iPhone 4. What was not expected was how it put American Sign Language users in the spotlight, at the very end of the FaceTime video.

Of everything in the (nearly two hour) presentation, this caught my attention the most. Most of the examples of how Apple thinks iPhone 4 owners will use FaceTime were everything you’d expect (except for that; you do that that on your own time). However, showing a conversation taking place over the phone in ASL was a moving way to showcase how this phone can really do something no other can.

Will the iPhone 4 be the first cell phone that supports communication for the hearing impaired with no configuration or third-party applications?

Who’s on Top for the Race to the Bottom?

I’ve been watching some of the events around Wolfram Alpha lately with some interest. I had a copy of Wolfram Mathematica in grad. school1 and have always felt somewhat in awe of the sense of raw power one gets from using their software. It’s so open and endless; it is really more like a framework or even an operating system than most one-trick pony applications we know and use. So, this morning I see that Wolfram has priced their iPhone app for Alpha at $50. Stephen Wolfram thinks pretty highly of himself and his company also thinks quite highly of their software, right?

I agree with John Gruber that this a good idea and good for the app store, in general. And based on my experience with Wolfram, they’re just the company to do this and won’t be bothered if they never break the top of the app charts. Given the relatively high price2 of their desktop applications, it actually seems quite cheap. It’s not as though Mathematica ever broke any sales records compared to other desktop software. Most folks have never even heard of it, I suspect. Alpha is a nice interface for a handy service, but I never got the impression this is meant to be a Wikipedia competitor for the average user; it’s a professional application for people who want distilled, unbiased data at their fingertips.

I think part of the issue with the sticker shock at $50 is that that is probably the average that most folks spend on desktop applications. That’s even high if you don’t ever buy anything from Microsoft, Adobe, or Apple, frankly. But when it comes to mobile platforms3 — and the iTunes App Store, in particular — that seems to be way above the average. But here’s the catch: Wolfram doesn’t intend for this to an application for the average user. It is meant to be an app for professionals who need access to data.

As I work for a company which also produces professional software for a fairly limited audience (infrastructure engineering), I can attest that high prices are the norm for professional software which is solely intended for professional settings. In the structural group at Bentley, I think the lowest priced application we sell is about $1,8004. Just ask any amateur photograph who bought what they thought was a fancy camera only to learn that Photoshop cost even more than their camera! There are generally alternatives for folks who just want to tool around. Professional software isn’t for them and it is going to priced accordingly.

There are plenty of precedences for professional software on mobile platforms costing much more than $5 or even $50. My wife’s pharmaceutical database — Lexi-Comp Complete — is about $300, for example. I imagine that’s more than most iPhone users spend on all of their apps and their phone, combined! But that’s the point. The phone here is a platform to have this sort of data handy, not the end in of itself, which just has the capability for fancy widgets. And this is the real power of such a device as a platform; much like when a computer was just seen as a fancy typewriter instead of what all it can actually be.

If the iPhone is to be taken seriously as a mobile platform, then we need to get away from some notion that all applications should be cheap widgets.

  1. Hell, I had the t-shirt. []
  2. A new copy of Mathematica 7 is about $2,500. Though it is only fair to note that Alpha is not just some mobile version of Mathematica; it is a completely different application. []
  3. Oh, the irony. This is the same platform where folks routinely pay 50% more for a 30-second, low quality version of a song they already own just for the privilege of using it as a ring tone. []
  4. And it goes way up from there. This past weekend, at BarCamp, I must have been the only person in the room who didn’t so much as blink when someone mentioned a software price which included as much as five zeros. []