Many Links, One Chain

Mobile is the future. No one doubts that, and those that do are clearly riding their tiny rafts toward the inevitable plummet off the edge of the waterfall.

What is interesting is how these different mobile OS choices are defined (e.g. available apps, number of users, types of users, user engagement, developers, just to name a few), and what those definitions mean for the larger mobile landscape.

Many people argue for the benefits of iOS over Android, and vice versa, and I think the choice that most people make to go with one operating system or another isn’t driven by some core ethos or belief in how a mobile operating system should behave, it’s driven by far simpler forces – popular culture, how much money is in their wallet, and what feels right.

When it comes to the tablet space, iOS is the clear winner, having scooped up both the lion’s share of the market as well as customer satisfaction. I find it somewhat painful to watch owners of most other tablet devices struggle with basic functionality; I’m left with the feeling that someone, somewhere has done them a disservice by recommending something that did not fit their needs, having pushed some other device into their hands instead.

Where things start to blur, however, is when people start looking to devices outside of the mobile device market, things like connected TVs, appliances, and other gadgets. A person who isn’t fond of Apple can, ostensibly, purchase a Roku box for streaming content to their TV, but how well does that really integrate with a person’s home theater setup if they have iOS devices? How about Android? What about Linux? The trick here is that there are some devices that work well together, and some that don’t. Did you happen to buy one of those early Google TVs? How’s that working out for you? Sorry there aren’t more of them out there, turns out people didn’t like them very much. Sad.

The Apple TV is an iOS device, however, and I think it fills a key role in Apple’s connected living room idea. I’ve talked about this in past posts, as well, but something that many people don’t take into account is the fact that the Apple TV runs iOS, but in a form that isn’t immediately recognizable to most people.

Apple has created a chain of interconnected devices which, on their own, may seem unremarkable. Start linking them together, however, and they become far stronger and more capable than they were on their own.

I’ll end with a little story. I spent a half on the phone with a man recently, trying to help him compose and reply to an email on his new Android phone. I felt sorry for him. He had never owned a smartphone before, and was having a very difficult time using the device. For whatever reason, data was not enabled on his phone and he had to find the setting to turn it on before he could actually send the email. He was very frustrated, and it was clear that he wasn’t feeling confident. He was told that this device was very “user friendly” and that it “just worked”, but his experience demonstrated otherwise. That same night, I had some friends over, many of whom are involved in some sort of music production or performance, or who simply have great taste in music. They were sharing their favorite tracks and videos on my TV, all from their phones, all without having to fiddle with a remote or web browser. They were laughing and talking, all able to discuss and converse without needing to configure anything. They just tapped the AirPlay button and sent the media to the Apple TV. Zero configuration, zero setup.

From where I was sitting, it looked like magic.

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If It Looks Like a PC and Acts Like a PC…

Then it must be one, right?

When Apple released its new AppleTV, I asked one of the questions that I should really learn to stop asking with Apple products: “So what?”

What I forget constantly is that Apple figures all of its new products into a wonderful long-term strategy that is often hard to decipher but beautiful to watch unfold. The AppleTV was one of those devices that didn’t really have a place in my heart until I started using it, and it’s become even more incredible with the recent unveiling of iOS 5.

When I started using my iPhone, I discovered a little jailbreak-only app that allowed me to mirror my iPhone’s screen on my TV, which allowed me to do things that were (at the time) not possible, like pump music from the iPod app out to the TV and show photos (without creating a slideshow). “It’s like having a computer in your pocket,” one of my friends remarked at the time.

Quite.

This is heating up now, and I think the barely-mentioned screen mirroring over AirPlay is going to be one of the most life-changing things I’ll experience this side of 2000. I already use my iPad for just about everything in my life, and the Mac Mini sitting just below my TV does very little. Sure, it has some apps installed for design purposes, but they’re all secondary to the writing and creation that I do on a daily basis on my iPad. Sometimes (rarely), I feel like it would be nice to be able to throw what I’m doing on a larger screen and just lean back a little, see the whole thing take shape in front of me. Why is this not a computer, again? Currently, I can do that (sort of) with my iPad via an HDMI cable…but that isn’t really ideal because it means that I have to jockey with cables, and risk damaging ports when things get inevitably jerked around or flexed in strange ways.1

Now, I can dock my iPad, throw the bluetooth keyboard on a desk, and type as much as my little fingers can type without a second thought. This is huge. It means that I can go to a friend’s house, and mirror my display on his or her TV without any setup, without digging around behind the TV to find his or her HDMI port, and without any cables to lose or forget. Just make sure the friend has an AppleTV (which have enough value proposition on their own) and I’m set. It means that businesses don’t have to worry about sales pitches going wrong due to configuration issues anymore. It means that we’re one step closer to a shared classroom where people can contribute anything they’re reading to a discussion without having to be an IT professional to do it.

One step closer to living in the future. Oh wait, we’re already there.

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1 I’ve always had problem with dongles or adapter cords. For some reason, the cables alway break or fray internally, and the whole thing fails within a few months of normal use. I like to avoid them whenever possible.


The Living Room Takeover

A tiny black monolith of wonder.A long time ago, in a convention hall not so very far away, Apple introduced a product intended to revolutionize the living room viewing experience. It was one of the neatest things that most people had seen happen to the TV in a while, and there were a lot of people who were impressed by what it was capable of. It was loaded with all sorts of storage (a lot for the time, at least), and offered a novel way to get your media from your computer onto your TV. The sad thing is, it didn’t really take off the way other Apple products did. People liked it well enough, and it sold decently, but it wasn’t the hot ticket item that people were scrambling to pick up. That honor generally belongs to the iPhone, and now, iPad. It was a little too pricey for what it offered, and most people probably felt like the Apple TV was a sideline player.

Fast forward to September 2010, and we see a renewed focus to Apple’s efforts; their so-called “hobby” suddenly has a brand-new face, has lost a ton of weight, and can do basically the same stuff without all the baggage. More, actually. Some people still asked “Why?” but for $99, it was hard to argue against it. Those people (myself included), just went ahead and picked one up to find out what all the fuss was about.

I can tell you right off the bat that I love my Apple TV, but not for the reasons one might expect. I don’t love it because it makes watching movies really enjoyable (it does) or because my family can see all the new pictures I just imported from my camera on the TV, or because I can stream that awesome YouTube video I’m watching right to the TV seamlessly. All those things are great, sure, but what really got me excited is what the little black box represents.

Some folks have already jury-rigged a console experience into the iPad/iPhone/Apple TV. Even before that, however, before the 2nd generation Apple TV rolled out, there were reports that it would run some version of iOS. Ultimately, iOS under the hood really only exists in order to open the door to apps. With apps come developers, innovation (and, depending on the level of the APIs, usually some griping), and new software ecosystems. With iOS under the hood, we will eventually enjoy apps that talk to each other seamlessly, network invisibly, and build off of each other in synergy. That’s what got me excited.

John Gruber has a great take on the whole thing:

I think I see what Apple is trying to do with the App Store, and the potential upside for the company is tremendous. They’re carving out a new territory between the game consoles (tight control over content and experience) and computers (large number of titles, open to development from anyone). Think of the iPhone and iPad as app consoles. (Consider too, the possibility of an all-new iPhone OS-based Apple TV. TV apps! Using iPhones and iPads as controllers.)

So, basically what I just said.

The key here is that Apple would be competing against veritable giants in this space, companies that have years and years of experience creating behemoth machines that are designed for lifespans that fill the better part of a decade.  These consoles are powerful, multi-role devices that have also taken on increasing cultural significance as gaming moves more and more into mainstream culture.  Contrast that to Apple’s predictable and consistent release cycle, which, on the one hand, allows them to react quickly to shifts in the marketplace but, on the other hand, sometimes leaves customers feeling alienated.

While I tend to side more with the stability and development cycle that is characteristic of current-gen consoles, Apple’s move into this space may also spur more innovation and force the current trifecta (Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft) to think of things that Apple hasn’t.  Sony’s current offerings (PS3, PSP) are great, but lack synergy.  If there’s anything that Apple can nail, it’s synergy, and those big three will have to work hard to integrate their home consoles with other services and devices if they want to offer the consumer some more value.  Developers’ successes in the phone space have translated smoothly from the mobile  to living room space (see Angry Birds and Dungeon Hunter), and Apple sees itself uniquely positioned to make use of that transition.

Think about it: if a developer crafts a successful, top-selling title for iOS, Apple wants to make sure that the player who wants to enjoy that same experience in their living room with three of their friends can do just that.  Apple doesn’t want that developer transitioning to another platform.  Apple doesn’t want people spending their money on other people’s hardware, either.  Why buy the PS4 or XBox 720, four controllers, and whatever other magic peripherals they have for the primary purpose of playing games when instead a person can purchase an Apple TV and iOS devices for the whole family, and be simultaneously purchasing a game console and input devices?  Let’s take it a step further.  Ever heard of OnLive?  Ever seen their game console?  Does that seem familiar to you?  OnLive’s servers stream games from the cloud to your TV.  You can play super high-quality games over a broadband connection.  Apple just built a mammoth data center, purportedly for iTunes and MobileMe.  Let’s think a little further, here.  Apple is also focused more on social now than they ever were, and it also wouldn’t seem too far-fetched to use Apple’s newly-introduced Game Center to pull all their iOS users together into a platform not unlike PSN or XBox Live.  Add to that all the success that more casual titles have seen, and it seems elementary that Apple would take steps in this direction.

I don’t know what gaming in Apple’s ecosystem will look or feel like, but I have a strong suspicion that the war for the living room is just heating up.