Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Thoughts on the New Apple TV

Are “apps” the future of TV?

Early this month Apple announced new products, software, and operating systems. Among the announcements were new iPhones (the 6s and 6s Plus, as expected), improvements to the Apple Watch line, a new and larger member of the iPad family, and an update to the Apple TV. It’s this last announcement, the Apple TV (http://www.apple.com/apple-events/september-2015/  - timepoint 51:50), that I want to write about today.
Photo Credit: Apple.com

Apple talked about the television experience as not having changed in decades, and Apple is betting that we’ll want the experience to evolve in ways that are consistent with the ways in which we use smartphone and tablet technology today. “The future of television is apps,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook, noting that we already access television shows through Netflix, Hulu, HBO and other apps on smartphones and tablets as well as on the current Apple TV. Apple has decided to double down on this idea, introducing significantly upgraded Apple TV hardware and emphasizing apps by creating an App Store for the Apple TV. Apple will be opening up app development for the Apple TV to 3rd party developers, a move long anticipated.

Beyond new hardware and the promise of a new app economy, Apple introduced an advanced remote with a touch interface and the ability to interact through voice using Siri. Saying “Skip ahead seven minutes” to the remote while watching content does the obvious. Saying “Who stars in this?” gives the answer in the lower third, and saying “what did she say?” causes the show being watched to be skipped back by 15 seconds and then re-played with closed-captioning turned on. I can certainly see myself using that feature!

Saying “Show me action movies” allows a user to search simultaneously across multiple content apps (currently iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Showtime, and more expected to be added), and then saying “just James Bond movies” refines the search. What Apple seems to have done is to bring advanced search to the multiple-app television experience.  Using the new AppleTV and its Siri-enabled remote, we can now do advanced, cross-app searching, which is a big improvement over cumbersome searches done separately in each of the content apps.

In addition to higher-end hardware and a Siri-savvy remote, the Apple TV will have a clean new on-screen user interface. It’s support for apps will include games, allowing the Apple TV to also serve as a family gaming device in the living room, though the selection of games is not expected to compete with the major consoles. 

What we didn’t hear about Apple TV 

Two widely expected developments did not seem to come along with this version of the product. First, many had expected the new Apple TV to have an additional role as a central hub for home automation tools and products, allowing users to control elements of their home such as next-gen network-enabled lighting, thermostats and security cameras from the Apple TV. This capability did not seem to materialize in this release of the product. Second, many had speculated that Apple had been working hard to establish content deals with television and movie studios to make a broader range of content available in an a la carte, subscription-based way. This would have positioned the Apple TV as an attractive option for "cord cutters" (see my blog post TV a la Carte from October 2014), but the deals still seem to elude Apple, with many speculating that the television and movie content creators are reluctant to give up too much to Apple.

Getting a closer look

The 9to5mac unboxing video appears on YouTube and is provided here. [Credit http://9to5mac.com/].

9to5Mac's time with the device reveals some welcome details, such as support for Bluetooth headphones and Bluetooth speakers. Bluetooth could be a handy way for one family member to enjoy Apple TV vieweing or gaming without disturbing others in the house who are otherwise occupied and prefer not to hear the audio.

Final thoughts

One thing I continue to wonder about is the bet Apple is placing on apps. I don't deny the value of apps, and in fact I'm a big user of the content apps they named in the announcement. But in a day and age in which we may often watch shows on iPhone and iPad apps by ourselves, the time we choose to spend in front of the big living room TV is often still a very different watching experience. It's communal. And in that setting I'm not sure how playing around with apps will work out. Family members seem to already get annoyed when one person dominates the standard television remote, and that’s only to change channels. Are people really going to be patient while one person in the collected watching group is fooling around with apps while the rest sit by and wait? Time will tell.

Nevertheless, I'll certainly be getting a new Apple TV. The current generation works well for me and the new generation seems to bring many good new features. I'm placing my order as soon as I can. What about you? Will you be buying an Apple TV? Leave a comment and let us know why or why not.


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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Lexus Shows Us a Hoverboard. For real.

Hey McFly! What’s with the defying of gravity?

Ever since the movie Back to the Future II, in which several characters float over pavement (but not water?) on “hoverboards,” people have wondered whether that technology would ever reach reality – whether we’d some day be riding hoverboards around our neighborhoods. Lexus may not have gotten us all the way there, but a very real proof of concept has been created and it seems to me that it could have practical implications beyond recreation. Could this technology eventually lead to practical inventions that could be used for moving equipment or people over defined paths, such as in transportation, warehouses or airports?

Here’s one of the the movies Lexus has been showing:

The hoverboard in the video above works through something called "flux pinning" in which ceramic tiles are super-cooled with liquid nitrogen. The tiles and a magnetic track can then interact to create a field in which the board can hover, at least while the ceramic is in the proper temperature range. So there are some real limiting factors here including the ability to cool the ceramic and maintain temperature, and the fact that this only works above the magnetic track, so unlike a skateboard, it cannot just go wherever the rider wants. But it does appear to really achieve hover, and people have now ridden this board. Hard to deny the cool factor in that!

Admittedly, this may not be a generalized and practical hoverboard that achieves what Biff and Marty were riding in the movies, but it does seem like a nice demonstration of one approach to the challenge, and again, it could conceivably have applications outside of the skatepark.

What do you think? Would you ride this board? Does it seem like a step towards something useful or interesting? Leave a comment and let us know.


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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Are You Ready for Prime Day?

Amazon creates its own shopping holiday

For 24 hours on July 15th, the 20th anniversary of its launch, Amazon.com is taking it's Prime service to the next level by actually attempting to create its own shopping holiday. Some deals will last all day, others will be added as often as every 10 minutes throughout the day and be available for limited times.

According to Amazon:
Prime Day is a one-day shopping event on July 15, 2015, with more deals than Black Friday. Prime members can shop exclusive deals from electronics, toys, video games, movies, clothing, patio, lawn and garden, sports and outdoor items and more.

Meanwhile, Walmart has announced a competing sale to take place starting on Wednesday. Their sale will include exclusive online price "rollbacks" meant to compete directly with Amazon and to show that Walmart is a major online player. The discounted items, including electronics and home items, will last up to 90 days. Walmart will also be promoting a competing free shipping service at a lower cost.

Is all of this really different in any way than past sales by major retailers? The sales figures will tell that story later this week. Can Amazon actually create a shopping holiday that for them is bigger than Black Friday? Will you be shopping on Prime Day? I can't say whether I'll be buying, but I'll certainly be browsing. Please leave a comment and let us know whether Prime Day turns out to be a big shopping day for you.


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Saturday, June 27, 2015


Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit Copenhagen, Denmark. My wife needed to travel there for business and I convinced her to let me tag along. We added a day on each side of her business trip and got the chance to explore a great European city.

The land of Carlsberg beer and Hans Christian Anderson turned out to be a great place to visit. Copenhagen is easy to navigate on foot or bike. In fact, there were so many bikes, everywhere we went, that I started to look nervously around whenever I walked. I began to worry that bikes would run us down, but that never happened of course. The city also has a handy metro and bus system, and between mass transit, walking and biking, there is a wealth of easy to get to sights for tourists like us.

We decided to get the "Copenhagen Card" for 72 hours. It cost us 150 euro for the two cards and got us unlimited access to the metro (including to and from the airport), the buses, free access to a broad range of tourist sites, boat tours, and some discounts on food. It was money well spent for us, not only because of the discounts, but because for our short visit it helped us to plan our time. There was even an associated smartphone app, which helped us to organize our visits and see the locations and directions on a map.

Among the sites we visited were the National Museum and the National Gallery, the sculpture collections at the Carlsberg Glyptotek, the Christiansborg Palace and Rosenborg Castle, the Roundtower, and the Hans Christian Anderson exhibit (Thumbelina, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, and more). We spent time in Nyhavn, a historic district with colorful buildings along a canal, and where modern tattooing appears to have been born. We visited open air markets and heard live music, and we spent time in Tivoli, a large amusement park with beautiful gardens, an aquarium, many restaurants, and live music every night.

What follows are some of the many photos I took during our short stay. I hope they help to give you a flavor of this great city.
Around Copenhagen
The Gallery
Around Copenhagen
Around Copenhagen

The Canals
The Canals
The Canals
Street Festival
Traditional Danish Hats
Walking Copenhagen
Around Copenhagen
Around Copenhagen
Around Copenhagen
Tivoli at night
Tivoli at night
Tivoli at night


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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Memorial Day, and Helping Other Boaters

Memorial Day in the United States is a day for remembering those who served in the armed forces and gave their lives for their country. We are profoundly grateful for their service and their sacrifice.

In years past, Memorial Day weekend often had me blogging about the start of the boating and fishing season in the North East United States. I've observed that my neighbors and I will walk up and down the waterway that passes through our back yard, visiting one another and talking about new boats or new boating equipment and our plans for the coming season. It's a time of hope and optimism.

Memorial Day weekend 2015 is here and there's some of that going on. I myself have a new boat this year and my neighbors have dropped by to admire it, talk about it, get a ride. We have even been out for a some fishing, though the weekend has been a little colder and windier than any of us likes.

This year, though, I noticed something else and decided it was worth mentioning here. Over the last two days I saw several boaters that were experiencing early season engine problems and required help from another boater, usually in the form of a tow back to the dock. When a boat has a serious problem, a commercial towing service like Sea Tow or Tow Boat US is the right call. But in simpler circumstances, such as a stalled engine or an empty gas tank, within a mile or so of the dock, a helping hand and a tow-line from a neighboring boater can be a great help. Boaters help each other often. It's part of our culture.

This weekend I've already seen three boats getting local towing help from neighbors – and the weekend is not over. One was a neighbor across the lagoon, who used his larger boat to tow his own smaller boat in. Another was a local boat whose owner I don't know. The third  though, was me towing a boat I sold earlier this season! Unfortunately, my old boat developed what looks like a simple and fairly easy to address fuel line problem, but the new owners are relatively new to boating and I spent some time with them today trying to resolve it and then towing them home. I'll help them to get it addressed and get them back up and running soon.

Also in the spirit of safety and help, there's the Coast Guard. This weekend, the Coast Guard boarded both of my power boats out in the bay and did basic safety checks. Both passed without a problem. The fact that there are few boats out on the water (early season and cold weather) meant the Coast Guard didn't have lots of boats to pick from, so I won the lottery. Twice. I didn't mind. They were serious and professional and maybe a little bit intimidating with their all-black outfits, dark sunglasses, bullet proof vests, and visible side-arms, but they were respectful and I know that they have a job to do. And I remembered what weekend it is.

As you celebrate Memorial Day with loved ones this weekend, be sure to give thanks to those who have served and sacrificed. And to you boaters out there, be sure to help a fellow boater who needs it if you can do so safely.


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Sunday, April 12, 2015

I Don’t Want an Apple Watch

... but I’d be glad to hear all about yours.

A few days ago, the new Apple Watch became available for pre-order, with first product delivery scheduled for April 24th.

Smartwatches, like the Apple Watch, are wrist-wearable computing and communications devices with a touch screen interface. They tend to have independent capabilities and also capabilities to act as an extension of your smart phone. There are several popular smartwatches that came to market before the Apple Watch, such as the Pebblethe Moto 360and the Samsung Gear S.

Do you need a watch of any kind? Many people gave them up a few years ago and started to count on their mobile phones as a handy source of accurate time.

XKCD Watch Comic

I decided not to order an Apple Watch. While I use many Apple products, and while I do think that wearable technology has a very important future, I often pass on first generation products and that’s what I’ve decided to do here.

The Apple Watch appears to be more advanced than any of the early entries in the smartwatch market in terms of functionality, interface, and apps. Apple did what it often does – it waited to enter an established space and brought great new thinking to design and usability. But let's not forget, this is a 1st-generation product. There are early reports of the watch feeling sluggish and it wouldn't be at all surprising to me to find that the Apple Watch would benefit greatly from some improvements in later versions.

I think that it's reasonable to assume that Apple will learn quickly from their first generation product and produce a 2nd-generation product that's thinner, faster, more ergonomic and that has better battery life. I also think that a healthy selection of apps is what will make a smartwatch indispensable, just as happened with smartphones. The phones became more valuable to us as the app economy grew. I'll gladly wait a year for all of that to happen.

What about you? Are you getting an Apple Watch? (and if so, can I try it on?)


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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Lifelong Learning With MOOCs

I just completed an open online course on classical music from Yale and Professor Craig Wright. The course took 8 weeks and required a few hours a week of my time. I learned new things and reinforced things I had only partially understood before. Over the weeks I took 74 short quizzes with a total of over 300 questions, and I scored in the low 90s overall. Most of all, I had a good time. 
Have you taken a Massive Open Online Course (a "MOOC")? Completed one? Coursera and edX offer a great catalog of interesting courses. You can take them at no cost, or for a very small cost you can "register" for a verified certificate in which case a passing grade gets you an online badge or certificate of completion. If you enjoy learning by reading or watching documentaries, this can be a fun and interactive new way for you to continue to learn.


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