Posts Tagged ‘ipod’

There are lots of reports today that the iPad 2 is in production and will be officially announced and in US stores soon (although the signs are that the UK will have to wait a couple of months, just as we did for the launch of the original iPad.)

Now the iPad 2 story has been picked to death by news outlets and tech blogs almost since the day after the original iPad was released, and frankly I’m sick to death of speculation about what it might or might not contain in the way of new features. It used to be accepted in computing that however long you waited, however wise you were in selecting a PC to buy, it didn’t matter: it would still be out of date the day after you finally put down the money. These days it’s even worse: the speculation about new products (and particularly Apple products) is so incessant that the product feels old hat and is yesterday’s news some six months before it even exists.

Hence now, as the iPad 2 launch finally grows near, we’re seeing stories like ReadWriteWeb’s “iPad 2.0: Can Faster, Thinner, Lighter Compete with Android Tablets?” which are taking the “oh – is that it? Is there no more?” line of disappointment.

To recap the story (which itself is similar to hundreds of others about iPad 2), it seems that – as the headline states – the new iPad will be faster, lighter and thinner; and that it will gain at least one front-facing camera for use with Apple’s Facetime video conferencing software. And, err, that’s about it. It might have slightly improved screen resolution, but it won’t be anything of the order of an upgrade to the stunning Retina-level display debuted on the iPhone 4 last July.

As the ReadWriteWeb article asks, “Where is the “wow” factor, though?” The reality has been thoroughly eclipsed by the wild speculation online for the last six months, which has been so overheated that frankly an iPad 2 that doesn’t boast artificial intelligence, come with a free jetpack and hovercar, and is altogether more capable than you are of running your life and pleasuring your partner is just going to be a bit of a damp squib.

But then, what do Apple really need to do with the iPad to make the follow-up sell like hot cakes? The answer, ironically, is: as little as possible.

A lot of people I know were very interested in the iPad when it launched last year, played with it in the Apple Store – but pointedly held off buying. “I’ll wait for the second generation model”, I heard time and again. I’m going to dub this “the Windows Mindset”, because I think it stems from peoples’ experiences with previous Windows products where the first release of anything (including some versions of Windows itself) has all too often been shockingly poor and bug-ridden, ill-developed and barely good enough to be labelled a work-in-progress.

No one in their right minds gets the first gen version of such flawed products, waiting instead for the second gen when the problems are all worked out. That way, they gain some extra, new features in the process and possibly a lower price to boot. (However, anyone holding off the original iPad expecting prices to go down over time doesn’t know Apple at all: the company sees itself as a premium product retailer and doesn’t discount or drop prices, until a given model stops being at the “top” of the line and is downgraded to a budget position while a new model takes up the top price spot.)

But I think with Apple, that “Windows Mindset” is irrelevant. Apple’s products these days seem to be good to go and pretty much flawless from the very first generation. Even the very first iPhone remains serviceable and problem-free to this day, and my own iPhone 3G (the second gen) is absolutely perfect for my needs despite its relative age. In fact, strangely enough it’s not the older iPhones that have been problematic but the most recent iPhone 4 that’s had all the issues and which I still wouldn’t personally buy as a result.

As far as I’m concerned, Apple certainly nailed the iPad concept right from the start, but then they had to – failing to make the iPad a huge hit from its very start would have killed the entire tablet concept stone dead and left the company with a Newton-shaped hole in their accounts. The iPad had to be perfect and glitch-free from the get-go, and … It was. (There were a few early software issues with wifi connectivity at the start but these were quickly fixed; I’m not aware of any hardware problems in the range whatsoever.) Compare that to the other manufacturers like Samsung or those using the Android OS who are having to scramble to get into the market after the iPad’s success, and who have ended up fielding typical flawed first gen tablets in line with the “Windows Mindset”.

So those people who held off on getting the original iPad because of potential flaws have been thwarted – they could have bought nine months ago with peace of mind, it turns out. The only thing now that stops them from buying is the fact that the first generation is genuinely approaching end of life as a premium product, and the iPad 2 is nigh. Who wants something that looks so 2010 when the 2011 model is upon us? In other words: Apple could pretty much bring out the same product again, whack a ‘2’ on it in white correction fluid, and they’d still unlock that huge potential market of people who have been waiting for months and kicking themselves for their caution.

Given that Apple really doesn’t have to do that much to get the delayed first-time purchasers and the eager second-time upgraders to shell out their cash for any new model they put out, it’s no wonder that they’re sticking with pretty much low-key tinkering around the edges: “thinner and lighter” addresses one of the few criticisms of the original iPad made last year; “faster” is mandatory for any new computer product. And the camera is really only there because Apple are pushing Facetime as an international standard in order to dominate the video conferencing market; it’s already on the latest iPhone and iPod Touch, and also available on the Mac computer ranges, so it’s important for the growth of Facetime that iPad users now swell the ranks. Hence the camera addition – it’s about Apple’s ambitions for Facetime, not about the iPad.

But beyond that, why should Apple do any more? For one thing, it presumably leaves them with more ideas and potential left over that they can start planning to add to the functionality of iPad 3, rumours about which you should be able to start reading within minutes of iPad 2 going on sale. (I sometimes think that Apple use the internet blogs and forum speculation as a useful arm of their R&D department to generate new ideas to pursue – in which case, if they do, good on them. Listening to customers and delivering at and above their expectations is what makes a successful company.) For another, if any iPad 2 is already likely to be a sell-out, then why even try and over-excite demand when there is no hope of the supply chain being able to meet it for months to come? You’ll only frustrate potential buyers and possibly drive them into the arms of other manufacturers that way.

Another reason for not wanting to fiddle with the iPad too much at this point is that sticking with the basic model and just tinkering around the edges will exude an overwhelming confidence in the product: “Yes, it’s so good, why mess with it? It’s a winner, tried and tested and proven, all but perfect – come on in, the water’s fine.” It’s reassuring to potential buyers to see a manufacturer serene and confident in their product to the point of smugness, whereas too much tinkering can give the impression of insecurity, of basic problems, or just that any buyer is going to find their purchase out of date in five seconds because of the latest tweak.

In fact Apple’s only potential problem is if they really can’t actually think of any way of improving it in the future, if they can’t think of any more features to add to later iPad models. And the creative well does go dry at times, even for Apple. The development of iPod range, for example, is looking like being reduced to shuffling round the colours and bumping up the memory chips because there’s not much else you can do to them now; the iPhone 4 also lacked any big new ideas and indeed many of its well-publicised problems (antenna-gate; the failure-to-fly of the white model; problems with the all-glass case) seem to be the result of having to push things too far, too soon just to be able to come up with something that could go on the press releases boasting the all-important new features critical to moving units of any new retail product.

But Apple’s problem is that the iPhone as it stands is pretty much perfect, at least as perfect as the current state of technology allows and in accordance with people’s actual requirements of a mobile smartphone. It will take a seismic shift in thinking to produce something genuinely new to simulate a whole new growth spurt – as big a shift as the one the original iPhone itself wrought on the mobile phone handset market. Does anyone have any genuinely new ideas, or have we restored equilibrium for now?

The iPad didn’t so much create a seismic shift as magic a completely new market out of thin air. The iPad now defines the tablet market; and it did so by delivering everything that people wanted out of such a device, even if they didn’t know it before they saw it. But if the iPad already does everything, and near-perfectly at that, then where does it go from here other than the odd new feature and refinement of form factor and newer chips that allow older models to be slowly dropped from support by later releases of iOS and apps to cajole people to upgrade eventually?

That’s already the reason why, when the “faster, thinner, lighter” and camera-enabled new iPad comes out, I won’t be buying – for the very simple reason that I love my current iPad and there’s no improvement I need to it. But hopefully those hold-outs who recoiled from buying a first gen product will be lining up at the checkouts and joining the club, and that’ll do very nicely for Apple’s corporate accounts in 2011.

The iPad 2 may turn out to be “the very least Apple can do” in a second generation product, but that’s likely to be more than enough.

So Apple have unveiled the most extensive revamp of their iPod range this week. And yet, despite being an Apple fanboi going way back (before iPads, iPhones, iPods or even iMacs) I find myself in an odd fugue state of indifference, topped off with the first early warning signs of anxiety about Apple’s direction and future.

Last year the company unveiled the fifth generation iPod nano, and I was so excited that I had bought one within a couple of days. Far from being a rash decision, I can happily say that I’ve used the nano virtually every day of the year since and certainly never regretted the purchase.

The new nano is the most far-reaching redesign in the 2010 iPod line-up revamp, changing it to a square touchscreen device that continues Apple’s strategy of progressively cascading the ‘touch’ paradigm through its line-up. The touchscreen is clearly the thing to have these days and anything else with physical buttons and sliders is starting to look a bit tired and old hat: users used to iPhones start prodding the screen and wondering why it’s not working, until they reload the old and dated way of doing things back into their brain. And there’s no doubt that the simple clickable scroll-wheel – so effective when first introduced – is now creaking under the weight of finding ways to access all the gazillion new features that have crept onto the iPod since its launch.

So the addition of touch technology brings a little of that Apple glamour and pizzazz back to the nano, and helps stop it being potentially overlooked in a crowded market. But the sixth generation nano’s touchscreen implementation seems a rather halfway house solution, because the screen – while looking at first glance like the iPod touch/iPhone iOS – is purely cosmetic. It doesn’t run iOS and can’t have apps added to it, so it’s a bit of sleight-of-hand that doesn’t really hide the fact that its beauty is barely skin deep, and I suspect this limitation will disappoint as many people as the redesign will delight. In addition, the screen is now rather too small to easily navigate through lots of music, and the touchscreen makes it hard to use when out for a run or any other time you can’t stop, take out the nano to look at and fiddle with.

But the main reason I’m disappointed in the new nano is that it removes video capability. I’m not referring to the video camera/recording per se – I’ve not used that very often on my nano, but on the other hand it does nicely fit a gap in functionality on my old iPhone 3G phone – but I do find the removal of a much-touted fifth generation feature to be a somewhat retrograde step. No, my main complaint on video is that the new iPod nano can’t play video. At all. No more vodcasts, no more watching TV programmes recorded through my Elgato tuner (which I’ve gone a fair amount of over the year.) That’s a real drawback, actually a dealbreaker for me. Why remove that feature? Not being able to pack in the video camera hardware into the diminished casing I can understand, but how can the nano software suddenly lose the ability to play video after all this time?

At least the new nano retains its FM radio, which I was particularly excited about with the fifth generation last year. I actually feared that it, too, would be swept away by the change in physical form, so it’s nice to see it retained. It actually makes me surprised that the revamped iPod touch is singularly lacking an FM radio chip in its latest incarnation. Otherwise, the new iPod touch delivers everything that was expected – in particular the front-facing camera and the Facetime video conferencing capability. This was an absolute top priority for Apple, because establishing Facetime as a video conferencing standard needs it to be on more devices than simply the top-of-the-line iPhone 4, and so this iPod touch brings it “to the masses” – or at least as mass as it’s ever likely to get.

The one thing that surprises me with the iPod touch upgrade is that its appearance looks … Well, pretty much the same as the previous model. Apparently it’s a little thinner, but not by so much as you’d notice. That means the general overall aesthetic is still the same as the iPhone 3G and 3GS, and fairly close to the iPad. What it’s not like, however, is the iPhone 4, and that leaves the iPhone 4 looking like the odd one out: “one of these things is not like the other ones.” As a result, its sleek, metal, sharp-edged design looks rather un-Applelike against the carefully curved other models in the mobile range. Now it could be that Apple just wants the iPhone 4 to remain unique and special, or it could be that the iPhone 4 style simply doesn’t work well with an ultraslim physical form. But by leaving the iPhone 4 looking so different, it does raise the suggestion that someone, somewhere has already decided that it’s not the future of Apple’s mobile devices and that the iPhone 4 design has already been consigned to the “lame duck” category of history.

Because it’s true, Apple do make mistakes when it comes to product design: and you only have to look at the overhaul of the iPod shuffle to see this. The new model is fairly square, with buttons on its front face, while the previous model was longer and thinner with all the controls on the headphone lead. But look a generation back from that, and you’ll find that the 2008 shuffle is squarer, with buttons on its front face … Exactly like the 2010 model. Okay, the new model is thinner, and brings in the VoiceOver technology lacking from the 2008 model, but in all other respects this is one of the clearest examples yet we’ve had of Apple holdings its hands up and admitting “yeah, sorry about that 2009 model, it was a complete dog.”

Having the courage to own up and backtrack is actually quite laudable, but what’s missing here is that Apple seem to be completely out of ideas for what to do with the product than put it back to how it was before they broke it. A first sign of Apple’s design maestros running on empty? Or simply an illustration of how difficult even Apple finds it to deliver striking products to their usual dazzling standard at the low-cost end of the market?

You sense that Apple would love to just do away with the shuffle – that the new iPod nano touchscreen is really where they see this part of the market, being quite small enough (in fact – rather too small, especially for a touchscreen device). But the shuffle is a key part of Apple’s business strategy, its low price protecting the iPod range from the attacking hoards of budget MP3 players that are out there. In the same way, Apple clearly hate having to continue the iPod classic line and would love to get rid of it and have the iPod touch as the unchallenged king of the iPods, but they can’t – 128Gb RAM chips are proving elusive, and so the hard disc technology of the iPod classic is necessary for those music obsessives that need over 100Gb of storage on their device. But for the meantime the classic is a necessary evil, and so it sits in Apple’s product line-up, looking old and tired and neglected – just merely indispensable at the same time.

There were a few other launches at Apple’s September 1 event other than the refreshed iPod line-up: the next iPhone operating system, iOS 4.1, was announced – and top of the list was a fix for using it on the old iPhone 3G hardware. This (even more than antenna-gate, which was massively overhyped by blogs and media) has been a real black mark against Apple of late: when iOS 4.0 came out, the 3G was still part of the current iPhone range being sold by Apple. Even if that was only for a week overlap, there were still people buying a new phone on up to a 18 month contract who instantly could not use the current recommended OS for it without serious performance issues. It’s one thing to remove support and deprecate an out-of-date product, but to make a model obsolete while it’s still in your retail line-up is reprehensible.

There’s also the Apple TV, but outside the US this is rather hobbled by international licensing deals and consequently still feels like a dispensable sideline for Apple. What’s raised most eyebrows about Apple TV in the UK has been the price – the £99 matching the $99, the first time we’ve seen pound/dollar parity. The Apple TV seems a bit of a blip on Apple’s pricing, but other Apple prices are also skyrocketing (the new nano is about 25% more than the old one, for example) and even Apple seem to be getting a little uncomfortable about how this is coming across, carefully adding information to their UK Store pages detailing how much of that is down to sales taxes (VAT) and import duties. While it’s true that the pound has fared poorly on the money markets in the last year, and VAT will be going up to 20% in January, it’s still astonishing just how much Apple are hiking their prices, while all the other IT retailers are slashing prices to nothing (for example, under £300 for a laptop) – but then, Apple sales are exploding despite the price, so maybe it just shows that Apple know more about this than I do. Or indeed most economists do! Apple seem happy shooting for the premium crowd, where “if you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it” – but will this last or prove to be a bubble?

And there was also the launch of iTunes 10, the latest version of Apple’s media player/manager. Here’s a program that urgently needs a complete reboot – it’s got large, bloated, confusing and disorganised over the years as more and more demands and features have been foisted upon it. For a simple media player, the amount of system resources it hogs these days is astonishing. But instead of tackling all of this, Apple have simply landed it with another whole chunk of stuff to take care of – this time social networking via music, a network they call Ping. I can honestly say that another social network was not something I was thinking as being missing from my life, and while it’s been hailed as “the final nail in MySpace’s coffin” I can’t help but think this is far too little and far too late in the day to be getting into this game. Then again, I’d have said the same about Apple’s clearly doomed attempt to infiltrate the mature mobile phone market just before they launched the iPhone, so if anyone can pull off the impossible then it’s Apple.

However, there are a few things about iTunes 10 and Ping (other than feature-bloat) that make me scratch my head and worry that Apple are starting to falter at keeping all these plates spinning. Early users of Ping have been trying to set up user accounts … And finding that their avatar pictures don’t appear, until they have been “approved”. It’s Apple’s control tendencies showing again, mixed with the same puritanical streak that sees them censor anything remotely smutty or sleazy from the App Store. But having to get an avatar approved by the all-seeing Apple? Even for committed Apple fanbois this is surely a level of central control beyond a joke. And for everyone else, is this a network that you’d be happy joining? Apple clearly don’t have a grasp on social media or understand that it cannot be directed and controlled without killing it off. On just this one piece of early evidence, I have grave doubts Ping will ever make any impact and that it may quickly whither and die, much as its original foray into online communities, eWorld, similarly suffocated and died.

The other point about iTunes 10 is a very, very minor one: they’ve moved the three buttons for closing, minimising or expanding so that they now run vertically like traffic lights – instead of horizontally, as they appear on every other piece of software on the Mac OS. It’s a OS interface constant, a standard, so that everyone knows where the buttons are, what they do, how they work. And Apple have mucked around with this for no good apparent reason, but just because they felt like it. Interface designers know that you don’t monkey around with such things on a whim, so what are Apple playing at?

It is, as I have already admitted, a very minor detail. And yet there is something about it that seems telling to me, where such attention to small detail that used to be the defining characteristic of the company. And it’s in this and in the other parts of the iPod line-up covered in this article, either through highly uncharacteristic carelessness perhaps simply from being overstretched. The volume of output from Apple over the past few years has been astonishing, and we’re talking about a company a fraction of the size of Microsoft – which had been all but inert for years now, God alone knows what all those people are doing up in Seattle. Apple’s “start-up” size has worked for them over the years but now it might be catching up with them, the cracks showing as they take on more than they can carry, and as a result some of the plates can no longer be kept spinning: just look back at the iPhone 4 antenna-gate problem, the early iPad wi-fi problems, the issues with iOS4, the fact that iWorks hasn’t had a major upgrade in two years, and then add the sense that the latest iterations of products frankly aren’t as interesting or innovative as we’re used to from Apple. Too much to do, too little time to allow for innovation and inspiration.

And also … I do wonder whether any of this might stem from Steve Job’s medical leave last year. There’s things here that I wouldn’t have expected Jobs to let go through if he’d been in charge at the time, little slips that would have had him been in a rage and demanding to fix. Maybe the experience has changed him, and that infuriating, dynamic, demanding, contrary, driving, unique, charismatic dynamo at the heart of Apple is no longer the force it was. And if Apple’s core starts to falter, then will Apple itself decline and fall in turn?

Or perhaps this is just a simple blip, and all will be well with the Applesphere next time around. Let’s hope.

About five years ago, Steve Jobs memorably dismissed the idea of adding video to iPods, pointing out that while you can listen to music in the background, movies require that you actually watch them. “You can’t watch a video and drive a car,” he said. “We’re focused on music.”

This little blip in Jobs’ future-gazing capabilities is often used by detractors to show that even Apple’s great leader can and does get it wrong. Of course, they’re less quick to mention that – regardless of what Steve Jobs’ personal opinion on the matter might have been in 2004 – it didn’t stop the company from quickly adapting and making a truck load of money out of video-capable iPods and especially out of streaming video sales through the Apple Store. The last laugh is with Jobs and his bank account on this one.

Actually, though, I’ve always rather agreed with Jobs’ old opinion on this one. I use my iPod when I’m walking to work, or working at my desk, because music is something that doesn’t interfere with walking around and concentrating on other tasks. But add video and it’s quite different: it becomes an all-demanding immersive experience. You can’t walk along the street let alone drive a car while trying to watch a video.

But the biggest obstacle of all when it comes to mobile video seems to me to be: where do you get the videos to watch in the first place?

When I got my iPhone, I decided that I had to at least try the whole video thing once before deciding it was a waste of time. So I bought a couple of TV episodes from the Apple Store, put them on, used them for ‘demo’ purposes when talking to people about the iPhone, and … Never watched the episodes themselves. They’re still sitting on there, unwatched, a year later: I’ve never felt I’ve had the opportunity to sit and give my undivided attention to the episodes that my psyche tells me that ‘proper’ programmes must have to be appropriately watched. I’ve just never found a time when I’ve thought, “oh, perfect time to watch that” – yet the amount of music and podcasts and audiobooks I’ve listened to in that time is legion.

That little test run “proved”, to me at least, that video-on-the-go had very little appeal. Moreover it highlighted the problem that the content had to come from the Apple Store at a price (almost two pounds for an hour-long episodes), or … Where else? You could download BitTorrent TV programs, or find an illegal and nefarious way of ripping a DVD, but when it came to legal sources of video to watch on your iPod, then the alternatives were limited. And costly.

I did find one way of getting video content to the iPhone: I have a DVD Recorder that saves on-air recordings to a hard disc, which I could then burn onto a DVD, take the disc across the room to the Mac, and rip and convert this non-copy protected disc to iPhone format (H.264 since you ask) and then copy it into iTunes for syncing. Of course, this burning/ripping two stage process took as long if not longer than watching the source material in the first place, so you can imaging how many times I actually did this: once. A proof of concept run. But clearly this didn’t work in practice and I was still stymied.

I’ve always figured that the Apple TV product would be the eventual answer to this problem. When it first came out it seemed to me to be a rather pointless piece of hardware that added a hard disc to your TV to store downloads from the Apple Store, and not much else. I can see why Apple hobbled the product in this way – as it stands, Apple TV must drive a lot of sales form the Apple Store, after all. But I’ve always been mystified at why anyone would spend over two hundred pounds for something that is, essentially, doing exactly what your Mac or PC already does.

Surely Apple TV should let you watch and record TV as well? And allows you to watch the recorded programmes on your TV, Mac/PC or mobile device seamlessly, whichever you wanted? In other words, make it a PVR (personal video recorder) that bridges your TV, your Mac/PC and your mobile devices? As a way of making Apple TV relevant and worthwhile this had always seemed to me to be the obvious way forward; I could understand it not being in the 1.0 launch product, but surely it would be in the 2.0? But no – I’ve waited and watched and Apple TV is still about as dumb and pointless (to my mind) as when it first started. I guess it’s either legal copyright issues, or more likely that the sales it drives to the Apple Store that are worth protecting more than trying to boost sales of the product itself by making it, you know, useful.

Finally I decided to try to DIY it. I got a TV Tuner from Elgato, a company that specialises in video products for the Mac. I was a little wary of this since I’d be primarily using Freeview, and the reception in my area is patchy to say the least, so I could have spent a lot of money to get a product that didn’t really work. But I was lucky and with a bit of juggling with aerials I found that I could get a better signal for the Mac tuner than I can for my main TV set. I had finally added a capability that I’d wanted ever since my first computer back in the 80s – the ability to watch TV on my Mac.

At a stroke, what I got is the ability to schedule recordings of any Freeview channel, have it formatted for an iPod/iPhone and automatically sent to iTunes for the next sync to the mobile device. So at last, I have a purpose for video on an iPod – watching programmes that I’d recorded that I just didn’t have time to watch at home. Yay! But now the question becomes, “Was it the lack of source material after all – or just the fact that Steve Jobs was right all along and watching TV on a mobile device is just not that appealing?”

The first programme I recorded for mobile viewing was the practice sessions for the most recent Formula 1 Grand Prix (anyone who doesn’t know about my motorsport obsession clearly hasn’t checked out my companion motorsportind blog!) Since this was being held in Japan, the practice sessions started at an eye-watering 2am on Friday morning; and since I had work the next day and needed to show up reasonably sentient, watching live just wasn’t an option. Fitting in 90 minutes of viewing on the Friday evening wasn’t viable either, and on Saturday things would have moved on to the official qualifying session and Friday practice would no longer be relevant viewing. In the past that’s meant simply not watching it, but maybe now with video-on-the-go it would prove possible?

This first “proper” recording through the Mac tuner worked as advertised – the converted file was waiting, ready for synching in the morning and was duly put on the iPod nano (smaller screen, but perfectly fine for this type of thing – and I wanted to protect my iPhone battery life for other things such as calls, texts and tweets) to take into work. And sure enough, I watched it – on the train (only 15-20 minute stints on my commute, but good for catching snatches of something like this – not so good for narrative drama), over lunch in the COI café, and a couple of other opportunities throughout the day. There was still some left by the time I got home, but easy enough to finish off at this point. I was impressed by the quality and watchability on the iPod screen and I had a real childish glee of “Ooooh, look – I can watch TV on the iPod!” as I viewed.

Enduring success or one-hit wonder? The next thing to be recorded was – predictably – the Saturday practice session the next night at the same time from Japan, but by the time I was up and about the next morning it was already time for the proper qualification session, and that was such a breathless and exciting event that it rather eclipsed the earlier practice session, which now seemed rather … missable, frankly. So that’s still sitting on the iPod nano awaiting a viewing, several days after the Grand Prix weekend concluded. I suspect its chances are not good this long after the event.

I guess that makes the score currently one-all in terms of “will I watch video on the iPod with this new arrangement?” and it seems to come down to timing. It worked on the Friday because watching on-the-go was the only way of getting the programme watched in time; it failed on the Saturday because there was simply no such opportunity to watch it in time, mobile or otherwise. It also clearly depends on the source material, with just-aired sporting events having just the right sort of balance between timeliness and not having to watch too closely, as dipping in and out, stopping and starting is fine with this sort of sporting material but would kill a good drama or comedy. We shall have to await a tie-breaker and some longer-term data.

But regardless of whether the “watching on iPhone/iPod” experiment proves successful, the thing I’m really enjoying is simply having live TV on the Mac. It’s lovely being able to watch a programme as I work in a little box on the desktop; it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s totally different from trying to keep on eye on the actual TV while working on the computer; it’s particularly useful for having something like BBC News 24 on in the background as I work, which has been what has accompanied the writing of this blog post.

And if you’ll excuse me, I have to turn over the channel now and listen to In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 …

I’ve long been a bit of a sceptic about the likelihood of downloading becoming the dominant channel of media distribution. Try as I might, I can’t get over that feeling of having something in my hand in return for the money I’ve just paid out, something to show for that dent in my bank balance.

I don’t mind if it takes a few days, so ordering online, paying the money and then having to wait for two or three days for the DVD or CD to wend its way from Jersey and land on my doormat. At least at the end of the purchasing process I had something real, something tangible, something physical to show for it. And as long as I knew where I put it, then I knew it was in my possession – it wasn’t going to magically disappear.

Compare this with downloading until relatively recent times. Music and films were protected by digital rights management systems (DRM) systems that usually required a quick “check with base” validation to ensure that it hadn’t been copied and pirated off to another machine. Sounds all well and good, but … what happens if “base” suddenly disappeared? A lot of those early online music and film sellers have folded, and when their DRM database shuts down so does your ownership of the music. All of a sudden it’s clear that you paid retail prices for just an extended, unspecified rental instead.

For this reason I bought almost no download media from the Apple iTunes Store until very recently: it was only when the switch to the non-DRM iTunes Plus format was announced in January that I finally had the confidence in the asset to decide to buy an entire album of music rather than the odd track.

Plus of course you need a fast broadband connection to download the content you’ve just bought. For some reason, the connections to the iTunes Store has been painfully slow in the evenings over the last month, taking me right back to dial-up times, needing over an hour to download the tracks comprising a single album. And then once you had the downloaded files, you had to have increasingly massive hard disc storage to keep everything on.

All of this needed to be sorted before downloads would become a viable mainstream option, and that took time. In fact there’s a nice conspiracy theory that says the only reason Microsoft backed HD-DVD (the doomed high-definition next generation disc format) in its battle against Blu-Ray was to buy exactly that time, so that both formats would be antiquated by the time the battle was resolved and Microsoft could then corner the market with people using their PC operating system to handle all the downloaded media they would be buying by then.

But okay, generally speaking – DRM problems are falling away, connection speeds increasing and the standard size of hard discs now approaching half a terabyte, so am I a convert to downloading these days and joining the 21st century at last? Well … Yes. A bit.

I still obsess about backing up the downloaded files, convinced that my system is going to crash and leave me without the files I paid hard money for. SO I back up the files to memory stick … And then, when there’s enough of them, I burn them on to DVD as well. And this is all on top of the iTunes Store which remembers your purchased files and will let you re-download them later on if anything happens to them. All of which I find a bit fiddly and also just a touch stressful.

But on the plus side … All that physical media really does pile up. I don’t have a very big flat and frankly it’s stuffed full of CDs, books and DVDs. It would be a delight to be able to transfer all of this to a handheld unit – a super-iPod – and have it all at your fingertips all the time and be able to clear out the cases of discs and boxes of books to a storage unit. Then we really are living in the era of Star Trek with its handheld tricorders offering up any piece of media at the press of a button.

Yes, I’d love that – I remember the excitement I had of my original iPod which I transferred dozens of CDs down to, and the realisation that I could have this music with me, all the time, in a unit smaller than a packet of cigarettes.

But at the same time, I have to confess that I prefer the security of knowing that all those boxes of discs and books are physically around somewhere, even if it’s in a remote storage unit. Just in case. At least until I forget all about them and let my 20th century hang-ups fade from memory into the mists of time.

Until quite recently I’d never used the iTunes Store, and had very little exposure to ‘micropayments’. Now, I have to confess – I’m a huge fan and convert, and wondering how the micropayment system can be used in the future.

I hadn’t bought anything from iTunes until the middle of this year. For one thing, I had an antique iPod that was already stuffed full; and for the other, I didn’t even have broadband until the start of this year and so downloading MP3s just hadn’t been on the agenda.

With the arrival of broadband, I did finally make my first MP3 purchase, which for the record was “Eyes” by Rogue Wave for 79p, a track I’d really liked from numerous outings on the TV series “Heroes”. Even then, I probably wouldn’t have just bought one track – it’s just that it wasn’t available on any album in the shops, so it was because of not having any alternative that I was manoeuvred into breaking my iTunes duck.

That got me through the hurdle of registering and entering my credit card details, but it didn’t exactly open the flood gates and I didn’t return to the iTunes store until well into the autumn. The trigger was undoubtedly getting a new iPod – or iPhone in fact – since that suddenly made getting new music that much more appealing as a way of playing with my new shiny toy.

And of course the other thing about the iPhone is … all those enticing little Apps to download. I originally decided I’d only ever try the free ones, a philosophy that I did indeed stick to for literally a day. Maybe two. But in the end, I found it hard to resist or argue against getting an app costing 59p. The most expensive app I’ve bought from iTunes is Bylines for £3, an RSS reader with the specific feature of working through my Google Reader account and keeping synchronised.

It seemed positively churlish to start wavering about a few odd pennies here or there, and the amounts were negligible compared to almost every other purchase I make during the day. For the price of a Starbuck’s coffee I could get three MP3s or a couple of pretty decent paid apps, after all – and how much thought do I give to a morning coffee?

So at some point in the past month, my subconscious mind had come to the conclusion that buying things on iTunes of this sort of cost is just not worth bothering my conscious mind with. Go ahead, do it, the time spent hesitating and thinking about it is worth more to you than the pennies we’re contemplating.

Which is of course the power of micropayments – and especially so in the deadly combination of one-click payments used by the iTunes Store.

But it certainly surprised me how I was turned around from being disinterested in the iTunes Store, to being so casual that I’d buy a specific track just because I’d heard it on a TV soundtrack seconds earlier, or an app for my phone because someone had just shown it to me on theirs.

This kind of casualness with online payments is the Holy Grail of online commerce. At the start of internet commerce, online shops first had to overcome the basic hurdle of persuading people that any sort of transaction online were safe, but now that battle has been one and people will book hotels, hire cars, and buy goods from books, CDs and DVDs right up to washing machines, furniture and cars without too much concern.

But the small, casual purchase is still a problem – partly because of the economics of micropayments. The costs of credit and debit card transactions make charges of less than a pound uneconomical in general. (iTunes gets around this by aggregating a week’s worth of purchases and charging for them in one go, hoping that by this point you’ll have made up enough sales fees to make the transaction worthwhile. It’s not ‘real’ micropayments, but it’s the nearest, best equivalent around at the moment.)

The experience of the iTunes Store shows that – if a retailer can make the economics work for them – then micropayments are by far the best way of getting people to buy things online, because they’ll quickly demote the purchasing to their subconscious brain and not have the same conscious resistance to pressing the ‘buy’ button that comes with larger purchases.

In other words: think of how many things you can sell if you can persuade people to buy online as casually as they buy a coffee or a newspaper at the train station.

Ahh yes, newspapers. Here’s a very real and very specific case in point. The newspaper industry is in crisis worldwide: people don’t need to buy a newspaper any more (the news is out of date before the paper gets to the stand) and they’re not paying for the information online either. So how are newspapers going to keep afloat?

You can argue that newspapers are relics of the mid 20th century and really won’t be missed if they disappear for good, but I have to disagree. Even in these days of Web 2.0 user generated content, an awful lot of the most interesting stuff that gets passed around via social media is material produced by journalists for one publication or another. Without the journalists doing their investigative work we’d all be poorer and have a lot less to Twitter about – and at the end of the day someone has to pay for it.

But how, when experiments have repeatedly shown that people just won’t stump up for online content?

I think they would, if access to their day’s news content cost no more (and preferably rather less) than the kind of money they are used to forking out for a daily paper. Trouble is, the economics against micropayments have meant that online news sites have only ever been able to try out the long-term subscriptions – asking $99 for 6 month’s commitment. That’s a very big barrier to most people, and certainly engaged the conscious brain which is immediately hostile to the idea.

But it’s not quite as easy as each site charging 50p (or 50¢) for access to today’s online site. Because the deeper problem is that people don’t want to buy an entire site for a day, they may only be interested in one or two articles. And they’ll be interested in one or two articles from maybe a dozen different sites – and if you’re asking people to shell out £6 (of $6) for one day’s reading, then once again you’re starting to rouse the conscious mind which is going to start getting deeply irked about this.

The iTunes system realised this early on and its why Apple insisted that they should be able to sell individual tracks and not just whole items. The difference is huge: when I hear a track on TV, I don’t think about buying the entire album – and more often than not decide against it because I don’t know if I’d like any of the other tracks and don’t want to waste the money just for the one I know I do like.

It’s the same with newspapers. I no longer want to pay for an entire paper just because there are one or two articles in it; I want to just read those specific articles. And if a whole paper is worth 50¢ or 50p then a couple of articles can only cost 1¢/1p tops, right?     Well, newspapers have never tried that because there’s no way that they can make 1¢ or 1p charges work financially. But it’s about the only way that users are ever going to accept the need to pay for their online content.

So okay, here’s a suggestion: let’s get the newspapers to join up and create an iNews Store. All of them. Then you can either sell them a day’s access to all the partner newssites for one 50¢/50p payment triggered the first time you try and access a pay-for article, or else you count up and aggregate all the 1¢/1p charges through the day and the week and bill at the end.

It won’t be popular at the start because people are used to getting something for nothing. And the longer this problem is left hanging in the air, the harder it will be to get people to come back into the spirit of paying for content of value at all – even subconsciously through micropayments and one-click.





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