Sunday, 30 December 2007

Blu-Ray Apple TV

Apple TV has clearly not lived up to expectations, since Steve Jobs now refers to it as a "hobby". The product was always a little ahead of its time, in two respects. Firstly, it envisages a day when optical media (such as DVDs and CDs) are abandoned, despite the fact that Blu-Ray and HD DVDs are just now hitting shelves, and secondly, the iTunes Store does not yet offer a large enough range of movie downloads, and no high-def or rentals.

As a result, Apple TV is effectively a product in search of a market. In my view, the solution to this is clear - address early adopters with the best solution for a Blu-Ray player (better still if it can play both Blu-Ray and HD DVD formats, but since Apple's in the Blu-Ray camp, this is unlikely).

Right now, a lot of people are considering purchasing a high-def player, and for those who don't go for a Playstation 3, a Blu-Ray Apple TV could become the most popular choice.

Combined with an improved Apple Remote (see previous article) the one other enhancement that would broaden the potential market for Apple TV is a display. This would make it ideal for hooking up to audio systems to play music without the need to turn on a TV set to navigate menus.

A Blu-Ray drive and a display will inevitably push the price up, but could potentially turn this much-forgotten product into a smash hit. Naturally, at some point in the future, the optical drive can be dropped in favour of downloads again!

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Apple Remote 2.0

The Apple Remote was introduced with the first upgrade to the iMac G5, which introduced Front Row. Since then, the tiny white plastic remote has been bundled with the entire Mac range, plus the Apple TV. You can even use it with the iPod Universal Dock, and the now defunct iPod HiFi.
When it was launched, Steve Jobs proudly compared it with competitor remotes, which contrasted with the Apple Remote's simplicity. The fact that all the functionality is distilled down into 6 buttons illustrated everything that Apple aimed to achieve in terms of design, Jobs said.
Having used the remote for over a year now, three things strike me:
  1. It is very easy for non-techies to use. My parents, who are complete technophobes, love their Apple TV because it has the only Remote Control that they "get"
  2. It is very clumsy for more sophisticated users - just a couple more buttons would solve a lot of problems
  3. It is now out of step with the Apple's new aluminium design style
Points 2 and 3 indicate it's time of some enhancements, whilst point 1 indicates that Apple shouldn't lose site of what's great about the original.
So what should change in the Apple Remote 2.0?
  1. Separate "Play/Pause" and "Select" buttons. This would enable you to pause playback wherever you are in the menu system. Pressing play (or double-clicking play?) would take you to the Now Playing screen. This also solves "Resume Playback" in DVDs - it's so frustrating if you're in the middle of a DVD movie, you press menu, and then you must press menu again and select "Resume Playback" to return to where you were in the movie.
  2. Home would take you to the top menu wherever you are - to avoid the "back, back, back, back" clicks you currently have to do on the menu button to navigate around
  3. Separate "Volume" from up and down controls, so that you can change volume when you are in the menus, or DVD menu (suggest volume control on left-side of the remote, similar to iPhone)
Adding these buttons doesn't make the remote unduly ugly, as this visual hopefully illustrates, albeit it becomes a 10 button remote, rather than a six button remote.
In terms of design, I suggest something like an elongated iPod Shuffle, but a bit larger and weightier. It would be nice if it came with a rechargeable battery and an optional charging dock.

MacRumors posts photos of iPhone 1.1.3 software update from GearLive

Photos recently linked to by MacRumors show what GearLive claim to be the features of a forthcoming iPhone software update. It's possible that these images are just fakes, but there's something about them that seems convincing. Whilst the update is far less substantial than I had predicted, it does include a couple of previously anticipated features:
  1. Customise home screen
  2. Send SMS to multiple recipients three features that few had anticipated:
  1. "Locate Me" feature in maps - presumably using GSM triangulation rather than GPS
  2. Add Safari Bookmarks to Home Screen
  3. Multiple Home Screens (similar concept to Spaces in Mac OS 10.5)
It's these last two features which are most surprising. Mixing bookmarks with applications on the home screen feels a little awkward. Plus, bookmarks seems the only reason for introducing multiple Home Screens - otherwise all the icons would fit onto a single screen anyway. This is perhaps Apple's approach to make room for 3rd party applications, but I guess I'd be surprised if Apple allows 3rd party apps to sit along site their own apps with equal priority in the user interface.

So the question is - are these images fakes? In Apple's 2007 Q2 analyst conference call, COO Peter Oppenheimer said: “we plan to build on this incredible foundation by continuing to develop new software features as well as entirely new applications, and incorporate them into the iPhone. And since iPhone customers will likely be our best advocates for the product, we want to get them many of these new additional features and applications at no additional charge as they become available.” Given this stated intent, it would be a little disappointing if this is really all that Apple plans to add, a full six months after the product's US launch, and a third of the way into initial purchasers' 18 month contracts. This leads me to suspect that the images may be fakes. If they are fakes, however, they are very good ones indeed. Time will tell...

read more | digg story

Friday, 28 December 2007

Talking iPhones - how Apple will integrate speech synthesis

There are two clues that point to Apple's introduction of a revolutionary voice interface to iPhone:
  1. Fantastic new Text to Speech functionality in Leopard
  2. Apple's patent activity in the area of speech recognition
Before getting an iPhone, I used to use a Nokia N61i. That phone made fantastic use of speech. For incoming calls, the phone would speak the caller's name - no need for you to first record a voice tag - it would use text to speech. Similarly, voice dialling worked without the requirement for first recording voice tags. This suddenly opens up your entire contacts database to voice interface - very useful, and hard to imagine that Apple won't add something similar to iPhone - especially when you consider that Apple has considerable IP in this area, perhaps more so even than Nokia. 

Apple has clearly invested hugely in the area of Speech for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. The new System Voice, "Alex" is amazingly good quality, and to be honest, it's a bit wasted on Mac, where the applications of speech are somewhat limited, (except for blind or partially sighted users). Apple surely has some other application in mind. Voice Interface (combination of Speech Recognition and Text to Speech) does, however, have obviously applications on a portable communications device with headphone/headset - i.e. iPhone.

Here's my guess at how Apple may integrate Speech into iPhone OS X v2:
  • Speak caller ID for incoming calls
  • Voice dialling for outgoing calls
  • Text to Speech support in all Applications - maybe triggered by a voice command, such as "Speak Screen"
  • Voice Interface for Text Messaging, so that you can conduct text exchanges without even looking at the screen
  • Speak Artist & Title info before or after audio track (optional setting, obviously!)
  • Speech recognition to browse music library and select next track
  • Spoken Calendar alerts

Sunday, 23 December 2007

What are iPhone's three missing icons?

At the bottom-left of every iPhone screen, there's an intriguing black space... Space for three more icons. What will Apple put there? We're likely to find out soon, because Apple have uncharacteristically pre-announced the launch of their iPhone SDK, due in February 2008.
In the meantime, geeks the world over (like myself), can't help speculating about the final three icons. My guess is that they'll be:
  • Finder - a file browser and 3rd party application launcher, baring little resemblance to its big brother on the Mac
  • Games - an application launcher for games (both by Apple and 3rd parties)
  • Dashboard - I can't help but suspect there will be two frameworks - a Dashboard Widget framework, which is open to any and all web developers to produce free mini-apps using HTML/CSS/JavaScript, plus a full SDK for a select group of game and application developers, selling exclusively via the iTunes Store
By adding these three icons to the home screen, Apple could massively increase the scope of their UI, without making the home screen any more complex or cluttered. Whilst they could always make the home screen scroll, or provide a filter menu (as per my previous post), I'm starting to doubt that this is a good approach - it's just not simple or elegant.
By introducing Finder, Games & Dashboard, all 3rd party apps could be 1 extra click away, whilst preserving the simplicity of the home screen for iPhone's core applications.
By the way, just for fun, there's one other prediction in this wireframe. Can you spot it?

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Glossy black frames... everywhere

Predicting Apple is often easy (providing that you're not an analyst, that is) because patterns emerge in how Apple thinks. One such pattern is the way in which a new design style will spread across Apple's entire product range. First there were lurid colours and translucent everything. Then there was "any colour as long as it's white" (I remember sensing something was up when Steve Jobs announced the "Snow" iMac and uttered the immortal line "we think this looks really cool".) iPod introduced us to the "flat front and rounded back" which resulted in a new look for iMac. Finally, iPhone has ushered in shiny black and chrome. This year's iMac picks up on the theme. And now, with rumours of a sub-notebook doing the rounds, we should know what to expect.

It will of course have an aluminium outer enclosure, perhaps with some shiny chrome, black fittings and generous radial corners, but when you open it up, you can expect to see a thin, glossy black frame around that screen, and low profile white keys on that lovely shiny metal base.

We can expect to see glossy black bezels around Cinema Displays in the new year as well.

I know this is just stating the obvious, but I thought someone should say it!

Apple TV 2.0

January 2008 will mark the 1 year anniversary of Apple TV - Apple's fledgling line of set top boxes. But will it enjoy many happy returns? Right now, the chances don't look too good. Sales have apparently not been so great, and Steve Jobs himself even referred to Apple TV as a "hobby" in his interview with Walt Mossberg at D: All Things Digital earlier this year.

So it seems that Apple TV has not delivered all that Apple had hoped for. However, given the strategic importance of this product line for Apple, I think it's unlikely that they'll give up on it anytime soon. In fact, I think it's more likely that they will put their A-Team onto the product to try and sort it out.

Why hasn't the product been a hit? Several reasons I suspect:
  • Lacks support for legacy TVs (only has HDMI and component video support)
  • Expensive (it's probably a low-margin product from Apple's perspective, but $299 [£199] is still a lot for a set top box)
  • Lack of rental product for movies
  • Lack of choice on iTunes store (especially outside the US, where with the exception of the UK, there's nothing but music videos to purchase for video download)
  • Lack of High Definition downloads
  • Frustrating remote control (it looks great, and doubtless most remotes have too many buttons, but the Apple remote surely has too few)
I predict that Apple will make the following Apple TV announcements at MacWorld in January:
  • New improved Apple Remote - larger, with more buttons (sure Steve Jobs loves the current one, but he loved the hockey-puck mouse back in the day, and he conceded defeat on that one too). This will probably come with all new Macs as well, and heck, why not sell it separately to the Apple fan-boys like myself who must have one 
  • Price cut (even if this means they'll initially be selling them at a loss - after all, isn't that how games consoles are marketed?)
  • New Movie Rental Service accessible directly from Apple TV (no need to use iTunes)
  • Support for Composite video and SCART for legacy TVs
  • Larger hard drives
  • Dashboard (which you can configure in iTunes)
  • Games (which you can buy from iTunes store. Apple may take a leaf out of Wii's book here, and come up with a special games controller)
Oh, and as a crowd-pleaser for existing Apple TV owners, all of the above will come as a free 2.0 software update, but will require the new remote to access the Movie Rental service and play the games. That's my guess anyway. We'll see in January.

Response to Sim-lock backlash

I'd be interested to know how iPhone sales are doing in the UK. I live in London, and from my entirely unscientific anecdotal observations, I'm not sure it's been such as big hit. You just don't see many people using them. I was also surprised to be able to walk into the Regent Street Apple Store on launch night, walk up to the counter and buy an iPhone without having to wait in line. I shop at the Apple Store on Regent Street all the time and you always have to wait in line - but not on iPhone launch night, apparently. This didn't seem to bode well.

iPhone did suffer from mixed press coverage in the UK during its launch. The trouble was that the US launch got so much hyped coverage by the UK press in the Summer that by the time of the UK launch this autumn, journalists were looking for a different angle. And Apple's exclusive deal with O2 was the obvious theme to add some local colour.

As a consequence, consumer's awareness was not only raised to the fact that the iPhone's SIM was locked to O2, but they were given the impression that this was an unusual and unreasonable practice. In fact, this practice is not unusual in the UK at all. Most phones bought on a contract have a locked SIM card. Neither is it strange for the iPhone to be exclusive to one network - many phones are launched this way. Typically a handset manufacturer will offer exclusivity to a network in return for a guaranteed marketing spend to promote the product.

So, from the consumer's perspective, there's nothing strange about the Apple/O2 relationship in itself. What is strange is that consumers are being asked to pay full price for a phone that is locked, and in addition, they are being asked to pay a premium on their monthly O2 bills.

I suspect that this has proved to be a bigger obstacle to entering the UK market than Apple had originally anticipated, but given that they're tied into a contract with O2 now, their room for manoeuvre seems limited. Also, given the negative reaction from US consumers when Apple dropped the price of the iPhone by a third in the Autumn, they'll think twice about doing something similar in the UK.

So the conundrum is this - how can Apple sweeten the deal to UK consumers without alienating existing customers or renegotiating their contract with O2? I'm all out of predictions on this one, but I suspect that something is going to have to give.

iPhone - addressing the basics

Much as I love Apple, I have noticed with frustration their tendency over the years to prioritize the introduction of eye catching new features over getting the basics right. For example, this Summer, when Apple released their first major update to the iPhone, they introduced the iTunes WiFi Store that analysts (as opposed to real users) had been clamouring for. But they chose not to address these pretty fundamental missing features:
  • Sending an SMS message to more than one recipient at a time
  • MMS messaging
  • Copy and paste
  • Search (contacts, e-mail, notes, etc)
  • To Do lists
  • Speech Recognition and Text to Speech
  • Sending contacts & files via Bluetooth
  • File browser
  • Syncing notes
There's so much that's great about the iPhone, that most users (myself included) are prepared to overlook these glaring omissions, but the above features are so fundamental to a smart phone product, that it's surprising they have not yet been added.

It's almost inevitable that MacWorld will usher in a new version of OS X for iPhone (probably called Version 2.0). The most obvious change will be to the Home screen, which currently looks quite awkward, with the iTunes aligned-right at the bottom, and two blank spaces to the left. Given that Apple has already announced their plan to introduce and API for 3rd party developers, we should anticipate changes to this screen to accommodate 3rd party application icons. It's most likely that Apple will take the approach of grouping icons into application types. They'll probably want to separate the 3rd party applications from their own built-in apps. It would also make sense to separate the widget-type applications (such as Stocks and Weather) from the more complex apps. The menus would probably appear at the top/bottom of the screen, as follows:

  • Phone (Phone, Text, Calendar, Notes, To Do, Camera, Photos, Settings)
  • Internet (Mail, Safari, Maps)
  • iPod (iPod, YouTube, iTunes WiFi Store)
  • Dashboard (Stocks, Weather, Clock, Calculator, New 3rd Party Widgets)
  • More
Within "More", there would Games, Applications & Other. 

It's quite likely that there will be two APIs - one that allows anyone to create HTML/JavaScript widgets, likes those in Dashboard for Mac OS X. These Widgets could be posted in a user-generated area of the iTunes store as free downloads.

The other would give more direct control of hardware, and would be limited to a very select group of developers, such as Electronic Arts. These apps would probably be available exclusively from the iTunes store.

First Post

I've been a Mac fan for many years. The first Mac I ever used was a Mac IIfx, running System 6, back in 1991, when I was still at college. I've been obsessed with Apple computers ever since - to an unhealthy degree, my friends may tell you. I spend way too much time reading about Apple, thinking about Apple, speculating about Apple... and over the years, I think I've got pretty good at anticipating what Apple is going to do next.

In 2005, I made some predictions about Apple's next iPod. My predictions page got linked to from several sites, including Engadget and Mac Rumors, and I was surprised by how much interest it generated. As it turns out, I got a fair amount right - the 2005 iPod did indeed follow the design style of the recently launched iPod nano. Sure, I got other bits wrong, but hey...

In June this year, before WWDC, I produced a mockup of what I anticipated the new Finder in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard would look like. The visual was almost exactly correct. Not only did it feature Coverflow, but even the document previews - from Apple's Pages application, were the same ones used to demo the feature on Apple's website.

So, just for fun, I've decided to start posting my predictions in this blog. I have lots of thoughts on what January's MacWorld keynote will bring, and I'll be posting them here over the next couple of weeks...