Friday, April 06, 2007

Adobe. Welcome to the monopoly club

I don't hate a lot of things in life but once thing I despise is stagnation in computing. Over the years I've seen graphic editing and image creation tools stagnate. Sure Adobe has grown and prospered and delivered some good upgrades. I cannot really fault Adobe for their success. It was hard earned. I remember a time when there was a bit of excitement about a thing called Desktop Publishing and photo darkroom style editing on the computer. Both Apple and Adobe made their ascension to power in this era. Apple was constantly fighting it out with the X86 PCs running Windows and Adobe was facing challenges from Macromind/Macromedia and Live Picture.

Live Picture was truly high end software back in the days. It excelled at working with large files with speed that Photoshop couldn't match. It was around $5000 dollars back in the day but it had visions of usurping the King at that time which was Adobe Photoshop. Live Picture corp lowered their pricing and sales picked up. It quickly became clear though that while Live Picture was great for some files it couldn't match the flexibility of tools that Photoshop offered overall. I knew things were over when Live Picture dropped the price to $395 for the image editor and started flogging web graphic tools.

Macromedia was also making moves as well. They had a product called xRes that also worked on large files. xRes had an interface that was more like Photoshop and many thought they'd be able to mount an effective challenge but Macromedia and the team developing xRes seem to have differing opinions about the project. It was scuttled around version 3.

After these two valiant competitors were vanquished Adobe's might grew. The challengers of during that era were small. You had Linux based Gimp and NeXT based TIFFany that showed promise but didn't have the momentum and platform potential to mount a serious challenge.

Today Photoshop is still one of Adobe's crown jewels. They expend millions in resources to improve it and with the acquisition of longtime nemesis Macromedia who else is really there to fight? Therein is the problem in my humble opinion. I love an Adobe that has a competitor on their tale. This company can tend to be lazy sometimes without the right motivation (Adobe was rumored to be ambivalent about upgrading their video editing program on the Mac back in the day. They also are rumored to have turned down a request by Steve Jobs to create an iLife type of app). I do worry that now they are the 1600lb Gorilla of Graphics we will see innovation slow down. CS3 looks like a winner but it's mighty expensive. You can utilize Stone Works for some graphic apps but you won't find the breadth of applications that Adobe has at its disposal. Andrew Stone is but one talented programmer against hundreds.

My hope is that the only company that can afford to deliver a product solid enough to gain traction decides to hop into the ring. Apple Inc. I know what you're saying, "why would Apple want to compete with Adobe?". I don't look at it as Apple competing with Adobe but rather Apple providing a image editor/creation application that gives us a different perspective on the task as Live Picture/xRes did in the past. One could say that Apple is sneaking their way into this arena with Aperture. There was much discussion concerning if Apple was positioning Aperture to be a Photoshop replacement. I think today the answer is pretty clear. Aperture is an outstanding tool for enthusiast photog. At it's core it forms a test bed for graphic technologies that could indeed be purposed for image editing/creation. As a video production fan I realize the power that Adobe has with Photoshop. It can be easily and powerfully used in a video editing workflow to edit frames of video. Apple not having a video editing tool that is close is a limiting factor. My hope is that Apple does not try to duplicate the breadth of applications Adobe controls but rather deliver a nice Photoshop competitor that is Mac only so that all modern API are used. Even if Apple crafted out a %10 market-share in image editing/creation they'd be little more than a small nuisance to Adobe.

I find it distinctly odd that Microsoft has an Expressions Studio line of graphic software which is truthfully a bit beyond their core competency over the years. If Microsoft can deliver a small suite of Applications ..I feel Apple is well within their right and duty to do the same. Especially given they have forgotten more about graphic apps and needs than Microsoft knows. What I'd like to see of course is a nice lean application that really focuses on the bread and butter tasks. Photoshop is like Microsoft Word. It does everything. Some of us don't need everything. We need speed and efficiency and of course quality. I'd love to see a very compact and speedy engine. I'd like to see Core Image at the "core". All edits should be non-destructive unless you deem otherwise. I want a nice plugin architecture and robust Automator/Applescript support. Allow it to work with still images and video with equal prowess. Apple has the core technologies to make this happen. Core Image, Core Video, OpenGL 2.x (in Leopard) Quicktime. They could really develop something fantastic. The thing that worries me is that there seems to be no "thought provoking " product in the pipeline. We are all learning the Adobe way to graphics but that leaves little room for thinking outside of Adobe's parameters. Once you close your mind to other opportunities innovation shrinks or at least the potential does. Apple or someone please realize this and develop the next Killer product. Many of us...enough of us will support you.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Watch out Sonos Apple may be coming to eat your lunch

For those that don't know Sonos is company that makes a very cool product that looks like something Apple would make. They make a whole house audio distribution product that uses wireless technology. They come in bundles that you can add to. So for instance the Z80 bundle ($999) contains two small Z80 ZonePlayer which accept the streaming music and deliver to your amplified speakers. The Z100 is a ZonePlayer that does the same thing but includes a built in amplifier so you simply attach speakers and is available in bundle form for $1199. You can play the same song in up to 32 user created zones or your can stream different songs to different zones using the Sonos Controller which resembles an iPod with a 3.5 inch screen and circular navigation and button controls.

The neat thing is that you can hook a CD up to one of the ZonePlayer and have its audio streamed throughout the home. It supports many of your popular internet music services like Audible and Rhapsody. The reviews of the Sonos system are absolutely glowing. If you've thought about how cool the rich and famous have it with their grandiose homes with audio piping into every room well your turn is here for $999 to start. That buys you a Sonos Controller and two Z80.

Now with that out of the way it's time to get to the topic at hand. Apple. As good as the Sonos system is I believe Apple is doing a clever end around and will be attacking this market. Note that the Sonos system is audio only and every device in a Sonos chain is more expensive than an Apple TV. The hint that Apple has given us clear. The Apple TV could have used a more simple and cheap design. It did not have to use OS X for or even contain a GPU (as all the video codec supported would work using the included CPU only including drawing the Quartz Frontrow interface.

The Apple TV seems a bit over-engineered for the purposes that it is marketed for today. I believe that that Apple will evolve the product in a couple of vital ways.

1. They will eventually upgrade the Frontrow/Backrow software to support zones. You will be able to to listen or watch media anywhere you set a zone up. Even better in the media you watch will easily follow you to other zones. Want to pick up watching that episode of Heroes to the bedroom ..simply switch the zone and the Apple TV will begin to buffer only what is left on the bedroom zone Apple TV. Right now Apple have fooled everyone into thinking that the Apple TV only accepts streams but it has the design infrastructure to send out streams as well.

2. Notice how the Apple TV does not have a LCD interface.? The TV must be on to navigate the music lists or queue up movies or photos. This is really gaffe in UI design similar to the frustrations DVD Audio owners faced with TV menus. I don't think Apple plans to keep the status quo going. By adding an "Apple TV Controller" Apple could enable control of 1 to many Apple TV without the need for the TV to be on. Even better they could utilize Multi Touch and offer Universal remote capabilities in addition to controlling music/movie/Photo distribution to the zones.

3. The Apple TV will offer a full web browsing experience. This should usher in iTunes purchases, streaming internet radio and many other web tools. Now that the Apple TV is a peer computer on the network capable of streaming data as well as receiving it the ability to access online content becomes even more important.

I fully expect Apple TV to grow into a billion dollar product-line. Apple is deftly starting small yet clearly showing they have the Apple TV architecture to grow the product in new ways. Apple has to be thinking that they way to success is not selling one Apple TV to one family. It's selling multiple Apple TV to a family along with more accessories. Once a home distribution network is setup the Apple TV in essence becomes your onramp. What type of partnerships could Apple work out here. Tivo support? Does Apple need to create a DVR when a your current DVR content can simply be streamed throughout your network?

If Jim Dalrymple's family is already fighting over the Apple TV then clearly there's a need for multiple units. Developing a cohesive system becomes even more vital to Apple because their goal is have half of all songs on iTunes be DRM free within a year I believe. Apple is in a prime position to move forward and push the Digital Lifestyle into the networked age. Color me shocked if Apple doesn't move into this realm within 18 months.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Apple TV

I must admit that the success of the Apple TV has taken even me by surprise. Even before the unit shipped I noticed quite a groundswell of negativity. I understand many of the reservations that some have. The Apple TV won't play every codec known to mankind (without help) but it seems to be able to play many out of the box without a little work. I plan to get one primarily because I want to have a centralized store of music and videos and photos. If I could consolidate everything to one large multi-terabyte NAS device with easy access from my "client" software I'd be happy with that. My hope is that Apple will eventually allow this somehow. That all your media reside in one area (appropriately backed up via Time Machine of course) yet each client software like iTunes/iPhoto manage the metadata at the client level as well. Then the Apple TV could just be pointed at this media server most of the time and if you wanted to stream some data that wasn't on the media server you'd of course have that option as well.

I think the Apple TV is presenting more value via extensibility. It took less than 24 hours to find out that the Apple TV drive could be removed and the Quicktime partition accessed to add Perian a program that enables Quicktime to playback more codec. Upgrading the hard drive is proving even easier. The 40GB hard drive is going to be fine for many but the larger your hard drive is the more local content you can stuff on the Apple TV. I guess this defeats my aforementioned Media Server concept as the Apple TV would in essence become your server. We'll see how that pans out in the future.

Eventually I see Apple offering 720p HD downloads which will improve the picture quality of the offered movies greatly. It has been confirmed that the Apple TV is in fact running a flavor of OS X so I expect evolution to happen in this area as well. Who knows there might be a Apple TV running Leopard in the near future. Time will tell.

Here's a site where you can track some of the "hacks" to improve your Apple TV. The appropriately named Apple TV Hacker ran by Mike Curtis. The program that allows you to run more codec in Quicktime is Perian.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Future Mac apps may become Leopard Only quickly

I've always enjoyed tracking unreleased Apple Operating Systems. I am certainly looking forward to Apple's forthcoming OS X 10.5 Leopard release. One surprise that I have come across is that many Apple Developers are considering making their next release "Leopard" only. I was fortunate enough to take advantage of MacHeist bundle which included the very interesting Delicious Library and Textmate. Both very popular applications in the MacWorld. Both developers have decided to make the impending 2.0 versions of their applications Leopard only.

Wil Shipley of Delicious Monster says this in their blog:

Delicious Library 2 is indeed being written. This should not cause you concern if you are thinking of buying Delicious Library 1. First off, because there will be an upgrade price available (sorry, but it won't be free -- we've already provided five or six free upgrades to Delicious Library 1 with major, major functionality, which is why we're at version 1.63 now). Secondly, we're still quite a ways out on actually shipping Delicious Library 2 -- it's going to ship on Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" only, and we honestly don't know when Leopard is even going to ship. And, meanwhile, we're trying to write our software for an unfinished OS, which is like trying to perform an appendectomy on a patient who is awake and actively slapping your hands away.

They don't exactly go into the reasons why they are supporting Leopard only but I think Allan Odgaard the developer of Textmate makes it quite clear on his blog:

First of all, 2.0 is a free upgrade, so I won’t miss out on any upgrade fees from people that want to stay on Panther or Tiger.

Secondly, roughly 90% of my users are early adopters and have in all likelihood upgraded to Leopard within a few months of its release, so by keeping compatibility with older operating systems I am catering to less than 10% of my users.

Thirdly, it has a significant cost to stay backwards compatible, this price is paid in the form of:

Time spent debugging (and sometimes making workarounds for) issues only present on the older OS version.
Time spent implementing stuff that Apple offers for free on the new version of the OS.
Not being able to make use of features only present on latest version of the OS when it’s too impractical to conditionally make use of them.
Code complexity, because it needs to do different things on different versions of the OS.
Is eliminating those costs worth a 10% drop in sales? You bet they are! The reason why I have kept Panther compatibility for this long has nothing to do with additional sales and all to do with me just not liking to cut people off.

But by requiring Leopard I get all the Tiger stuff I have reluctantly ignored, all the new Leopard APIs which I look forward to use. I can render text with the faster CoreText which hopefully is free of the various ATSUI rendering bugs (like ignoring your drawn bold/italic font variant unless you flush your font cache regularly, or not doing proper anti-alias on bright text with a dark background), etc.

There is also Objective-C 2.0 with garbage collection, I don’t think anyone realizes how much work it is to manually unbind stuff from nibs when disposing them to avoid retain cycles (and thus memory leaks). There is a new Interface Builder with some much desired improvements — both of these things will require my stuff to run on Leopard, should I embrace them.

I happen to agree very much with his ideology and have highlighted what I believe to be his most salient parts. As a Mac user my computer is more than "just" a tool. I love the ethos of Macintosh users and developers. There is an art to this platform that attracts millions of people and I find that many users will indeed upgrade their OS once they feel "safe" that things will work. With each new version of OS X Apple adds more improvements that simply cannot be back ported to prior versions. As Mac users and application lovers should we settle for backwards compatibility and the limitations that it imposes on current software design or do we pledge ourselves to remaining as current as feasible and improving our computing lifestyle with each new OS X version? I frankly hope that more developers decide to move to Leopard only applications and embrace the new API that Apple has created. I will certainly be moving to Leopard as soon as possible for reasons I'll highlight in other post.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Viva la Revolutione! Sony announces a sub $200...

Viva la Revolutione!

Sony announces a sub $2000 HDV camcorder for consumers the HDR-HC1. They also announced another prosumer model the HVR-A1U with features that videographers require like XLR audio Input/Output.

What's interesting is that Sony has been a big manufacturer of CCD but these new cameras use CMOS sensors. My guess is that a 4:3 sensor large enough to crop to 16x9 is likely cheaper to manufacture with a CMOS process than CCD.

This should really bring HD recording to the masses. As of now Apple's lineup of digital video editing tools all support HDV. There is good support on Windows based editing apps as well. While I'd love to see 3 dedicated sensors to RGB I'll take the increase in resolution that HDV offers.

With HD-DVD and Blu-Ray looming I see HD taking of rather quickly. HDTV sets are becoming quite affordable and playback of HD files on computers is already here with Quicktime 7 (coming for PC soon) playing back the hot new h.264 codec that will be in both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players.

I am a little shocked that Sony beat JVC to lower cost consumer models. JVC being the progenitor of the HDV format should have hit the consumer market first IMO. Perhaps they have something in the works for release later this year. If they could hit $1495 MSRP that would be great.

Looks like my JVC MiniDV camera will be my first and last SD camera...that feels great to say.

New Game Consoles

I must say I'm very impressed by the new Games Consoles. My fav so far is the Playstation 3 followed by the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Revolution. I may have to own all three but we'll see. Nice to see them morph into devices that do more than just play games. More later.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Should Apple buy Tivo?

Tivo Tivo Tivo
It's not necessarily that Apple has to buy Tivo to get into the market. We know Apple has to enter this space and offer a DVR solution. They've even called DVR capability a "commodity item" . However Tivo as a company has a weakness in that if a DVR is a commodity then you have to make your money elsewhere.

So what has Tivo done? Started packing their UI with adds and selling their customers usage patterns on the backend. Not too good. It's obvious that they cannot survive with Comcast and TW offering lowcost DVR options as a monthly rental for less than half the Tivo sub cost.

If Apple were to purchase Tivo this is what I see happen.

Tivo's contract with Directv lasts until 2007. I wouldn't expect to see Apple make many changes other than beef up Mac support for Tivo2go and Home Media Option.

The fun would start up late 2006 when we'd finally see and expansion to the lineup. Here's how Apple might work it out.

Basic Unit -

$199 This unit would be for the basic consumer that wants DVR service. It would require that you get a .mac account for the Guide at $5 per month or you could opt for the .mac+ service at $8 per month which would include all the services that the current .mac includes like storage space, email, sync features etc. You would be able to listen to your iTunes store music on all devices.

Mid Unit -

$299- This unit would contain a larger HD and built in wireless capability. You would have the ability to link to your own personal audio and video files on your computer as well as photographs.

Power Unit -
$499- This would the the unit for AV aficionados. Large 300+GB hard drives. Built in DVD Burner. Firewire ports for adding more external hard drives. This unit would be based on the Sony/Toshiba/IBM Cell processor. It would have an OLED screen built in so that the tag data from the music tracks or annotations added to pictures would be displayed without the need to pipe them through to the TV.

The basic features of these units would be. A standard width casing. USB 2.0 on all units. Firewire on the top unit. The top two units would playback your files on your home network. Ethernet would be included on all models. HDMI connectors and analog connectors would be on the back. SPDIF audio as well. Wireless standard on top two models 802.11n. The top unit would allow for better encoded video due to the Cell processors power. CableCARDS standard on top two models.

Software -
The software would look similar to Tivo's UI and contain all the great features like Wishlist and Season Pass however you would have new areas of the software(depending on model) the beefier units would have pages for managing your own files, broadband internet files and cable content. Support for stores would be built right in. The units would launch with Netflix download support, CD/DVD store access and of coure Apple's very own iTMS. Each page would be branded. Eventually the store API would be opened up to other companies who want to pay the license fees associated.

The beauty of this setup is that Apple doesn't buy Tivo to "simply" become yet another company with a DVR. They would beef up this strategy so tha they are supporting iTunes Music Store, your own personal files and broadband content all in one device with one remote (bluetooth on top two models). Consumers won't buy into "just" a DVR but they will buy into something that manages "all" their media. Apple can either create this on their own from scratch or build off of the start that Tivo has created. Sign me up for the $500 model!

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Do you get sick of the Tech Press at times?

I'll keep the scope narrow here. I'm mainly talking about some of the Press response to the iPod. Apple is certainly in an enviable position right now. As numero uno in the digital media genre they have a large and bright bullseye sitting squarely on their back. When you are sitting in rarified air on your pedastal everyone wants to knock you off and assume your position. This "frenzy" regarding the iPod has led to some very interesting tech reports. Mind you it seems like not a day can go by without someone launching their FUD campaign against Apple. Let's look at some recent posts however.

Mike Goodman from the Yankee Group seems to think that Apple is missing an opportunity of such dire importance that it could threaten their very lead. Perhaps. He seems to base his assertions on Apple's "lack of interest" in subscription model. We are told that the subscripton model is "gaining popularity" yet we have no press release to quantify this. Like many articles from the people who are supposed to "Analyze" we are left with a dearth of actual info. Every Apple press release is met with FUD but never any hardcore evidence showing that the subscription model is gaining any ground whatsoever.

Goodman insists that there were technological barriers present which led to two distinct forms of downloads. We'll yes if your tech barrier is DRM. Consumers don't seem to enthused about DRM but they remain enthused about music. Goodman says that he expects Apple's marketshare to drop down to about 50-60 percent if they do not employ a subscription based service. This is fair to me. I think over time Apple's marketshare will likely hit that naturally. However, the market will be so large in a few years that 50-60 percent will represent probably 3x the amount of hardware and software revenue they get today. Either way this funnels to one company and is not spread amongst a bunch of bit players.

I don't think "tethered" downloads will be as popular as these pundits state. While we all want access to as much music as possible tethered downloads will require people to purchase new devices that handle Janus (Microsoft's portable players DRM). That can be daunting if compared to an open and thriving iPod market that is growing. The inability to back up files and make copies is being severely underplayed by those who would benefit from "rent a music" schemes.

Janus has to prove a lot to consumers before it becomes the world beater that analysts are predicting. The iPod has been such a runaway hit journalists and analysts are falling over themselves to out FUD(Fear Uncertainty Doubt) Apple's position. It's been this way since the beginning. No one wants to hear nothing but good news, people thrive on a little drama. It'll be interesting to see just how well subscriptions do. Especially after that monthly fee lapses and people see their music go "poof".