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.