Shouting Into Darkness

Brief Impressions of “iTunes in the Cloud”

Posted in Technology by Chris W. on June 7, 2011

So today was WWDC. If you’ve followed me on Twitter, I apologize for flooding your feed. But we’re done now, the dust has cleared for the non-developer types, so what’s up with iCloud?

It turns out that our predictions of what iCloud would be were a bit… generous. We were expecting full streaming capabilities as well as a digital record of what we purchased. We got the digital record, but no streaming. Music you buy on any iTunes-enabled device (Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, iTunes desktop) will save itself in iCloud as well as download to the device you purchased from. But now, if you go to a different device and want that song, you can re-download it for no extra charge to that device. While iCloud itself is not ready until Fall, a small part of the service called “iTunes in the Cloud” is available now, already installed on your iOS device that runs 4.3.3.

I’ve been playing around with it. To experiment, I have the “Spider-Man” musical number “Rise Above” (Don’t judge; I was curious) as well as “You’re the Inspiration” by Chicago (Judge all you want. That song rocks). “Rise Above” was purchased recently, with “You’re The Inspiration” purchased a few months ago. With one tap, the song I bought off my laptop downloads to my iPad 2 without syncing… after agreeing to 41 pages of Terms and Service.

This part of the service works as advertised. You have a song in the cloud that you want, and a few moments later, that song gets pushed to your device as if it were always there. But this is where we come into some issues, issues that I hope get ironed out by the real release of the product. First off, and I’m not alone in this boat, I bought most of my music on an old AppleID associated with a now defunct e-mail address. When I bought MobileMe, I got a new AppleID that I prefer using. iTunes in the Cloud will only associate itself with one (1) AppleID at a time, just like iTunes-not-in-the-Cloud does now. So, if you’ve got songs spread across multiple AppleIDs, you won’t have access to all those songs in iCloud; you’ll only be able to re-download the songs associated with the currently used AppleID. Unless you pay a LOT of money and re-purchase all those songs (or upgrade them to DRM-free models for a fee), a sizable part of your library could be left out of the Cloud.

The second issue has to do with the iPod software in iOS. I wanted to test and see if iTunes in the Cloud would allow me to download a song, delete it, and download it again without being penalized. That’s a huge advantage to this system over Amazon’s Cloud Player, where your music is always connected. You can download a song, play it until you get bored with it, and delete it to free up some space, knowing that a version of it will remain in the Cloud. The problem? You cannot, as far as I can tell, delete songs directly off the iDevice without syncing to a computer. You can certainly remove a song from a playlist, but the song itself remains on the Hard Drive. This is a problem. I want the flexibility to get rid of songs I don’t want now and download them again when I get in the mood. Wasn’t Apple themselves trumpeting the fact that they are now “Post-PC” and a computer is no-longer needed to work an iPad/iPhone? If I still need a computer to tell my iPad what songs to delete, then we are still very much “PC”. If this is not ironed out, iCloud is seriously crippled, in my opinion.

This is just a brief overview of the service done while I was delirious with hunger and fatigue. I will say that the novelty of having access to ALL your music (providing you have a lot of purchased content and/or not a lot of indie songs that might not make it onto iTunes) and choosing what to download. This service is the seed of something great, but it’ll have to grow around a few rocks before it breaks ground and blossoms.

UPDATE: I still haven’t found a way to edit my songs on either my iPhone or iPad, but the iOS 5 update will fix this. In absence of musical editing abilities, I went to the next best thing: Apps. Mac users are aware that the App Store will keep all your purchases in the cloud now and restore them at the push of a button if you so choose to. The iOS App Store is now getting the same function, and I love it.

You see, I’m an impulse app purchaser. If it’s under two dollars, I’ll probably download it without thinking twice, a practice that has led to some rather nasty discoveries when my iTunes bill shows up. The other downside is that I suffer from app-clutter: a ton of apps downloaded with only a fraction that are daily use or even occasional use. Most of my apps sit on my phone “just in case.” I probably won’t ever need to make a martini or use the “It’s a Trap!” soundbyte in my daily life, but if I did find myself mixing cocktails for some reason, I’d be saved by my phone! As you can imagine, it meant a lot of wasted disc space and screen space on “rare use” apps. Now, with the iCloud beta, users can delete the apps they rarely use off their iDevice (or Mac), free up the disc space, and the app is available for download again instantly. If music and photos work the same way, iCloud will change the way people think about their media.

P.S. I still want to stream my movies in iCloud. Let’s get to work on that, Apple. Chop chop!

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Crystal Ball Time: Predictions for Apple March 2011 Event

Posted in Apple Predictions, Technology by Chris W. on March 1, 2011

It’s that time again. We’re mere hours away from another Apple event and that means the entire Internet is abuzz with what it could be. Surprisingly, there are even some odds-makers taking bets on tomorrow’s proceedings. Strange, considering that – unlike last year – Apple has flat-out admitted what will be on display tomorrow. But the details are still debatable, so if you’re considering gambling with Junior’s college fund, here are a few helpful thoughts from one jerk with an Internet connection:

The Sure Thing: iPad 2
Yeah, Apple’s not being subtle about this one, are they? The time is right for a hardware refresh, and with the iPad peeking out from behind the invitation (a trend Apple has been using in their invitations recently: drop a big hint about a highly-anticipated product release to distract everyone from their latest controversy), this one is guaranteed. The iPad 2 (or whatever it will be called) will be debuted tomorrow. Also guaranteed: as soon as it’s announced, I will want one.
Probability: 100%

The Real Question: iPad 2’s Features
While it’s the unspoken truth that the iPad 2 will be announced tomorrow, nobody really knows what that entails. You can be sure that a FaceTime camera will be involved, but beyond that fact, it’s kind of up in the air. There are good arguments on either side for “Will it get a retina display upgrade?” or “Will it sport an SD card slot?” For my money, here’s what you can expect:
Thinner, lighter, partially inspired by MacBook Air. The 11” MacBook Air has been a huge success for Apple and the company, like a Formula 1 team, will look to shed weight and increase aerodynamics in any way possible. As much as I loved my iPad, the only drawback was that it felt heavy in places, and the iPad 2 will look to rectify that.
FaceTime Camera. Well… duh. Apple is trying to push FaceTime and I think that the iPad 2 will be the platform that allows the software to really take off. Everyone bemoaned the lack of cameras on the first iPad. What will be interesting will be how many people who cried for the feature will actually use it once it’s available.
SLIGHT Display Upgrade. As pretty as the screen on the original iPad was, I think Apple will find a way to cram a few more pixels into it. I’m of the mindset that a true Retina Display is in the future and unless Apple is ready to make a serious commitment to HD, the iPad 2 won’t be sporting a super high-rez screen.
No Back-Facing Camera/SD Slot. I’m just personally predicting that these features will be left out because I can’t factor in where they’d fit in my daily use for the tablet. If you’ve got an iPhone 4 or an iPod Touch (which is a very large sample group, to be honest), then you’ve got a high-quality camera that you can easily pull out of your pocket/already have in your hands and snap a photo. Where do you usually use an iPad? When you’re sitting down. To me, adding a rear-facing camera to the iPad would be like adding a rear-facing camera to my MacBook Air just because they could. On the other hand, I will admit that there is a subset of the market that could have a use for an SD card slot (eliminating the need for that awkward Camera Connection Kit) so if I’m wrong on that one, I can understand why. People on the go want to take high-quality pictures with a Canon or Nikon camera and get them on the iPad quickly. It’d be a great feature for someone who used their iPad as a mobile computer. I think Apple would much rather use streaming/cloud software that they own (more on that later) but this is an acceptable stepping-stone to that ultimate conclusion.
Price Drop. In the electronics game, you use the early adopters to recoup your R&D costs. I don’t have exact numbers on me, but last year the number of iPads sold by Apple ranges somewhere between an assload and a shitload. Consider that the cheapest one was $499 and (according to iSuppli, cost around $260 to manufacture) and that’s a nice profit margin. By now, Apple has probably made back or come close to making back the money needed to develop the iPad and can afford to bring the cost down. And to be honest, it is a move that is needed. The iPad surprised the entire computing industry; even when it was mocked for its name or being “just a big iPod Touch”, it was such a huge success that companies like Google and Motorola are scrambling to produce competitors. With about three big tablets on the way in 2011, and many tech pundits giving thumbs up to Google’s Honeycomb OS, the iPad’s biggest advantage is its price. If Apple can make an iPad 2 that sells for $400 – $450, its dominance in the tablet market will be almost assured.

As you can see, my prediction for Wednesday is that we will have a modest upgrade to the iPad, similar to the 3GS two years ago. There will be one or two big features that will turn heads, but for the most part, if you have an iPad now and don’t have a camera fetish, you may be well served to ignore this hardware cycle.
Probability of being 100% accurate: 22%
Probability of being wrong about the Retina Display: 50%
Probability of a price drop: 15%

The Long Shot: Free Cloud-Based MobileMe/iTunes Locker
People in the tech world have been predicting a drastic shift in the iTunes model since Apple purchased start-up company a few years ago. The service allowed you to upload music into the “cloud” for streaming to any device. In practical terms, “Do you like Men at Work, but not enough to eat up valuable disc space on your iPod? Well, upload it to the cloud and stream it whenever you get the urge for some Australian 80s pop rock.” It’s been put off and put off for ages, but now that MobileMe has vanished from online and retail stores, the mood in the air is that a refresh is imminent. I normally would brush this off as just tech buffs yearning to give their hard drives some relief, but I’m inclined to agree this time. MobileMe’s disappearance from the sales world is a sign that something is up, but what put it over the edge for me is the tagline in the invitation. “Come see what 2011 will be the year of.” If this was 2010, the iPad would be sufficient enough, but for that much hype, I don’t think that the iPad is the only thing they’re talking about. Something else is afoot. I’ll even scale it back a little bit and say that Wednesday’s event will only set up the groundwork for an overhaul later. iTunes itself usually gets a make-over in the Fall Music event, so tomorrow will concern itself with MobileMe, with possible expansion into iTunes later in 2011.
Probability: 45%

The Misguided Guess: Preview of “Lion”
Apple just released the developer preview of Mac OSX “Lion.” It’s getting praise from developers and non-developers who happened to scam a copy as a seamless blend of iOS’s ease-of-use with Mac OSX’s computing power. We mere mortals (including those not brave enough to put their primary computer at risk by running an OS that technically isn’t finished yet) will be able to download “Lion” in the summer, and I hope that Tim Cook or someone gives us another peek at Lion’s new features to whet our appetite. It would fit in with the theme of “Come see what 2011 will be the year of”, but I’ll bet that Apple would rather focus on the iPad 2/MobileMe. There’s a slim chance “Lion” will get some love tomorrow, but I wouldn’t bet my last chip on it.
Probability: 10%

The Second Coming (Again): Steve Jobs returns to the stage
Today, some rumors started to get floated around that Steve Jobs will make an appearance tomorrow, probably not taking center stage for the entire presentation, but to demo the iPad 2 or something similar. It would make sense and be poetic. Everyone has seen the pictures of Jobs holding the original iPad as it was announced to the world. Nothing against COO Tim Cook, but it would be slightly weird to have someone else demo the product that has been so associated with Jobs and his philosophy at Apple. I also think back to the iPhone announcements: Jobs was there for the iPhone, the iPhone 3G, and the iPhone 4 (the major hardware refreshes) while Phil Schiller took the stage to announce the iPhone 3GS (seen largely as a minor upgrade and not worth buying if you had the 3G). It’s no secret in the tech world that, although Jobs is on medical leave from Apple, he’s still involved with the company, and this would be a great opportunity to put to bed any rumors of Jobs’s declining health or departing Apple for good, which have reeked havoc on Apple’s stock prices. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The products are what we are there for, and Jobs will return if and when he’s ready to. But wouldn’t it be cool? Wouldn’t it?
Probability: Immeasurable

So there we have it. That’s what I think we’ll see tomorrow at Apple’s March 2011 Event. Thanks very much for sticking with me to the end, and if you want to see the news as it happens, please follow me on Twitter as I’ll be live-tweeting the stream of the event. As always, stay tuned for the wrap-up on Shouting Into Darkness!

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Xbox vs iTunes: Battle of the Media Download Services

Posted in Reviews, Technology by Chris W. on March 8, 2007

Almost everyone has an iPod now, and as a result, almost everyone uses iTunes for some reason or another. As a music download service, it’s beyond compare. When it comes to music, podcasts, or audiobooks, iTunes is just about always my go-to service (unless the song is over 6 minutes long, and then I’d probably have to buy the whole album in order to get it. I thought iTunes was supposed to rid us of that, huh?!). But with the addition of video capabilities, and more recently a wider selection of feature films, Apple has been branching out far beyond its established “comfort zone.” Have they gone too far?

Well, there are plenty of video download services, and most of them suck. Amazon’s “Unbox” service needed the help of TiVo in order to save it from premature extinction. So, with Apple’s dominance over the MP3 player market, you’d think that the video component would be just as successful, but one new player’s been in the game since last November that just might give Apple a run for their money. And worst of all, it comes from their biggest competitor.

Microsoft may have dropped the ball on Vista (my guess is that Bill Gates is retiring and becoming a philanthropist in order to clear his conscience of Vista) but the Xbox 360 division of the Big M has been going strong. I’ve had an Xbox 360 for almost a year, and I love that sucker. When I heard that Xbox was beginning to offer movies and television shows for download (some of them in High Definition), it was a huge boost in the 360’s credibility for me. I’ve tried both services, and I’ll try to list the pros and cons here.

Pros: iTunes

iTunes’ first big advantage is its cross-platform accessibility. As stated before, the popularity of the iPod is a big stepping-stone for Apple to climb on. The user interface is friendly, but that’s really par for the course. The prices are fair, especially for TV shows. One really sneaky thing that Apple has integrated into iTunes is the ability to just set up a credit card for Apple to suckle off of every time you buy something, so it seems like you’re getting the movie/TV show/song for free. And, Apple has finally gotten past the limited appeal of the Disney catalogue (with the exception of Cars. My dad loves that movie.) and gotten more mature content. Even though I have way too many copies of Reservoir Dogs, I’m still attracted to the notion of having a portable one!

Pros: Xbox 360

Xbox’s prime advantage comes in two letters: HD. The 360 has the built-in capability to handle high definition content, so they offer high definition content, which makes the techno-nerd in me very happy. Also, since the Xbox is catering to the people who have big-screen HDTVs, the content matches that resolution, for the most part. But the biggest feather in Microsoft’s cap that I can think of is something that can’t be measured in numbers: it’s a lot of fun to use the Xbox Live Marketplace. Maybe it’s the bright colors, but the interface is really enjoyable. While shopping on the iTunes store is more formal, like shopping at Sears or, going through the Xbox Live Marketplace is like going to a Chuck E. Cheese, but without all the kids.

Cons: iTunes

iTunes’ biggest flaw comes from its biggest advantage. The portability of the iPod, while fantastic for music, means that watching video on it is similar to trying to watch a neighbor’s TV through a set of binoculars (not that I’ve tried). And the resolution leaves a bit to be desired. The official description from Apple is “near-DVD quality”. I think that a more appropriate description is “slightly better than Laserdisc.” A lot of the cool shows and movies (24, Law & Order, Pirates of the Caribbean) have deep saturated blacks in them, and “black” is not the friend of the iPod. Sometimes it gets so pixilated, it’s embarrassing.

Cons: Xbox

The 360 has a lot of flaws inherent in its design. The first one is in regard to movies. If you have a 360, and have downloaded movies, you know that the download is a “rental”. After 14 days, or 24 hours after you press Play, the license on the movie expires, and if you want to watch it again, you’ll have to download it again. And, while Xbox is working on getting more high definition content available to its subscribers, the majority of the movies and TV shows are full-frame Standard Definition. The sad fact is that, when you’ve got a widescreen TV, you want to watch things in widescreen.

This can be somewhat forgivable, since it isn’t really the standard yet, and in Microsoft’s mind, the filtering of HDTVs down to the base consumer might not be large enough to warrant this. That’s all understandable, but the current incarnation of the 360 has something that can’t be forgiven: the hard drive is only 20 GB large. With all of the content that can be used on the 360 (game demos, music, saved game data, and now video content) that 20 GB can fill up fast. And another hard drive costs 100 dollars! Microsoft is promising a larger hard drive by the end of the year, but if a 20 GB hard drive costs a seanote, then what would an 80 GB hard drive cost?! You could buy another 360 with that cash!

Finally, in contrast to Apple’s “invisible credit”, where you’re being billed, but you don’t feel like it, Microsoft reminds you how much dough you’ve got to spend. The Xbox Live Marketplace utilizes something called “Microsoft Points”, a debit system of points that act like cash in this virtual store. Every time you buy something, the points get deducted, and you’re reminded of how many points you have left. So, if you buy 1000 points, you can slowly watch those 1000 points go down the tube. While it may be realistic, it’s obviously not good business to remind the customer that they’re spending money. And once those points do run out, you buy another block of points. If I were Microsoft, I’d go the route of iTunes and internet porn providers, where they just invisibly and automatically take your money. As a consumer, I appreciate that.

Final Verdict: Draw

I know, it’s kind of the pussy way out, but it’s too close to call. The barometer is that if there’s a video (like South Park) which is available on both services, I’d be probably more likely to purchase it from iTunes, for the express reasons because my Xbox hard drive is almost full, and the episodes usually aren’t in widescreen to begin with on the Xbox. But new technology should be closing the already small gap between the two. As mentioned earlier, Microsoft is planning a larger hard drive for the 360 (hopefully the price is fair), but Apple is also going to be rolling out their $300 AppleTV sometime this month, which caters to HDTVs. I hope that the release of AppleTV is a sign that Apple is embracing high definition content. If they are, then Microsoft’s advantage is severely injured. But, as I close this already long-winded review, I will say that shopping on the Xbox Live Marketplace is a lot of fun, and one of the best features of the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live service. That’s something that Apple can’t take away, yet.

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