Mark Bult Design: San Francisco, CA, Established 1988

Web design and development for small and large business, e-commerce, b2b, b2c, SAAS, and community websites. User experience design and usability testing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Apple's Oct 12 product announcements deconstructed

Edit: TUAW reports that you can burn videos purchased from the iTMS straight from the Finder.

Edit: TUAW thinks the jump from 5 to 6 for iTunes is a slapdown to JHymn, the software that strips Apple's FairPlay DRM from files purchased through iTMS.

They may seem trivial on the surface, but when you dig a little deeper into today's product announcements from Apple, you see there's a little more to the story than "just another iPod," and "five TV shows are now available for download through iTunes Music Store." "Only five?" "Yeah." "Um, okay." "Yeah..."

Revamped iMac G5s
There are a lot of significant hardware upgrades (faster video chips, standard SuperDrive, etc.) under the hood of the new iMacs, but the main thing Steve Jobs touted in his presentation today [Quicktime] was the new built-in iSight. While somewhat disingenuously positioning the videoconferencing capabilities as "new," (c'mon Steve, they're great, but iChat AV's been around since Tiger shipped last year), he demoed the built-in iSight and it's new partner mini-app Photo Booth. But the iSight and iChat videoconferencing are old news. PhotoBooth may be the only item we can call purely new.

Photo Booth
Most of the technology in this little app is standard in plenty of other programs, but now it's all in one place and integrated with using the iSight. Photo Booth allows you to take photos of yourself with the webcam, and includes a bunch of standard effects you can do to the images, like sepia and x-ray, plus some cool ones like an Andy Warhol effect and a bunch of face-warping manipulations that can make you look sorta like the Grinch or a Klingon.

But for my money the coolest thing PhotoBooth does is a function of both the hardware and software working together to solve a common problem with webcams, but with a typically brilliant Apple solution. Webcam photos are almost always poorly lit. The Apple engineers thought about building in a flash, but solved it this way instead: PhotoBooth flashes the computer's entire LCD screen white, making the screen the flash. Genius, I say.

Note: It's unclear whether this effect works with CRT monitors or not; we'll have to wait and see.

The other new thing on the iMac is a standard remote control, but a typically Apple simple one. Looks like a Shuffle, actually. Why a remote? Read on...

Front Row
This new app clearly shows Apple's forward focus on removing the barriers between users and the various media they use. After the introduction of the Mac mini, there was talk that the little box was a perfect home entertainment computer, from which you could serve your iTunes library, your videos and movies, and more. That's probably what Apple's product teams have been thinking all along, and Front Row is obviously another step in that direction.

It's sort of like Dashboard. Elegantly simple, Front Row offers the user instant access to all their entertainment media types, whether it's podcasts, audio books, short movies, long movies, home movies, photos, music, and on and on. Note that I specifically said entertainment media types, because we're not talking PDFs and DOCs here, folks, there's no mention of those in Front Row.

However, Front Row is clearly a v.1 product. For starters, it's a little strange that the top-level of Front Row's interface has just four categories: Music, Videos, DVD, and Photos. This forces podcasts and audio books, for example, into the Music category, which is just plain awkward. Books are not music.

And why are DVDs and Videos separate categories? I suppose it's because one's playing off your hard drive and one's playing off your DVD, but this distinction is hardware-specific, not media specific. They should really have nixed the DVD category and instead included an Audio category, where audio books and podcasts could be found. DVDs should just come up under the Videos category when a disc is inserted. I suppose there's an argument to be made that your DVD could contain photos instead of a movie, but shouldn't Front Row be smart enough to check the filetypes on the inserted disc and then place it in the appropriate category on the fly?

Anyway, Front Row is (presently) available only on the new iMacs, presumably because they're the only ones that ship with the new remote control. And there's no word yet on whether/when this is going to be available on other Macs, nor whether it'll be a free update to Tiger users.

Update Dec 9, 2005: According to this article by Andrew Escobar, Front Row can now be downloaded and installed on any Mac running OS X 10.4.3 (or later), with iLife '05 (for iPhoto support), and iTunes 6.0.1 (or later).

Video iPod
Steve Jobs touted great reviews of the Nano during his announcement today [Quicktime], with nary a mention (not surprisingly) of the problems reported by some users with highly scratched screens. But this didn't prevent Apple from introducing the long-rumored video iPod.

But the early take from many of my office-mates on the new iPod has been lackluster at best. I'm not sure what people expected it to do...was it supposed to beam 3D video into your brain? It's an iPod. With video.

It's not going to be that stellar, people. The size of the screen and the nature of video file sizes is going to prevent any lightspeed jumps for a while. The video feature is really going to be best for plugging the iPod into a TV or computer to show the vids on a larger screen. It's about portability of the videos, not having a great user experience watching tiny movies on a tiny screen.

The new iPod features: TV out, MPEG4, a very bright color screen, a slightly wider screen, a slimmer form-factor (reportedly 12?31% thinner than the older 20GB iPod), and 30GB and 60GB versions.

Related note: The black-and-red U2 limited edition iPod has apparently gone away, now that the new video iPod is available in black as well (although without the red scrollwheel).

iTunes 6
Last but not least, in a PR move worthy of the one Netscape did when it jumped from 4.x to 6, iTunes has gone from version 5, which was only unveiled a few weeks ago, to version 6. Unfortunately, there seem to be few changes. I admittedly haven't updated yet (I'll be holding out a few weeks in light of the problems with 5.0), but the only significant new feature I can discern is the addition of a few TV shows to the iTunes Music Store (iTMS), which is not really a change to the iTunes app itself.

The other changes are also only in iTMS, not the standalone app:

1) "Gifting" (buying iTunes and sending them to someone else). Don't even get me started on whether turning the word "gift" into a verb is a good idea or not.
2) Customer reviews.
A beta feature called Just for you, which is simply personalized recommendations based on your purchasing habits.

The new video content added is rather paltry, if you ask me: 2,000 music videos, 6 Pixar shorts, and 5 Disney/ABC TV shows: "Lost," "Desperate Housewives," and three others of little consequence.

Of course, the savvy among us know that the delivery of Quicktime video was already available in iTMS 5, so this is no big lead forward. There have been numerous music videos available for download for months.

There are also some downsides to the new video offerings:

1) The resolution is only 320x240. Sure, this makes for smaller files and faster downloads, and it is the native resolution for the new video iPod, but it's hardly great quality for playing fullscreen on your computer.

2) Videos are encoded using the Apple's FairPlay DRM, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case there is a limitation on videos that's different from the music you purchase on iTMS: burning videos to a CD or DVD is not allowed at all. So how do you back them up or transfer them to a new machine when you upgrade your computer? Lame.

FYI, download time for a 320x240 one-hour episode (okay, 45� minutes) will purportedly take broadband users about the same amount of time as downloading five full albums. So you'd better have a reliable connection.

Related product note: With the announcement of the new iMacs, the eMac has apparently disappeared from the online Apple Store, and it's unclear whether they will be available in future. As a side note, this would therefore mark the first time that Apple is offering no products with a CRT monitor.


Blogger ynnej said...

320x240? Are you kidding me? Ugh, nevermind, I'm not excited about the Lost thing anymore.

10/14/2005 07:20:00 PM


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