Trojan Hobby Horse

I know I’ve mentioned several times before how much I like my AppleTVs (plural because I have one in the living room and one in my bedroom). You would think that it’s ability to stream movies and TV shows would be its biggest draw, but I propose the most important feature Apple included is the photo screensaver. When I have guests over, I usually have the TV on, displaying photos while  playing music over the stereo. Every time somebody visits the house for the first time, they comment on it and ask how I’m doing it. Media consumption may be its primary use, but the photo displays are what really catch people’s attention and spark their interest. Perhaps that is why Apple continues to add beautiful, new themes, free of charge, on a regular basis.

Cord Cutter

Saturday afternoon, my wife made the call to Verizon. Our cable has been turned off. Our landline phone service is disconnected. I have been paying about $150 per month for their Triple Play bundle, which included rental of one high definition DVR and one standard definition cable box. Instead, we increased our internet speed to 75/35 Mbps for $95 per month and subscribed to Netflix streaming for $10 per month. The way I figure it, I’ll be saving $45 a month. That will quickly pay off the second Apple TV I purchased for our bedroom and the Airport Express I’ve ordered to beef up the WiFi network on the second floor of the house.

The monetary savings are all well and good, but how are we doing entertainment-wise? Well, my daughters have discovered Sean the Sheep, which they’ve been watching every morning before school, and they’re devouring all of the Bones episodes, a show they had started DVRing sometime in the past six months. They seem to be happy. My wife and I have started watching Merlin, and we have several other shows in our queue that we want to try. I’ll likely purchase The Clone Wars and Glee from iTunes so we can finish watching the current season. Everything streams beautifully. I have a cheap, wire antenna connected to one of the TVs, and it picks up several local channels, so we still get the news.

So, I would say everything is going swimmingly. It was really quite easy once we decided to take the plunge. My only regret is that I couldn’t drop the landline phone before the election.

Delight

There’s one word that can sum up the difference between Apple’s products and most others on the market: delight. There was an update to the software on the AppleTV last week, which I didn’t think much about when I told it to install. I assumed it contained some bug fixes, perhaps a security patch, or an improvement to iCloud integration. I hadn’t read anything about it and figured it was a minor thing. 

One of my favorite features of the AppleTV is its “screensaver,” which randomly displays photos from the thousands in my iPhoto library. Every time it comes on, it randomly selects one of a number of spectacular display themes. When I’m not watching the television, AppleTV turns it into a huge, high definition, dynamic, digital photo frame.

Some time after I had performed the update, I noticed a screensaver I hadn’t seen before. It was panning across a wall adorned with picture frames of different sizes and styles, each featuring one of my photographs. Some rested on a wooden shelf at the bottom of the screen. Then it panned up the wall, away from the shelf, bringing additional rows of frames into view. Eventually it reached the corner of the room, rotated, and continued panning. It was attractive. It was surprising. It was delightful. It was new content of a quality one would expect to pay extra for.

Delight is not the result of focus groups, usability testing, or agile development approaches. Delight is the result of impeccable design.

Life-Changing Stuff

Nick Gould requested examples of life-changing products and user experiences on the IxDA forum. Realizing the expansiveness of that request, I had to limit my scope to find what I considered to be appropriate answers. For something to be life-changing to me, it would obviously have to be something introduced within my lifetime; cars and televisions don’t make the cut. But for a change to occur, there must first be established, consistent behavior. I therefore decided to rule out anything that was introduced prior to my graduation from graduate school. After all, my life was defined by constant change from childhood throughout my education. It wasn’t until I was both married and working a full-time job that my life settled to a routine that, aside from the addition of children, is basically the same as it is today. That ruled out biggies like the computer, video games, and the internet.

Even narrowing down the scope that severely left quite a lot. The PDA immediately comes to mind. My first Palm Pilot resulted in a significant behavioral change, as did my first mobile phone (a Palm Treo), but probably not as big a change as my second mobile phone: the iPhone. My first iPod also caused a prominent behavioral shift. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that the biggest changes were not attributable to a single thing, but to a system of devices, software, and services. Based on this realization, my thoughts catalyzed around three systems.

  1. iTunes + iPod + Podcasts: Moving to digital music was certainly a significant change, but even more influential was my discovery of podcasts, made possible by their inclusion in the iTunes Store. This is now how I consume the vast majority of my news and a high percentage of my entertainment.
  2. Blogs + RSS + Feed Reader + iPhone: I used to subscribe to magazines, watch the news on TV, and listen to the radio. Podcasts replaced much of that. Blogs killed the rest. I subscribe to the information sources I’m interested in and read them during downtime anywhere I happen to be. I’m better informed about everything I’m interested in. Of course, this also means that I’m pretty much unaware of anything I’m not interested in—for better or for worse.
  3. Digital Video/Camera + iLife Suite + MobileMe + Apple TV: My workflow for sharing my life with friends and family has become incredibly streamlined. Apple has made it a breeze for me to pipe my photos and videos directly to the living rooms of my parents and in-laws. My digital camera allows me to affordably take way more photos than I could with film. iPhoto and iMovie make editing and management of my media effortless, and I can do so much more with it than I could with prints. Integration with MobileMe seamlessly moves everything to the web, and the Apple TVs that I gave as Christmas gifts this year puts it all on the high definition televisions of the people who want to see it most.

HDCP and Me

I do not care about copy protection as long as it doesn’t interfere with my lawful use of media that I own (or own a license to—whatever). I get irate, otherwise. I was never particularly concerned with the Fairplay encryption on iTunes music files, because I never encountered any problems caused by it. HDCP, on the other hand, has me on edge.

I purchased a new Apple TV over the holidays. I unplugged the HDMI cable from the old one, plugged it into the new one, powered it on, and got it connected to my network. Everything was working smoothly until my wife and I sat down later to watch an episode of Glee. We got into the show late in the first season, so we had decided to purchase the first season from iTunes and have been slowly catching up on the back episodes. I selected the episode we wanted to watch and was confronted by a message stating that “Apple TV HDCP isn’t supported by HDMI”. Say what!?

After some time spent reading up on the Apple support forums, I tried unplugging the HDMI cable from both the Apple TV and the television and then plugging it all back in. Fortunately, that fixed the problem, and I haven’t had any recurrence. Other people have had to purchase new cables, and some seem to have older equipment that isn’t compatible. Edward Felton, professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University, and newly appointed Chief Technologist for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, wroteThe main practical effect of HDCP has been to create one more way in which your electronics could fail to work properly with your TV,” and that HDCP has been “less a security system than a tool for shaping the consumer electronics market.” (Wikipedia)

There are already methods of hacking HDCP, so as is usually the case, pirates will do as they please, while I have to needlessly suffer the aggravation of additional complexity.

Appy Holidays

If my own family is any indication, Apple has had very good sales for the gift-giving quarter. The wives of both of my brother-in-laws were playing on their new iPads. My brother finally got his first Apple product: an iPod Touch. I gave four Apple TVs as gifts, one of which was to my parents and was their first Apple product. Out of six households, that’s seven Apple products, not to mention the apps and media purchases that they will result in. Of those six, mine was the only all-Mac household. Ten years ago, I never would have guessed that they would all be using Apple products, but the iPhone, more so than the iPod, changed everything. Apple is ripe for the picking.