Thursday, January 17, 2008

iTunes Movie Rentals: It's the Usability, Stupid

One of the best things iTunes Store has going for it is usability, but the Movie Rentals section (which, basically, doesn't exist) is simply broken. The categories don't let you filter for rentable movies, so (as of writing) it's almost impossible to find movies to rent unless you just choose popular picks or new releases.

Next, the iTunes Store suffers a major weakness relative to Netflix which isn't so apparent when shopping for music, but is horrible when looking at movies. Here's a clue: Coyote Ugly is rated 4.5 stars, and the only reason it's 4.5 and not 5 is that a few people are annoyed at the nudity in the unrated version (which seems a bit like complaining a nature documentary is full of animals). Meanwhile, "An Inconvenient Truth" is rated 2.5 stars owing to a huge number of 1 star reviews from, basically, insane people. (Rating it 1 star doesn't make you insane, saying that the scientists quoted in the film have been disowned by the majority of the scientific community and the claims have been disproven by NASA does.)

Basically, the movie reviews are of similar quality to the reviews on YouTube, which is to say horrible.

Now that iTunes is competing head-to-head with Netflix, Apple really needs to lift its game in the reviews department. Netflix's reviews are very well done -- they basically weight reviews by people with tastes similar to yours more strongly, and reviews by other folks less strongly.

It seems to me that Netflix is to video what iTunes is to music -- a very successful business that is undermining the way that the content distributors prefer to do business. A person pays NetFlix $20 (or so)/month and sees all the movies he/she can be bothered to see. After a while he/she stops going to movies and largely stops buying DVDs. When my wife or I see an interesting trailer, we usually just add it to our Netflix queue -- thus making the studio, what, $0.25? $0.10? I don't know how much Netflix pays for a DVD (including rights to rent it out), how long a DVD lasts, whether Netflix pays full replacement cost for damaged DVDs, whether Netflix pays royalties per rental, etc. etc. but I can't imagine it all adds up to much more than say 25% of the cost of a DVD divided by 20.

The apparent high participation of studios in iTunes rentals reflects the fact that the studios are going to earn FAR more from the iTunes rental model than from the Netflix rental model (or Blockbuster's imitation). For now, the iTunes rental library is slated to be ~1000 movies by the end of the month; last time I checked NetFlix's library was 60,000, and there's plenty of stuff that hasn't made it to DVD.

If and when there are 1000 or more movies to rent on iTunes, I don't think anyone will be able to find them. E.g. if I type "Robert DeNiro" into the iTunes search widget, it doesn't bring up "RONIN" -- one of the current top rental titles. If I search for "Pixar" it doesn't find any of Pixar's feature films.

Improving iTunes Rentals

Obviously, you need to be able to filter for movies you can buy vs. rent. I imagine this will happen pretty soon.

Next, the search function seriously needs to be fixed, and it's something an intern could probably do in a day or two (while the library is so small), but it will become a bigger deal as the library gets bigger.

Apple seems to be stuck with a broken user review system -- but I guess on the positive side it can probably all be fixed in one place (just look at the way the same system works in One of the major problems with this kind of review system is that lots of people treat the system as a way of giving feedback on the shopping experience or some random other thing (like price, or upgrade policy, or whether some other product they've gotten confused with this product was good). For movies or songs where the price and shopping experience are (generally) fixed, this is probably less of a concern.

Then there are obvious synergies -- such as discounting the purchase of a movie you've just rented (the way they discount albums if you already own tracks). This kind of thing will let Apple compete with DVDs and Netflix in ways that don't let them fight back.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why I hate Adobe. Expensive Upgrades & Software that Phones Home

I'm in a quandary. I have Adobe CS3 Web Premium through work, but I don't have my own license. I have Adobe Creative Suite (the original version) which comprised Photoshop 7, Illustrator 10, and InDesign 1, which were the first OS X native versions of each product, and I have After Effects 5 (for Windows).

Assuming I can convince Adobe I own a "CS" license, I can upgrade to Adobe CS3 Design Standard for $599, and upgrade After Effects for $299. If I want Flash and Dreamweaver that's another $699 and $399. Total cost of upgrading: $2000. The Master Suite (licenses for absolutely everything) costs $2499.

This is (one reason) why I hate Adobe.

This is the way Adobe used to price products. If you wanted one product, it cost you $700. If you wanted most of them, it cost you $1000-$1300. If you wanted the super duper version of After Effects it cost you $2000.

If you owned Adobe Photoshop N, and wanted N+1 (or N+2) it cost you $300, but for $500 you ould get the "most of them" package, etc.

This is how I, who basically use Photoshop every day and Illustrator once a week, and the other stuff occasionally, ended up with licenses for pretty much all their software. (I have licenses for all Macromedia's stuff too -- I'm trying not to get too complex.) It makes sense too: software is free to give away once written, so it makes sense to sell bundles of "all our stuff" for a bit extra if we can get a solid chunk of change for one item.

But now Adobe has created a mind-boggling byzantine upgrade system (so complex their online tool to tell you which upgrade path to use is down for maintenance) which basically makes it almost as expensive to buy everything again as to upgrade it, even though I only really want one thing.

Here are my alternatives:
1) Upgrade Photoshop ($199). I don't get the "extended edition" ... but I'll live. It irks me that Adobe has created two (or is it three, if you add Elements, or four if you add Lightroom?) tiers of Photoshop, but then it's really their one indispensable product, so I wouldn't be surprised if CS4 brings us Photoshop Elements, Photoshop LightRoom, Photoshop Professional, Photoshop Production Professional, and Photoshop Production Professional for After Effects.

I considered buying Photoline (~$90, see previous blog entry)... but I really like Photoshop, and I know it really well. Also the one thing about Photoshop that really irks me (launch time) isn't really solved by Photoline. So saving $110 may not be worth it. Photoline upgrades are roughly $45, but it's at version 14, so I guess it revs more often than Photoshop.

2) Get Intaglio ($89). It's not as good as Illustrator, but it will do the job, and launches instantly without phoning home. (Illustrator 10 would often fail to launch or hang on launch because Adobe's servers were offline.)

This is (another reason) why I hate Adobe.

Adobe recently got into some hot water over its software "phoning home" to a suspiciously named server that turned out (according to Adobe) to be some kind of left over Macromedia initiative they didn't know about. This ignores the fact Adobe's stuff has been phoning home for at least seven years.

3) Give up on After Effects. After Effects is great. It's a lot cheaper and easier to use than the heavyweight tools, and does a very good job. But now there's Shake, whatever replaces Shake, and for simple stuff there's Final Cut Express/Pro and Motion. So ... buh-bye.

4) Give up on InDesign. I never really got to love InDesign. I really did love Framemaker, but Adobe's clever strategy of (a) never updating it, and (b) dropping Mac OS support (even though it runs on UNIX variants) forced me to give up on it (I tried using it under Classic but eeew). I don't know much DTP these days, so Pages (flawed as it is) will serve me.

The Macromedia side of things, which I've ignored thus far, is much easier to deal with.

Flash -- well I use it for work but I don't need to think about it any other time. If I have to, I'll upgrade one of my licenses. (Again, Adobe is selling multiple SWF development tools...) Oh, and I might just wait to see what happens to ActionScript, since AS3 did not become ECMAScript and is utterly incompatible with AS2 ... so will there be an AS4, and will it be similar/different to AS3 or AS2. I mean, WTF?

Dreamweaver -- always kind of sucked, and now there are far nicer, cheaper alternatives. (Coda!)

Director -- hasn't received a worthwhile update since 8.5 (although they did make an OS X native version and charged through the nose for it). Probably dead. That's OK, there's Unity.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Life Without Adobe: A Halfway Decent Photoshop Replacement

Turns out that all this time there's been a pretty sold Photoshop alternative in the shape of Photoline v14 (another piece of German shareware ... what is it with these German indie developers?). It's a cross-platform app and its UI seems a trifle clunky in spots, but it's very stable and its feature set is certainly in the ballpark (in fact it has some nice features that Photoshop doesn't have). Price is €59 (about USD 90).

Oh, and Photoline launches in ~1s.

Sorry, but a half-assed image editor with a ton of Core Image filters is no match for a mature image editor with a few well chosen filters (Gaussian Blur, Noise, Clouds, etc.).

Evolution, not Revolution

So, basically, we get a really nice ultralight notebook (with green construction and packaging) at a very reasonable price; AppleTV is cheaper and there's some content now (a lot of it, really), including HD; and there's an Airport with a hard disk built in to do wireless backups. And the iPhone SDK was mentioned ;-)

Not earthshaking, but not bad.


The really obvious flaw in the MacBook Air is the lack of some form of cellular network option (EVDO, WiMax, 3G, or whatever).

Another thing that's annoying people is the non-upgradeable RAM and the non-user-replaceable battery.

Frankly, I think the target audience (the kind of folks who have very expensive handbags and briefcases) won't care about this. The average Mac owner earns something like 25% more than the average PC owner, and this product definitely targets the upper end of that already spendy demographic.

Not the kind of product that will sell a lot of units in a recession, though.


Nolobe (the latest incarnation of Stairways Software, best known for Interarchy, a.k.a. Anarchy, the excellent Mac FTP client) has just taken the wraps off Iris, its entry into the "cheap Core Image-based Photoshop wannabe" arena, where Acorn is currently standing with its foot on the chest of Pixelmator, gladius to its throat, waiting for the crowd to give a signal...

You can get a copy of the free beta here.

So far, color me unimpressed. I can forgive obvious missing features (e.g. Curves) and unimplemented features (e.g. Levels), especially in a beta, but the text tool is like MacPaint (it burns pixels into the current layer) ... WTF? I have no clue why Iris requires Leopard.

Iris seems to me to be a graphics program written by a programmer who not only isn't an artist, but doesn't know any artists. Ugly tool icons are a very bad sign.

I hope I'm wrong. Competition in this space is a very good thing. Time for me to do more work on Pixel Ninja.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Last minute Macworld speculation

Something in the air?

Something no-one seems to have considered is the possibility that Apple will announce full support for Adobe's AIR on the iPhone (and possibly Mac OS X in general). This would make the Flash/ActionScript ecology an intrinsic part of Mac OS X, further cement Apple's disdain for Java, and (partially) solve the iPhone SDK issue. It would also dovetail nicely with Cringely's idea that Apple plans to buy Adobe.

Note: AIR is, in essence, Webkit + Flash.

What's wrong with this possibility? Well, Flash is still a terrible processor hog, and it will suck the iPhone's battery dry ... unless it gets a bunch of tweaking. Another option would be to support a battery-friendly subset of ActionScript 3 (if there is such a thing) and go to an event model which doesn't redraw the entire screen at (typically) 30 frames per second.

MacBook Air?

There are a lot of people suggesting that (a) the announcements this year will be relatively ho-hum (who can compete with the iPhone, after all?) and that (b) Apple will release an ultraportable.

It seems to me that if Apple releases an ultraportable with the obvious feature set (given its recent releases) it will be bigger than the iPhone (although people won't immediately realize it). Imagine the following:

8-10" ultrathin laptop running a modest but still decent cpu. Maybe multitouch, maybe funky dual screen with one touchscreen/keyboard. Whatever. (Frankly, most folks would prefer a fullish sized hard keyboard to some kind of funky DS-style exercise.) Given bluetooth support, the keyboard could be a cable-less clipon, and the unit could have a "giant iPhone" form factor.

3G cellular network support, compatible with Sprint, Verizon, AT&T.

Bluetooth, 802.11B/G/N.

32 GB of flash memory, 1GB of RAM (upgradeable to 3GB).

Battery Life: 4+h "active", 24+h "standby"

Prices (Good, Better, Best): $1499, $1799, $2099.

OK, it's not an iPhone. On the plus side it's a Mac OS X notebook, it can run standard OS X software (including Skype and Vonage) and can be used as a cellphone when closed. Oh and it does video conferencing.

Maybe for bonus points it has Newton-like functionality (e.g. you can draw or take notes on it with a stylus).

iWork, iLife, etc.

There's an assumption running that because there are already iWork and iLife "08s" out there's nothing much to expect on the software front. We know that Apple plans an announcement at a Final Cut Pro user group meeting during the expo (possibly the successor to Shake, possibly something else like ... Apple has bought a high end 3d company -- Newtek or Softimage, say -- and is making all their stuff Maclike).

It's always possible that iLife/iWork will get serious revisions which don't require existing owners to buy an update.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Quad Core iMacs

Given that Dell is currently selling quad core XPS desktops for $799, it would seem to be a no-brainer that Apple will put quad cores into at least the upper end iMacs, possibly the whole line, and possibly into a Mac mini variant.

This will, unfortunately, close the gap between the iMac and Mac Pro product lines, which makes the introduction of a headless iMac with upgradeable video even less likely.