How the Grammys early cutoff hurt Drake & Adele and comparing it to other award show timelines

The Grammy Awards nominees were announced recently. And, like every year, there was something that bugged me: the award show isn’t until mid-February, but a lot of recent songs aren’t nominated.

The Grammy Awards, more than the other major award shows, seems to have a way-too-early cutoff for submissions. Why? I started looking at the full submission timeline, but quickly found myself knee-deep in the arcane rules and procedures of the Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, and Tonys (EGOT!).

Into the rabbit hole we go!

Grammys

  • Timeline
    • Grammy written entry deadline: Aug 26 (but July 1 for releases through July 30)
    • Grammy album release cutoff: Sept 30, 2015
    • Grammy nomination voting: Oct 14-Nov 4
    • Grammy nominations announced: Dec 7, 2015
    • Grammy award voting: Dec 16-Jan 15
    • Grammy award show: Feb 15, 2016
    • Total time from cutoff to award show: 4.5 months
    • Sources: timeline, rules

My first thought when reading this: what’s the difference between the entry deadline and the album release deadline? Good question! The album release deadline is simple: it’s the last date the album can officially be released for sale. But the entry deadline is when you have to submit your album for consideration to be nominated.

But wait, isn’t the entry deadline BEFORE the album release deadline? Yep! And turns out, it’s like that for all the award shows. Basically, if your album comes out at the end of the eligibility period, you have to submit it for Grammy consideration before its official release date. Weird, but whatever. What’s even more unusual is if your album comes out before July 30th, you had to submit it by July 1st for consideration.

If the Grammy committee gets submissions so early, why does it take so long to actually give out the awards?!

Let’s look at just how long it takes. The album release deadline is Sept 30th and the award show is on February 15th. That’s FOUR AND A HALF months in between. What takes so long? Well, they allocate about a month for nomination voting, another month until actually announcing the nominees, a month for the final round of voting, and then wait another month until the awards show. That’s SO LONG (especially compared to the other awards shows, as you’ll see below).

Now, you might be thinking, what’s the big deal? Well, let’s look at how it affects two of the biggest artists in the world:

  1. Drake: There wasn’t a consensus song of the summer this year, but there sure was an omnipresent fall song: Hotline Bling. It’s Drake’s biggest hit and would probably be the favorite for Best Rap Song this year. But it wasn’t nominated. Even worse, it wasn’t even submitted for consideration!

    How is that possible? Because, of course, the Grammys timeline is awful. It’s explained here, but basically remember the deadline for submitting the song: August 26th, 2015. At that time, Hotline Bling was just recently released and was only #57 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. No one knew what a huge smash it would quickly become.

    And so Drake’s team submitted other songs, like “Energy”, which was nominated instead. It might win, it might not. But it’s nowhere near the lock that “Hotline Bling” would’ve been.

  2. Adele: She just destroyed the all-time record for first-week album sales with 3.4 million sold. Her lead single entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #1 and has stayed there for at least 7 weeks running. But she won’t be on the Grammy stage. Not as a nominee, at least. Why? Again, a victim of the Grammys timeline.

    Her song, “Hello”, came out on October 22nd, 2015. Her album, ‘25’, came out on November 20th, 2015. But remember, the deadline was September 30th. So even though we are firmly living in the Age of Adele these next few months, she won’t be up for any Grammys this year.

    Of course, she’ll be eligible at next year’s awards. But it will have been nearly 16 months by then. Will she be able to repeat her sweep from last time, or will her moment have passed because of the long hiatus?

So, not only is the Grammy process unusually long, it actually does a disservice to the songs and artists that should be nominated. But is it unusual or do other award shows do better? Let’s take a look!

(PS. The Grammys need to fix other things too: most notably, a recent rule change that allows the entire voting body to vote on individual genres, which they may not know about. This came up when Macklemore won Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar a few years ago and actually apologized for it. If you’re curious about other ways the Grammys need fixing, definitely read this article too.)

Emmys

  • Timeline
    • Emmy written entry deadline: May 4
    • Emmy show airdate cutoff: May 31, 2015 (but…hanging episode rule!)
    • Emmy nomination voting: June 15-26
    • Emmy nominations announced: July 16, 2015
    • Emmy award voting: August 17-28
    • Emmy award show: Sept 20, 2015 (Creative Arts ceremony on Sept 12)
    • Total time from cutoff to award show: 3.66 months
    • Sources: timeline, rules (hanging episode rule on page 4)

So the Grammys have a 4.5 month delay between the deadline and the award show. Are the Emmys any better? At first glance, not especially: it’s more than 3.5 months from the airdate deadline to the award show this year.

But wait, it’s actually a lot better than it looks! A few things come into play:

  1. The awards are intentionally timed to the beginning and end of the TV season. The Emmy awards started as a way to honor broadcast TV (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, etc), whose season runs from September through May. That’s why the cutoff is the end of May. And the award show itself is usually held on the first day of the new TV season in mid-September, providing a great promotional opportunity for all the new fall TV shows. So the lengthy Emmys timeline is actually intentional, unlike the Grammys. (And the 2014 Emmy awards were held in August because of a scheduling conflict, demonstrating they could shorten the timeline if they really wanted.)

  2. The hanging episode rule. What happens when the Emmys airdate deadline arrives in the middle of a TV show’s current season? Not to worry! As long as a show airs more than half of its episodes before the cutoff, any episodes that air after that (but before the end of voting) are still eligible. They do have to air on the same platform (so a network can’t just put unaired episodes online) and the complete season must be 6 episodes minimum, but they are indeed eligible.

So TV is a fundamentally different medium than music and the Emmys process reflects that. Of course, the awards are no longer for just broadcast shows—in fact, broadcast shows are increasingly shut out of the major categories in favor of cable and streaming shows. And perhaps the Emmys should push back the May cutoff as a result.

For example, Netflix releases Orange is the New Black in early June every year, which is just after the cutoff. So at the September 2015 Emmy awards, everyone was talking about Season 3 of the show, but Season 2 was the one in consideration for awards.

It’s not just streaming shows that are affected by the May deadline though. FX’s Louie gets awful ratings, but the network keeps it around because it’s a perennial Emmy favorite. In 2014, Louis CK finished up Season 4 a little late, so FX actually aired 2 episodes back-to-back every week just to make sure it hit the Emmy cutoff. When networks start scheduling shows to accommodate award shows and not viewers, you know it’s time to update the rules.

Overall though, the Emmys timeline is still better than the Grammys. What about the Oscars?

Oscars

  • Timeline
    • Oscar written entry deadline: Dec 2
    • Oscar movie screening cutoff: Dec 31, 2015 (start of one-week qualifying LA run)
    • Oscar nomination voting: Dec 30-Jan 8
    • Oscar nominations announced: Jan 14, 2016
    • Oscar award voting: Feb 12-Feb 23
    • Oscar awards: Feb 28, 2016
    • Total time from cutoff to award show: 2 months
    • Sources: timeline, rules

Compared to the Grammys, the Oscar timeline is downright expeditious. It’s pretty simple: if your movie came out in calendar year 2015, it’s eligible at the February 2016 Oscars. That’s great!

A couple of notes:

  1. The above timeline is for “General Entry” films. Animated films, foreign films, short films, and documentaries have significantly earlier cutoffs.

  2. If a music album comes out on a certain date, that’s when everyone generally gets to hear it for the first time (critics used to get them earlier, but the fear of leaks has mostly ended that). On the other hand, movies are rolled out gradually. Especially awards-bait movies—-they’re generally shown off at Cannes, Telluride, TIFF, and other film festivals before their official release in, say, late December. So keep that in mind when comparing the Grammys and Oscars timelines.

  3. The cutoff for movies is December 31, but that’s only for a “one-week qualifying Los Angeles run.” Basically, as long as a studio releases their movie in one theater in LA, it qualifies for that year’s Oscar awards. So if a studio knows they have a solid Oscar contender, they could delay the movie’s wide release until closer to the actual award show, presumably hoping the extra press translates to more tickets sold.

The Oscars do a pretty great job of not stretching out their timeline too much. Where the Grammy awards give voters a MONTH to turn in their ballots for each round of voting, the Oscars give little over a week. And the award show itself is only 5 days after the voting deadline (the Grammys and Emmys, inexplicably, wait about a month!).

However, that doesn’t mean the Oscars process isn’t without its peculiarities either. Leading up to this past year’s Oscars, Julianne Moore was a huge favorite to win Best Actress for her role in Still Alice. I was excited and wanted to see the movie, but it wasn’t out in theaters yet. When she won the Oscar, I checked again for showtimes…but the movie STILL wasn’t out! That’s right, Julianne Moore won the Oscar for a movie that still hadn’t been released nationwide. I know Oscar voters usually get DVD screeners of nominated films, but it makes you wonder…did they all actually watch Julianne Moore’s performance or did they just vote for her because experts said she was the favorite?

All in all though, the Oscars have a pretty solid timeline. The eligibility period is timed to the calendar year (so it’s easy to tell which year of movies they’re honoring) and they don’t waste much time leading up to the award show.

Tonys

  • Timeline
    • Tony written entry deadline: not found
    • Tony play debut cutoff: Apr 28, 2016 (must open on Broadway)
    • Tony nomination voting: not found
    • Tony nominations announced: May 3, 2016
    • Tony award voting: not found
    • Tony award show: June 12, 2016
    • Total time from cutoff to award show: 1.5 months
    • Sources: timeline 1, timeline 2, rules

I spent a LONG time, looking very hard & trying every search term I could think of, to find details on the written entry deadline and voting periods for the Tonys. Alas, to no avail. If anyone has more details, please let me know so I can update this!

As far as I can see, however, the Tonys are the fastest of them all. From the time a play has to debut on Broadway to the actual award show itself, there’s only a 6-week turnaround. That’s great! I don’t know how the Tony Awards do it so quickly, but the other award shows could definitely learn from them.

BONUS: Golden Globes

  • Timeline
    • Golden Globes written entry deadline: Oct 30, 2015
    • Golden Globes movie screening cutoff: Dec 2, 2015
    • Golden Globes TV airdate cutoff: Dec 31, 2015??
    • Golden Globes nomination voting: Nov 25-Dec 7
    • Golden Globes nominations announced: Dec 10, 2015
    • Golden Globes award voting: Dec 21-Jan 6
    • Golden Globes award show: Jan 10, 2016
    • Total time from cutoff to award show: 1.25 months
    • Sources: timeline, rules

Just for good measure, I decided to take a look at the Golden Globes timeline too. The Globes are actually a very interesting case study for a few reasons. First of all, they honor both TV shows and movies. Moreover, their award timeline turnaround time is little more than a month. In fact, their TV cutoff is apparently only 10 days before the award show! (I couldn’t find a definitive deadline for TV shows, so I’m going by their rules PDF which says all TV shows in a calendar year are eligible.)

How can this be? For one very simple reason: the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which votes on the Golden Globes, has only 90 members. For comparison, the Oscars have more than 6,500 eligible voters. The Emmys have more than 15,000 eligible voters. The SAG Awards have 165,000 eligible voters. Compare that to NINETY.

So, basically, view any actual Golden Globes winners with a very heavy dose of skepticism. Heck, Globes voters have repeatedly rewarded studios who bribe them with fancy dinners & private concerts, free DVD players & watches, or even all-expenses-paid trips to Las Vegas. And that’s just the stuff we know about!

The worst part is that the general public views the Golden Globes as a worthy predecessor to the Oscars. In fact, winning a Golden Globe is better than winning an Oscar for a movie’s bottom line—around $14 million vs $3 million!

Long story short, the Golden Globes indeed have the shortest timeline, but that’s because you can’t take them seriously.

Conclusion

  • Summary:
    • Time from Grammys cutoff to award show: 4.5 months
    • Time from Emmys cutoff to award show: 3.66 months
    • Time from Oscars cutoff to award show: 2 months
    • Time from Tonys cutoff to award show: 1.5 months
    • Time from Golden Globes cutoff to award show: 1.25 months

I’m glad to see I wasn’t crazy when I thought the Grammys took unusually long to decide awards. They’re the only award show not timed to the calendar year (or TV season), even though the date of the actual awards show would suggest otherwise. In fact, they air around the same time as the Oscars, but the Grammys cutoff is 3 months earlier than the Oscar cutoff!

Grammys, step your game up.

UPDATE: After all this, turns out not all award show deadlines are actually final! A week after originally announcing their 10 nominees for Best Picture, the Critics Choice Awards just added the new Star Wars movie as an 11th option after an internal vote. More details in this Deadline story.

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Links to Sepinwall's episode-by-episode reviews for every show in his book, The Revolution Was Televised

UPDATE (2016-06-09): Just launched a new version of my site. If you had this page bookmarked and prefer the old version, it’ll be up at http://old.raviudeshi.com for a while. Thanks!

My favorite TV critic, Alan Sepinwall, is releasing the updated version of his book The Revolution Was Televised today. I love the book, especially because it introduced me to shows I’ve since watched and absolutely loved (Friday Night Lights!).

As I catch up on some of the other shows in the book, as I do with every episode of good TV I watch, I immediately go to find Alan’s episode-by-episode reviews, which add lots of detail and insight. To make it easier for myself, I decide to compile all the links in one place for each episodic review for all the shows covered in his book (and one more!). Hope this helps anyone else that likes to read Alan’s reviews!

NOTE: I tried to build this list programmatically using a combination of thetvdb.com and Google ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ searches, but it didn’t work. In the end, I went through Alan’s old and new blogs and hand-copied each link into a huge Excel spreadsheet. It took forever (and I accidentally spoiled myself on a few character deaths in shows I haven’t seen yet, grr), but hopefully every link is right. If not, or if you spot any typos, please contact me via email or, preferably, on Twitter—I’m @rkudeshi. Thanks!

Table of Contents

  1. Oz
  2. The Sopranos
  3. The Wire
  4. Deadwood
  5. The Shield
  6. Lost
  7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  8. 24
  9. Battlestar Galactica
  10. Friday Night Lights
  11. Mad Men
  12. Breaking Bad
  13. Game of Thrones

Oz

As far as I can find, Alan hasn’t written about Oz individually.

The Sopranos

Alan reviewed various Season 4-6 episodes for the Newark Star-Ledger and did a Season 1 rewatch in 2015.

The Wire

Alan made a list of all of his reviews of The Wire in 2014, so I’ve mostly copied from that list. The “Newbie” reviews are for people watching the series for the first time, while the “Veteran” reviews have future spoilers for the whole series.

Deadwood

Like The Wire, Alan did “Newbie” and “Veteran” reviews of Deadwood. However, after episode 208, he consolidated them into one and noted that first-time watchers should avoid the comments, where future spoilers are allowed.

The Shield

Alan only started reviewing this show with Season 6, so nothing available before then.

Lost

Alan reviewed Season 2 more sporadically, which is why not all episodes have reviews. After that, he covered everything though.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I believe Alan reviewed at least some Buffy episodes for the Newark Star-Ledger (some of his quotes are cited on Wikipedia pages for individual episodes), but I can’t find the full articles anywhere. However, he and Dan Fienberg did a re-watch of season 1 on their podcast in 2012. They also discussed the series finale on the podcast in 2015, so I’ve included those links below.

24

Another show Alan reviewed very sporadically (especially in its later lesser seasons), but he did review every episode of the 24: Live Another Day revival in 2014.

Battlestar Galactica

Alan’s early reviews didn’t include the episode name in the blog post title, so I matched the date of his blog posts with the show’s air dates. Please contact me if there are any mistakes!

Friday Night Lights

This is probably my favorite show of any on this list…if you haven’t watched it, go to Netflix right now and start! It’s so good!

Mad Men

As one of the newer shows, Alan reviewed every episode as it aired. Don’t miss his additional articles at the end too.

Breaking Bad

As one of the newer shows, Alan reviewed every episode as it aired.

Game of Thrones

Bonus! I compiled the links for this show because I figure it’s the next most likely Alan would’ve included in his book (and his reviews were VERY helpful for me when I caught up on the show a couple years ago).

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What I want in iOS 9, OS X 10.11, and a new Apple TV

In last year’s iOS wish list, I noted that Android had finally caught up to iOS. This year, for the first time, it really feels like Google has surpassed Apple. Most importantly, Apple’s recent breakneck pace of innovation has led to self-inflicted wounds—you can only keep adding new features at the expense of stability for so long before it all breaks down.

Thankfully, it seems like Apple realizes it’s time for a ‘Snow Leopard’ year. Both iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 are rumored to be focused on stability and optimizing existing features. Understanding that, I’ve tried to focus less on pie-in-the-sky features and more on basic system improvements and refinements.

Here we go!

iOS 9

Big picture stuff:

System-wide ‘Dark mode’: A lot of people like the “night themes” in apps like Pocket and Tweetbot and Reeder. But I had no idea how many until I saw this short post by Marco Arment: more people want a dark mode in Overcast than any other feature! It’s also an accessibility feature for some people, especially because the flat design in iOS 7+ means most screens are much “whiter” than previous OS versions, as Matt Gemmell visually documented. Now that Apple has added options for Dark menus and docks in OS X Yosemite, it seems like this is on their radar. Hopefully, they build a system-wide toggle right into iOS so that you can enable a night theme in all apps at once.

Lock screen “Complications”: Apple still won’t allow widgets on the home screen, only in Notification Center. Fine. How about porting “complications” from watchOS back over to the mothership OS? Then, like on the Apple Watch, you could have the temperature or your daily step count or your next event right on your home screen.

Add stickers to iMessage: I’ll always have a soft spot for emoticons, but it’s clear emoji are better. But the new rage in Asia are “stickers” — think even larger, more intricately-drawn emoji. And instead of being based on a Unicode standard, which makes it hard to create new emojis, apps can add new stickers anytime. I think it’d be a lot of fun to see a bunch of Apple-designed stickers in the Messages app.

Allow all apps to use the NFC chip: I was ecstatic that the iPhone 6 finally included NFC. But Apple has restricted outside developers from using it, reserving it for Apple Pay. I get it, you want to keep things simple and make sure your new payment service is secure. But now, with a year under your belt, it’s time to open it up. Allow developers to make apps that can read the balance on your NFC-based public transit card, share contact information with nearby NFC-enabled phones, or change system settings based on proximity to NFC tags.

Third-party default apps: I feel like a broken clock saying this every year, but it’s pretty much the biggest low-hanging fruit left (that notably has existed on Android forever). I will not rest until I can make Mailbox or Outlook or Spark or Inbox or CloudMagic my default app for creating new emails from other apps.

Video player

Video mini-player: As I encounter more and more videos, I can’t help but increasingly feel hostage to them. On my computer, it’s easy to open a video in one window while you keep working in another. But on iOS, you can’t do that. My solution? A small mini-player, just like the YouTube and Twitter apps already have, but system-wide. Apple should look to their own FaceTime app’s “picture-in-picture” for inspiration—make it small and draggable so you can put it in whichever corner of the screen you want.

(I know Apple is working on split-screen apps, especially for the rumored 12-inch iPad Pro. But that’s a LOT more work for developers. Instead of just designing for the whole screen, they would have to make responsive designs that only take up 25%, 33%, and 50% of the screen. Think about how long it took most websites to adapt for smartphone screens. A video mini-player sounds a lot easier to implement now, right?)

Always horizontal videos (even if rotation lock is on): You hold your phone vertically while using it. But every time you come across a video, you turn it horizontally to see the video full screen. But if your rotation lock is on, it doesn’t work. Instead, I propose that iPhones always play videos horizontally. That way, you don’t have to disable rotation lock before and re-enable it afterwards every time.

Rewind 10 seconds button: Why does Apple’s default video player make it so hard to skip back a few seconds? After 8 years, it still only has rewind and fast forward buttons. Even the HBO GO app finally added a ‘skip back 10 seconds’ button. Get with the times, Apple.

Don’t force embedded videos to always play full screen: On an iPad, you can play embedded videos in place and still scroll around the web page, just like on a computer. On an iPhone, videos can ONLY be played in fullscreen. Sometimes you just want to listen to a video while reading other parts of the page; your iPhone shouldn’t restrict you from doing so.

Phone calls:

Caller ID for all numbers, not just those in your contacts: I know there are technical and financial reasons behind it, but it still sucks that landline phones have caller ID with names and cell phones generally don’t. But now, Android apps like TrueCaller and Facebook Hello can use the Internet to instantly find information about numbers that call you. Either Apple needs to open up the APIs to allow apps like this to come to iOS or build it themselves. I want to always see a name when someone calls me, whether they’re in my contacts or not.

Talking caller ID: If you’ve never experienced this on your landline, you’re really missing out. Instead of getting up and walking across the room just to see that a telemarketer is calling, my desk phone will literally speak aloud the name of whoever’s calling. It’s great and it’s time to have this option on my smartphone too.

Phone calls as regular notifications, not fullscreen: John Gruber has been making the case for this for a while. We use the phone apps on our smartphones less than ever and it’s annoying to have an incoming call take over your whole screen when you’re in the middle of something else. An option to have phone calls as regular banner notifications, that’s all we ask.

System improvements:

Option to quickly block future notifications from an app: Nice guy that I am, I always say yes when an app asks to send me notifications. Most apps are pretty good about only sending useful notifications…and then there are the troublemakers. The apps with spammy or way-too-frequent notifications. Instead of making users dig deep into the Settings app, it would be great if there was a way to instantly block future notifications, just like the spam button in email clients.

Really chronological notifications: Far too often, I pull my phone out of my pocket and use Touch ID to unlock it immediately without realizing I had notifications waiting for me on my lockscreen. So I go to Notification Center to find my most recent notifications and they’re all over the place. Instead of grouping notifications by app, maybe it’s time to sort them individually in chronological order.

Customize control center buttons: Having a bunch of system shortcuts consolidated in Control Center is great. But not everyone toggles the same options or needs the same app shortcuts. Time to let people customize both the top and bottom rows of Control Center.

More useful battery usage info: iOS 8 added a Battery Usage panel, but it’s not very useful. It just shows which apps you use most, which I already know because, well, those are the apps I always open. Instead, show me which apps use the most battery for every minute they’re open, or how long apps stay open in the background, or what small tweaks I can make to increase battery life.

Search bar in Settings.app: The Settings app is more bloated than ever and it’s getting nigh-impossible to find some settings. Like System Preferences on a Mac, it’s time to add a search bar.

Health app redesign: I was really excited last year for the debut of the Health app. I thought it would be fantastic to have a centralized place that analyzed your health data and surfaced interesting trends and suggestions. Instead, the current Health app is more like Excel with some graphs. I really hope Apple takes what they learned in making the beautiful Activity app for the Apple Watch and bring it over to Health. If nothing else, at least redesign the home screen of the app to feature more useful, actionable information.

Increase tab limit in Safari: When iOS 7 was announced 2 years ago, Apple promised you could open unlimited tabs in Safari. Unlimited! Unfortunately, sometime between announcing the OS at WWDC and actually launching it, they changed it to a 24-tab limit. With iOS 8, that limit increased to 36 tabs. But power users use more tabs than that on their computers. If they can’t honor the original promise of unlimited, I hope it at least gets bumped to 48 tabs this year.

Don’t overwrite open tabs in Safari: If you already have the max number of Safari tabs open and you open another one, do you know what happens? Safari silently overwrites your first tab with the new one. Even worse, you won’t even know you’re nearing the limit because, as of iOS 7, Safari no longer shows you a number for how many tabs you have open. So if you want to know whether you’re near the limit or not, you have to manually count your tabs. Stop it, Safari. Just stop it.

OS X 10.11

Here’s my complete list of things I want to see in the new OS X:

  1. Make it work again.

That’s it. I don’t care if we don’t see any new features, I just want everything to work well again. OS X used to be a bastion of amazing new features that worked perfectly on your computer thanks to Apple’s vertical hardware/software integration. But what world are we living in that Windows 10 now runs better on the new Macbook than OS X?!

Even decades-long Apple developers like Craig Hockenberry are fed up with Yosemite’s constant problems. When it gets this bad, it’s time to take a step back and re-assess.

I know it would be cool to see small things like a new Get Info screen or Control Center or Siri on the Mac, but the most important thing is fixing the existing problems. I said it last year and I’ll say it again: “for the love of god, just don’t screw it up.”

New Apple TV

What was Apple originally going to announce at WWDC?

  • iOS 9 (OK, but I wouldn’t mind no new features if it worked better.)
  • OS X 10.11 (Great, hope it’s focused on stability too.)
  • Apple Watch native apps (Better late than never.)
  • HomeKit (Could be big, could be nothing, we’ll see.)
  • Streaming music service (Yet another Spotify clone? Yawn.)
  • Streaming TV service (The first mainstream Internet TV service? Around $40/month for all the good channels? YES PLEASE.)
  • New Apple TV (YES, YES, YES, YES, YES, YES, YES!!!!!)

And then the bad news rolled in last week: no new streaming TV service, no new Apple TV.

ARRRGGGH.

The Apple TV hasn’t seen a meaningful update in 5 years. Five years! I understand needing time to lock down the deals with TV networks for the streaming service, but I really thought they had turned the corner and were ready to show off a new super-powered Apple TV with 3rd-party apps. Alas, not yet. But when that day comes (hopefully just a little later this year), here’s what I’m hoping to see:

App Store with native apps

This one’s a no-brainer. Now that we know Tim Cook has given up on the full-fledged Apple television set for now, there’s nothing holding them back from letting developers build real 3rd-party apps for the set-top box, not just web apps like I previously expected.

Some people don’t think we need TV apps. But right now, only the big boys can make deals with Apple to get their apps preloaded on the set-top box. Your ESPNs and HBOs of the world. But what about all the smaller TV channels? What about web video networks? What about upstart streaming services, like Sling TV? What about iTunes competitors, like Amazon Prime and Vudu? A true open-to-all App Store would allow all of them to make TV apps too, not just Apple’s preferred partners.

Bluetooth or RF remote

The current Apple TV remote, like most remotes, uses infrared: you have to point it at your TV to get it to work. But once you’ve tried a remote that doesn’t require line-of-sight, like the Dish Hopper’s RF remote or the Amazon Fire TV’s Bluetooth remote, you can never go back. It’s glorious to not have to worry about how you hold the remote or angling it towards your TV. Even better, you can use them while staying cozy under the covers of your bed or even from another room. Time to step into the (very basic) future, Apple.

AirPlay via Wi-Fi Direct

I love AirPlay. It’s the single most compelling reason to have an Apple TV and the only reason anyone still cares about Apple’s current stagnating box despite impressive competition. But it sucks that it only works if both your phone and your Apple TV are on the same Wi-Fi network. It means that if a guest comes over to the house and wants to fling something to the big screen, I have to give them my very, very long Wi-Fi password (I like my router’s guest Wi-Fi network for security, visitors like it because the password is much shorter).

Fortunately, there’s already a solution. Wi-Fi Direct. Basically, 2 devices can see and talk to each other without needing a router in the middle. I know Peer-to-Peer Airplay was quietly announced last year, but it apparently requires Bluetooth and doesn’t work too well. I’m hoping to see a better implementation on any new set-top box. (And while you’re at it, how about making AirPlay more reliable again?)

Streaming TV service with full DVR

I can’t stress this enough: I don’t care what other innovations Apple comes up with for their eventual streaming service, I just hope it has a DVR. Store the recordings in the cloud, store them on a large hard drive in the new Apple TV, whatever…I just want to be able to record any show, watch it months later, and be able to rewind and fast-forward at will.

Around 15 years ago, ReplayTV and TiVo debuted. And it was glorious! You could record shows and skip over the commercials. But now, in a world where about 50% of cable subscribers have a DVR, television networks are increasingly fearful for the viability of their cash cows. Instead of recording your favorite shows to watch later, they want you to use the VOD feature, knowing you can’t skip the commercials (think Hulu, but on your cable box). And so services like Sling TV, while incredibly promising, don’t have true DVR capabilities—the networks won’t let them.

And so, as we begin to transition from DRM-free cable TV to IP-based streaming TV services, I really hope that Apple uses their bully pulpit as the largest company in the world and pushes back on behalf of their users. Viva la DVR revolucion!

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Tidal might succeed, but not for the reason artists want

Tidal, a music streaming service Jay-Z recently bought, relaunched today with 2 major differences compared to the competition:

  • It’s owned by artists. A lot of A-listers: Alicia Keys, Arcade Fire, Beyoncé, Calvin Harris, Coldplay, Daft Punk, Jack White, Jason Aldean, J. Cole, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Deadmau5, Madonna, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Usher.

  • It pays more in royalties to artists.

You can watch the star-studded launch event here:

Here’s where the problems start. That bit about paying musicians more? It’s not exactly true:

Before today, that premium tier was the only one TIDAL offered. This morning it introduced a $9.99 service with standard definition audio, which will pay just the standard royalty rates. The double royalties only get paid on streams for customers who sign up for the $19.99 plan, which promises higher quality audio files, but is twice the cost of a typical Spotify subscription. In other words TIDAL is bound by the same economics as its competitors, but it choose to move up the food chain, away from the free ad-supported tier that pay the least per stream.

So Tidal may or may not actually pay artists more. But if they want to promote it that way, all the power to them. Unfortunately, I think that message will only resonate with a minority of customers. I think most people choosing a music streaming service care more about cost and catalogue.

And that gets to the competitive advantage this service could actually succeed with: exclusives.

Supposedly, Jay-Z is trying to get artists to launch new albums with timed exclusives on Tidal. So Kanye West’s new album might be on Tidal only for the first month before being released to the other streaming services. If the other co-owners start launching new songs and albums on Tidal first, and especially if they can wrangle up enough other musicians to join them, then maybe Tidal can steal away some Spotify customers.

But Spotify has a huge head start in a couple key areas:

  1. Users. As of last count, Spotify had 60 million users, 15 million of those actually paying. Before today, Tidal had 17,000 total users (all paid, though).

  2. Technology. It’s not easy building a successful celestial jukebox…just ask before-their-time bygones like Rhapsody, Mog, and Zune Pass. Spotify perfected the necessary tech: ubiquitous apps, algorithmic recommendations, and integrated social.

  3. Payment model. Tidal doesn’t have a free tier because the new owners believe it devalues music. Like Taylor Swift, they think music should not be a commodity. But do you know why Spotify succeeded where so many else failed? They let people get a free taste. So many people try Spotify for months on end before paying up for the premium tier. Freemium works.

Though, detractors might say, look at what happened in streaming video. Netflix had a runaway lead, but Amazon Prime and Hulu and HBO Now and Yahoo Screen and others are catching up. And in the face of balkanization of content, consumers have been willing to pay for more than one service.

But streaming music is not streaming video. The completeness of your catalogue matters. People will subscribe to the service that has the music they want. Or, more accurately, people WON’T subscribe to a service that doesn’t have their favorite musicians. Until now, music streaming services have competed on a mostly even field: everyone has the same basic catalogue so they instead had to differentiate themselves on features and price. Tidal’s entry is poised to upend that.

As consumers, all we can do is sit back and see if Jay-Z can pull off the ultimate boss move: get Tidal’s co-owners to follow Taylor Swift’s lead and remove their music from Spotify entirely. Now that would really be upending the industry.


UPDATE: Bob Lefsetz and Ben Thompson have written much better, more astute articles on the topic here and here. Definitely read them.

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What I want in iOS 8 and OS X 10.10

We’ve hit a tipping point. Long-time Apple evangelist Paul Stamatiou now argues Android is better. Quite convincingly, too—even I’m thinking about switching this year. Apple can no longer coast on its past successes now that developers and consumers have arguably better options now.

The only things we got from last year’s wish list were a pedometer in the iPhone and iBooks on OS X.

Still missing: better inter-app communication, Safari extensions, improved App Store rankings, Wi-Fi phone calls, a Siri that can actually compete with Google Now, and storing iOS apps in the cloud instead of on our computers. (Oh, and Apple TV apps, which I’ve been going on about for 2 years now.)

Given that, here’s what I’d like to see in the next versions of iOS and OS X.

iOS

1. Ability to return apps

No one likes what the race to the bottom has done to iOS apps and games. If Apple won’t add a robust trial mode, then at least match Android’s ability to return apps for a refund within 15 minutes. Eliminate any hesitation from trying high-quality paid apps and games.

2. Option to ‘archive’ apps

Six years into the app revolution, some of us have accumulated a LOT of apps. And we’re running out of space, even on the largest capacity iOS devices.

Right now, you can delete apps and re-download them from the App Store, but you lose any data (e.g. game saves, user files). This also hurts app developers because once you’ve deleted an app, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever download it again.

I propose that Apple give us an option to ‘archive’ apps. Leave the icon on the homescreen, save any data, but delete the app itself. If I ever want to download the app again, I can just click on the icon and the OS should be able to essentially lazy load it.

3. Delete apps from all devices

When you download a new app/book/song, Apple will happily initiate an automatic download on your other devices. But it makes no similar functionality available for when you want to uninstall an app from all of your devices. And if I don’t delete an app from my computer before I sync my phone, sometimes it will show up again.

When I delete an app from my iPhone, give me an option to automatically do the same from my iPad and computer.

4. Centralized health management

The rumor mill suggests Apple is going to include a Healthbook app in iOS 8. I really hope it acts as a platform, not just an app. I want to be able to log my meals, weight, and exercise and have it available to any app I choose. With an army of modular apps tapping the central data store, you could switch apps if and when someone makes a better version.

We’ve already seen this with the proliferation of apps that take advantage of the M7 processor (aka, the pedometer). Before iOS 7, the only apps that could monitor your step count were Moves and Argus thanks to their proprietary algorithms. With the release of iOS 7, we saw small purpose-built apps like Pedometer++ from independent developers. And now we’re finally seeing a third wave, with apps only tangentially focused on step-counting like MyFitnessPal and Day One integrating this data.

Think about the possibilities. Your doctor could ask to see your activity log to confirm a diagnosis. Your insurance company could give you a discount if you share your blood pressure readings.1 You and your friends could have a weight loss competition even if you use different apps.

Just as new social networking apps can tap your phone’s contacts to hit the ground running, hopefully a new wave of salubrious apps will be able to piggyback on Healthbook.

5. Third-party apps as default

Despite Apple’s best efforts, the App Store is NOT a meritocracy. There is still no way to set a different default browser or camera or email app.

Humble thyself, Apple, and open up the floodgates. We already bought your phone, you don’t need to force us to use your apps too.

6. Fix Notification Center

All indications are that we’re going to get this in some form. Apple is going to kill the ‘Missed’ tab and make Notification Center simpler and more intuitive. Good. Maybe even steal a page from Android and make notifications actionable in-line.

7. Kill Newsstand

Users hate it. Developers have no more use for it. Let it go.

OS X

1. Optimize iPhoto for the way we take photos now

Amusingly enough, Apple has only itself to blame for the phenomenon plaguing iPhoto: it made the iPhone camera too good.

Way back when, taking your camera somewhere was a special occasion. But now, we shoot scenery and selfies all day, every day.

Right now, iPhoto requires you to manually import your photos into Events and Albums. The Photos app on iOS 7, on the other hand, auto-organizes your pictures into Moments and Collections based on the time and location data embedded in every snapshot.

It’s easy, Apple: take the schema you introduced in iOS 7, add it to iPhoto, and make it stupid-simple to import our photos. If anyone wants to group their photos manually, they can—but they shouldn’t have to anymore.

2. Open the App Store to ALL apps

For all its flaws, people put up with the iOS App Store because it’s the only game in town. But on a Mac, the App Store is a choice.

And increasingly, developers are choosing to avoid it.

Look no further than Panic, arguably the biggest and most influential Mac app developer—they’re taking their flagship app Coda out of the Mac App Store and selling it independently. Why in the world would they give up the simple distribution, high rankings, and promotional boost from being featured in the store? Because Apple still doesn’t know how to treat developers right.

The world of Mac apps is beautiful and bountiful. But the Mac App Store only accepts a small selection of them. Powerful and complex apps that really dig into your computer are not allowed, ostensibly for security reasons.2 But when a company like Panic can’t get their app to work with sandboxing restrictions—even after getting direct help from Apple, a pipe dream for just about anyone else—its time to step back and re-evaluate the situation.

Desktop apps are more complex than mobile apps and Apple should aspire to have every app sold through the App Store. Heck, use the Mac App Store as a place to try out more flexible options with an eye to bringing them over to the iOS App Store. For example, set aside different sections for sandboxed (“extra secure”) and non-sandboxed apps. Or even a section for verified apps that can issue updates without needing to be reviewed by Apple every time.

Lead with a carrot, not a stick: get every app into the App Store and then work with developers to make them more secure over time.

3. Fix iBooks file management

For ebook lovers, OS X 10.9 was one step forward, two steps back. Apple finally added an iBooks app and it works well for reading books on your computer. Unfortunately, they totally bungled the way the app stores your files.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at iTunes and iPhoto:

  • Whether you rip CDs, import MP3s, or buy from Apple’s music store, iTunes saves your songs in the same place: in ~/Music/iTunes/iTunes Media/Music. Go ahead, take a look…you’ll see your albums neatly organized into files and folders that you can access and backup easily.

  • iPhoto saves everything into ~/Pictures/iPhoto Library. If you right-click and select Show Package Contents, and then go into the Masters folder, you can see your photos organized by date. In the event of a data disaster, you can easily get your pictures out. You’re carefully curated events and albums are more hit-or-miss, but at least your photos are stored in a standard, easily transferable format.

So what cardinal sin does iBooks commit? It takes your industry-standard ePub files and converts them into proprietary folders with cryptic filenames.3 Adding insult to injury, it buries them in a hidden system folder (~/Library/Containers/com.apple.BKAgentService/Data/Documents/iBooks/Books).4 You can’t get your files out easily and you certainly can’t open them in another program without a lot of work.

The other big issue with the handoff from iTunes to iBooks in Mavericks is that you can’t edit the metadata anymore. If your ebooks have a misspelled title or author, or you want to change their category, you’re out of luck.

As a Seattle basketball fan might say, bring back our Sonics sane file management.

4. Restore colored labels

Call me a curmudgeon, but I hate how Apple implemented tags in Mavericks. Before, if you added a colored label to a file, it put the whole filename in a colored bubble (like a text message on iOS 7). Now, if you add a tag, it puts a small colored bubble way to the right of the filename. Just look at this comparison picture.

The problem is the colored tag bubbles are too small and far away from the filename to be useful. The colored labels were great because they were large and easy to scan.

There’s no shame in calling a mulligan, Apple. Just go back to the way it was and we’ll forget you ever messed it up.

(Or at least put the tag circles closer to the filename.)

5. For the love of god, just don’t screw it up

When Apple fired Scott ‘Skeuomorph’ Forstall and installed Jony Ive as head of software design, the people rejoiced. Personally, I worried: hardware design is very different from software design and Jony Ive has little experience with the latter as far as I know.

Since then, iOS 7 came and went and everyone has more-or-less adapted by now. But a desktop OS is a different beast and I use my computer way more than my phone. And, let’s face it, OS X is pretty perfect as-is (note that all of my above gripes have to do with certain apps, not how the OS works).

Look Jony, throw a fresh coat of paint on the thing if you must. Just please, please don’t screw it up.

  1. This is, understandably, a very slippery privacy slope. But the fact of the matter is that people are doing it already. For example, car insurance companies offer discounts if you let them monitor your driving for a few days↩︎

  2. For the record, I’m not just talking about sandboxing. Even before that, the App Store was really only a place for small single-purpose apps. Even something as simple as f.lux, that needs to run in the background and make small system modifications, is not permissible. Don’t even get me started on OS X stalwarts like TextExpander, Launchbar, iStat Menus, Dropbox et al. ↩︎

  3. A more technical explanation: iBooks unzips your ePub files, renames the folder with a hashed title, and then does god-knows-what with the files inside. If you’re wondering why they’d do this, it probably has something to do with the weird way Apple likes to manage ebook metadata: instead of modifying the standard .opf file inside an ePub (the equivalent of ID3 tag data for an MP3), iBooks files save that data in a iTunesMetadata.plist file. See here and here for more details. ↩︎

  4. A big issue with storing books in a system folder is that online backup services typically ignore these folders by default. So while your music and photos are stored in standard locations in your user folder and almost certainly backed up, your ebooks may not be. (If you use Backblaze, go to System Preferences and check which folders are not selected for backup—you might well be surprised.) ↩︎

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What I want in iOS 7 + OS X 10.9

Tomorrow, Apple will kick off its Worldwide Developers Conference by showcasing iOS 7 and OS X 10.9. We already know some of what will be revealed: iOS will feature a design overhaul, native Flickr and Vimeo support, and better vehicle integration; OS X will improve Finder, Spaces, and multitasking for power users.

Last year, I discussed what I wanted in iOS 6. Before starting this year’s list, let’s take a look back. Did anything improve in the last year?

We got a Google-created YouTube app, background app downloads, and apps now have to ask before accessing your contacts and photos. But Safari is little-changed, App Store search and discovery is still fundamentally flawed, apps can’t truly share files, and Wi-Fi phone calls are still a pipe dream.

Alas, still no progress on the Apple TV. Like last year, I still think we won’t see apps until Apple releases its full-fledged television set (not just a set-top box). However, I have come up with a novel middle ground that has some precedence and would work very well as a stop-gap until that time, which I’ll discuss below.

Going forward, here’s what I want to see in iOS and OS X.

iOS

1. Improve communication between apps

Improved multitasking arrived in iOS 4. Notification Center arrived in iOS 5. Apple Maps arrived in iOS 6. The time has arrived for better app interoperability in iOS 7. It’s pretty much the only major low-hanging fruit left. Simply put, iOS is stuck in the dark ages right now, with apps having to resort to kludgy hacks to share information with each other.

For example, after you take a picture on iOS, your only options for sharing are Facebook or Twitter. Why don’t apps like Instagram, Vine, Dropbox, Picasa, Flickr, SmugMug or Google Plus show up in the share menu? Because Apple won’t let them right now. Or say you just jotted a quick letter in Simplenote and now you want to edit it in Pages. If you use the “open in…” menu, it creates a second copy of the file.

Compare this to Android and Windows Phone (not to mention every computer ever made), where documents can be shared between apps and newly installed apps automatically show up in share menus. Apple should be ashamed that it’s taken this long to add a similar feature on iOS.

(If Apple wants to go one step further, I’d love to see the ability to set third-party apps as the default for email, web browser, and so on. But this opens a bit of a Pandora’s box and I expect inter-app communication to come first.)

2. Merge Photo Stream into Camera Roll

Photo Stream was a great idea two years ago. It was hard to keep your photos in sync between your devices and Photo Stream ostensibly solved that. Unfortunately, in practice, Photo Stream is complicated and cumbersome. I can’t even count how many people ask me what it is, why it takes up so much space on their phone, and how to get rid of it.

So let’s simplify: drop the separate Photo Stream tab and just keep everyone’s Camera Rolls in sync between devices. As you take new photos, they only show up in the Camera Roll. Easy to understand and your phone doesn’t have to keep multiple copies of photos stored.

(While we’re at it, how about letting us create “events” on our phones, Apple? It really sucks that I have to wait until I import my photos into iPhoto to sort them into events.)

3. Improve Siri

Let’s face facts: Google Now has put Siri to shame. To claim otherwise is to reveal yourself as a blind zealot.

Allow me to count the ways in which Google Now is better: it’s faster, it has better voice recognition, it can tap into your email and calendar, it works proactively behind-the-scenes, it learns your preferences the more you use it, and it works across more devices. If you don’t believe me, go download the Google iOS app and try it out. You’ll be shocked how far behind Apple and Siri are.

Don’t get me wrong, Google Now has its shortcomings too: it’s a privacy nightmare and it only works with Gmail and Google Calendar. So what can Apple do with Siri to achieve feature parity without being creepy? Make the whole thing faster and do background data processing on your phone itself. That way, you can use any email and calendar provider, but Siri can still learn about your events, appointments, flights, package tracking, restaurant reservations, and so on (without storing all your details on Apple’s servers).

4. Add comprehensive data usage monitoring

As far forward as iOS hardware and software have come, we have seen one step back in recent years: data plans. Most carriers have dropped unlimited data plans and many people on a budget (like me) are stuck with only 200 MB per month. When we lived in a world of free-flowing cellular data, data usage monitoring didn’t matter. But now that almost everyone has some limit on their data, it is time for Apple to make it easier to monitor your data usage.

Right now, your only option is to delve deep into the Settings app (Settings > General > Usage > Cellular Usage) to check your total data sent and received, but it doesn’t reset monthly. Some carriers have stop-gap solutions: you can call *3282# on AT&T to get a text message with your current monthly data usage, but it only updates every 24 hours. And some apps like Data Usage can monitor your data in the background, but they use extra battery cycles and aren’t 100% accurate.1

Android has a data usage section in its settings, where you can see your up-to-the-minute total data used per month. It even tells you how much data each app is using. Apple needs to copy this, pronto.

5. Add a pedometer + fitness tracking

Have you tried Moves for iPhone? It uses your GPS, accelerometer and intelligent algorithms to figure out how many steps you take per day. Timelines and maps show you when and where you walked the most. It’s incredible. It’s a pedometer on steroids.

It’s also a huge battery hog. Why? Because your phone’s location tracking has to be on all the time (not just when you open the app, like Maps). If the next iPhone had a built-in pedometer, Moves and every other app could tap into it. Imagine the possibilities:

  • Weight monitoring apps could automatically track how many calories you burn everyday
  • Running apps could tell you which songs get you moving faster
  • Podcast apps could rewind a few seconds for every step you take backwards
  • Games could unlock a new level if you do 20 jumping jacks in 30 seconds

This also isn’t a totally crazy idea. Did you know the current iPod Nano has a built-in pedometer? So did the previous-generation iPod Nano. And the one before that. That’s right, there’s been a pedometer in your iPod since 2009. We’re way past due for one in the iPhone.

So here’s the plan for iOS 7, Apple: add a pedometer, create a basic first-party fitness app to track exercise and log food intake, let third-party developers take it from there, and rake in the millions. My check’s in the mail, right?

OS X

1. Create an iBooks app

It’s honestly befuddling why Apple hasn’t made an iBooks app for OS X. At the very least, I should be able to preview my iBooks on my computer before syncing them to my iPad. If you don’t want to build a whole separate iBooks app, let me at least open ePub files in Preview.

(The lack of a good free ePub reader really exacerbates this problem. Trust me, I’ve tried just about option out there and they’re all lacking. I buy a lot of books from independent authors, who give you both ePub and PDF versions, and it’s nigh-impossible to preview them to figure out which one looks better on an iPad. For now, I’ve settled on BookReader, but it doesn’t support DRM-protected books purchased from the iTunes store.)

2. Store iOS apps in the cloud instead of on our computers

Right now, your desktop iTunes library probably includes music, movies, books, and apps. You can play the first two natively in iTunes and books should be next. But why do you still have to keep a copy of your apps in iTunes?

I try and buy lots of apps. I currently have 352 apps taking up 15.26 GB in iTunes right now. That’s almost 10% of my hard drive being used by files that can’t even be opened on a computer.

iTunes 11 brought full support for songs stored in iCloud. Your purchased songs are stored in the cloud and you have the option to stream them or download them to your library. Apps should work the same way. Simple as that.

3. Add support for all text messages to Messages.app

I personally love the desktop Messages app. When I’m working at my computer and I get an iMessage, it’s fantastic to be able to reply without switching devices. But after getting used to that, it’s especially annoying when I get a normal text message and have to switch to my phone. Why should my workflow be affected by whether my contacts have iPhones/iMessage or not? I should be able to reply to all text messages, iMessage-flavored or otherwise, from my computer. Point blank period.

Technically speaking, I know it’s not easy to make this work seamlessly. Either my phone and computer have to be linked via Bluetooth or I’d have to proxy all of my text messages through iCloud. Neither solution is perfect. But both would be better than the status quo.

4. Don’t screw it up

This might be the most important “feature” of all. Desktop operating systems have been around a long time now and there’s an inevitable itch to tinker with what works. But it often leads to re-conceptualizing basic OS principles and becomes a usability nightmare (I’m looking at you, Windows 8 and Ubuntu Unity).

OS X has been a model of stability in comparison. Even large updates like Leopard and Lion have mostly brought under-the-hood changes, while leaving the basic operating interface the same. Let’s keep it that way.

Say it with me: more evolutionary updates for OS X, save the revolutionary stuff for iOS.

Apple TV

Last year, I said I wanted apps on the iOS-powered Apple TV but I didn’t think it was going to happen yet. I still think Apple is going to wait for their full-fledged television set with voice control and a camera before letting developers make “real” apps.

Fine, no native apps. But is there anything Apple can do before the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One arrive and suck up the hearts, minds, and wallets of set-top box consumers?

For that, we can look back at Apple’s own history for a clue. When Apple introduced the original iPhone in 2007, it didn’t support third-party apps. So users started jailbreaking their phones and developers starting making unauthorized apps. Apple recognized the demand and relented, adding third-party app support to the iPhone.

But not for the kind of apps we all know and love today. Before the “true” App Store arrived in 2008 with the iPhone 3G, Apple originally only supported “web apps” on the iPhone. That is, developers could make websites masquerading as apps and users could “install” shortcuts to them on their home screens.

Fast forward to today. The Apple TV doesn’t support apps and doesn’t have a browser. So developers can’t make apps for it, right?

Wrong. An enterprising developer has created PlexConnect, an Apple TV app for Plex Media Server. How does it work, you ask? It requires you to run a small piece of software on your computer and change one setting on your Apple TV. This ingenious workaround allows the PlexConnect app to replace the Trailers app on your Apple TV using XML.

Voilà, a new third-party app on your Apple TV, no jailbreaking necessary!

So, what can we learn from this and how does it help lead to Cupertino-sanctioned apps for the current Apple TV? So-called web apps for the Apple TV can provide plenty of functionality and they do NOT require native API access. And users clearly like Apple’s hardware, but want it to stream video from more places.

What can Apple do to capitalize on this, priming the marketplace for Apple TV apps without cannibalizing marketshare for the inevitable full-fledged Apple television set?

One of two things:

1) Add a browser to the Apple TV. The Apple TV already runs iOS, so porting over Safari shouldn’t be too difficult. It’s something every other set-top box already has (even Microsoft finally relented and added a browser to the Xbox 360, after claiming for years that no one would want it). Then, it would work just like the original iPhone’s browser: you can install a shortcut to any website on your home screen. But just as the original iPhone’s web apps could tap into some native functionality (making phone calls, sending emails, displaying maps), Apple TV web apps would support streaming video and all buttons on the remote.

2) Create a web app marketplace. If Apple doesn’t want to make a browser, they could create a basic marketplace for XML-based apps like PlexConnect. Just as Apple’s website indexes OS X Dashboard widgets and the iTunes Store indexes podcasts, Apple doesn’t have to host the content themselves or support paid versions. Rather, they could just provide links to the free XML apps and have an easy way to add them to the Apple TV’s main screen.

Either option would be a huge step up from what we have now. It doesn’t require Apple to create a new API. It trains users to start using the Apple TV for third-party apps. It saves the really interesting apps and games, which need more power or tap into system services like Siri and FaceTime, for the full-fledged television set whenever Apple is ready to introduce it.

All in all, Apple TV web apps would be a great middle-ground between Apple, developers, and users. Let’s hope we hear something about it sooner rather than later—preferably tomorrow!

  1. I’ve tried a few data monitoring apps and Data Usage is, by far, the best. It’s rarely off by more than a couple megabytes and it displays your % data used as an application badge (the same way Mail shows you number of unread emails in a red bubble on the app icon). Stay far away from DataMan, DataMan Pro, DataMan Next and their ilk—they’re not nearly as accurate and the developer has a habit of pulling the apps from the store (so you can’t get updates any more) and re-adding them under a new name. There’s also Onavo Count and Onavo Extend, which can monitor and compress your data. However, I don’t use them because they require you to route all of your data through their servers. ↩︎

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What I want in iOS 6

The WWDC keynote is tomorrow. As expected, Apple will unveil a litany of new products and software.

Let’s get the leaked things out of the way: a revamped Maps app, Facebook integration, Siri for iPad, OS X Mountain Lion preview, more iCloud apps (notes, reminders), and new Mac hardware (Retina Display laptops, anyone?).

Got it? Good, now forget about them. Instead, let’s prognosticate on some bigger and bolder ideas. Things that haven’t been discussed to death already.

Here’s my wish list of features I’d love to see in iOS 6 or beyond:

1. Apple TV apps

The WWDC schedule has a lot of “To Be Announced” sessions, which has led people to suggest Apple’s introducing something big: possibly apps for the Apple TV set-top box or a Siri API for 3rd-party apps.

I think there’s a few reasons Apple won’t be adding apps to Apple TV just yet:

  • Competing set-top boxes (Roku, Boxee, Google TV) that do have apps have all floundered in the marketplace.1 Apple TV isn’t selling like gangbusters either, but for the moment, there’s no real competitive pressure that compels Apple to have apps or risk losing market share.
  • TV apps are a killer feature and they’re waiting to introduce them with the “real” Apple TV to maximize impact. The full-fledged Apple television, expected next year, will presumably also have more features for developers to play with, like voice control and a camera.

Given that, I think a Siri API is the more likely announcement.

But what if Apple does add apps to Apple TV? I say it’s a market-changer. Apple’s additional functionality (AirPlay), ecosystem (iTunes store), and brick-and-mortar stores could suffocate the market for competing set-top boxes.

Roku and Boxee did the hard work of convincing content providers to make TV apps in the first place (Hulu+ arguably only exists because of Boxee’s amazing work porting the service without permission).2 But Apple will come in and scoop them all up, the allure of its orders-of-magnitude larger customer base too hard to ignore.

In 2008, Apple introduced the original App Store with the iPhone 3G and device sales exploded. Will they do it again with Apple TV?

2. YouTube app REMOVED as default

When the iPhone was originally launched, it didn’t support 3rd-party apps. So Apple made its own apps for Google Maps and YouTube and included them as system apps. They’ve been built-in on every iPhone since.

Since then, the relationship between Apple and Google has cooled. Apple doesn’t want to rely on Google anymore, so they started buying up mapping companies 3 years ago. Tomorrow, we will see the fruits of that labor, as Google data is unceremoniously excised from the Maps app and replaced with a homegrown solution.3

I want Apple to go one step farther. While they’re at it, can they kick out the YouTube app, too?

The current Apple-made YouTube app has barely changed since 2007. But YouTube is a very different service now. Many of the app’s old elements are broken and many of YouTube’s new features aren’t supported.

The reason you sometimes get an error about a video not playing on mobile devices—especially music videos—is because the app doesn’t support YouTube ads. I’d rather be able to watch a video with ads than not be able to watch it at all.4

Even Google hates the app. That’s why they built a full-featured mobile site that no longer redirects you to the built-in YouTube app when possible.

A new standalone app in the App Store, made by Google and regularly updated with new YouTube features, would be a vast improvement.

3. Safari extensions

One of the more glaring limitations on iOS right now is not being able to change the default app for making calls or checking email or browsing the web. I don’t envision Apple ever changing that for usability reasons.

Fine. So give us a way to customize the built-in browser a little instead.

There’s too much innovation happening in the browser not to add a little customizability. Apps like Instapaper, Readability, Delicious, Pinboard, Pinterest, DuckDuckGo, and many others would be greatly improved if they could do just a little more inside the browser.

Look, I don’t know how an extension system that maintains the simplicity and usability of iOS would work. But then that’s why the folks in Cupertino get the big bucks and not me.

Or, you know, they could just let us set a different default browser.

(While we’re talking about Safari updates, don’t forget a unified URL/search bar, à la Chrome and OS X Safari. Makes even more sense on mobile, where there’s no keyboard shortcuts.)

4. Improved App Store

As successful as the App Store has been, the current implementation could use some improvement.

First, background app downloads. There’s nothing worse than when you want to download more than one app and being kicked out of the App Store app after each purchase. An option for background downloads (or a download queue) would easily solve this.

Second, search and discovery. When developers have to rename their app just to get discovered, you know there’s a problem. Fortunately, Apple bought Chomp earlier this year, so that should lead to some direct upgrades.

Third, the “top 25” lists. The top paid apps list doesn’t change often enough. The top free apps list is infested with sketchy games hocking in-app purchases. The top grossing apps list makes me lose hope for humanity. But it doesn’t have to be all doom-and-gloom. Instead, like AppShopper, Apple could do more innovative things like showcasing apps with rising momentum or dropping prices.

5. More app sandboxing

Earlier this year, Path got into trouble for sucking in your contacts without informed consent. Fortunately, the uproar got them to quickly revert. But not every developer is as scrupulous.

The fiasco mainly highlighted how insecure your personal data is on iOS, despite Apple’s purported “walled garden.” On the Mac side, Apple has started enforcing app sandboxing, only granting apps permission to access your personal data on a temporary and need-to-know basis.

I hope Apple embraces and extends this behavior on the iOS side. Just like GPS and push notifications, I want to know when an app wants access to my contacts or calendar or email or photos.

6. Files, files, files

As much as Steve Jobs believed otherwise, I say the file system still has a place in the digital world. The success of Dropbox is evidence of that.

One of the shortcomings in iOS is that apps can’t access each other’s data. You can’t start a document in Simplenote and then edit it in Pages. On a normal computer, you can just save a file in one program and open it with another.

WebOS had a VERY cool feature called Synergy that solved this problem. You could login to your Dropbox account once and then every app could use it as a backend for files. Apple will never integrate Dropbox like that, but what about storing files in iCloud? Apple already has Documents in the Cloud; it just needs to make it easier for apps to access, and more importantly SHARE, these documents.

7. Wi-Fi phone calls

T-Mobile has long had a feature in which certain phones could make calls using your home Wi-Fi network. I’ve never understood why this feature wasn’t more widely adopted by the carriers. Phone calls made over Wi-Fi mean less strain on their network and ensure customers always have a quality signal at home.

T-Mobile originally required you to use specific feature phones with the UMA technology built-in, but they later got the service working on generic Android phones with a pre-configured app. Similarly, Apple could bundle this technology into iOS 6 and then allow carriers to enable support over time, as they did with MMS.

Wi-Fi phone calls would be a natural evolution of FaceTime for consumers, as well as a cost-saving measure for the carriers. But like iMessage, it could also quickly become another salvo for Apple in its ongoing cold war with the carriers and provide more leverage when it comes time to renegotiate contracts.

8. Pokémon for iOS

A man can dream, right?

  1. Aside from gaming consoles, Roku is arguably the most successful streaming set-top box. GigaOm reports they’ve sold 2.5 million units from the inception of the company through the end of 2011. For comparison, Apple sold 1.4 million Apple TVs in just the last 3 months of 2011. ↩︎

  2. Speaking of Hulu+, an Apple TV app for the service was developed last year but never released. Might we finally see it tomorrow, new Apple TV App Store or not? ↩︎

  3. In recent days, Google employees have said Google Maps will stay on the iPhone one way or another. Presumably, they will release their own app in the App Store. Will it have turn-by-turn navigation, like the Android app? In 2010, a Google employee mentioned they were working on it, but nothing ever materialized. ↩︎

  4. Little-known tip: Most videos that won’t play in the current built-in YouTube app can still be viewed on your phone. Just go to http://m.youtube.com and find your video. ↩︎

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How to use the Nook Simple Touch without registering

I really, really hate companies that don’t let you use their devices without registering them in some way. Even Apple isn’t that evil.1

But Barnes & Noble is.

I recently purchased a Nook Simple Touch as a gift for someone and wanted to set it up with some books for them. I’ve done this before with a Kindle without any problems.2

However, the Nook Simple Touch forces you to create a Barnes & Noble account and add a credit card on file before you can actually use the device you paid for.

Aside from being a bad out-of-box experience, it also makes things like selling the Nook down the line harder (assuming you like to reset your devices before selling them and the buyer wants to see them actually working before paying.)

Well, for anyone else in the same boat, here’s how to get your Nook Simple Touch up and running without registering. Please note that all credit for this solution goes to crazy_jake from the xda-developers forums.

  1. Turn on the device, but do NOT start setting it up. B&N devilishly waits until the last step to ask you to create an account, at which point the following instructions don’t work. If you do start setting it up, just turn it off and back on again.

  2. Hold down the top right button on the front of the device and slide your finger from left to right across the top of the E Ink screen. (It’s a little hard to see, but it’s the Nook’s default next page button if you were using your right hand. For past Kindle owners, it’s the one in the same spot as the previous page button on a Kindle.)

  3. A ‘Factory’ button should appear in the top left corner of the screen. Press it.

  4. Once in the Factory menu, hold down the top right button on the front of the device and tap the bottom right corner of the screen.

  5. You should now see a ‘Skip Oobe’ button. Tap that and the Nook should finally load the home screen.

Hope this helps someone. If you have any questions, feel free to email me. (2015 UPDATE: I have not had a Nook in years, so I’m afraid I cannot help you if the above instructions no longer work.)

  1. iOS devices may not be terribly useful without registering an Apple ID to download apps, buy music and movies, or use FaceTime and iMessage—but at least you can if you want to. ↩︎

  2. Other than the fact that the Kindle has no easy way to sort books into folders (“collections”) on a computer before you sideload them onto a device. ↩︎

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Tastes like chicken

I once read an article about the things that taste most like chicken.1 First was chicken.

But second was Tofurky.

I don’t know if that’s true or not. What I do know is that Tofurky puts quotidian vegetarian fare to shame. And it keeps getting better every year.

Try one sometime. You might—nay, will—be pleasantly surprised.

PS. Some Black Friday advice from a battle-hardened veteran: skip the stores, shop online.

tofurky

  1. I thought I saw it on AskMen.com, but I can’t find it there anymore. ↩︎

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The Most Underrated iOS 5 Features

I think it’s safe to say that iOS 5 is the greatest single-year leap in Apple’s mobile OS, not least of which is due to iCloud integration. That said, amongst the bevy of new features, I’ve come to appreciate a few that have more-or-less flown under the radar.

  • Group by Album Artist

    For far too long, the iPod app on the iPhone has actually been inferior to an actual separate iPod. Why? Because the artists list was cluttered with every artist from every song in your collection.

    On the contrary, iTunes on your computer will only show you album artists (as it should). For example, if you have a movie soundtrack – do you want it to show up once as “Various Artists” or “Soundtrack” in your artists, or do you want 15 different entries for all of the random singers that you don’t know or care about? Now, thankfully, the iOS Music app can be set to only show you album artists.

    It’s never too late to get something right. Find it at Settings > Music > Group By Album Artist.

  • Storage by App

    If you’re anything like me, you constantly use up the space on your phone. Fortunately, iOS 5 now makes it easy to identify the space-filling hogs in your app collection. Even better, you can delete them directly from the same place.

    Just go to Settings > General > Usage and delete away.

  • Notification Alert Style / Badge App Icon

    The new Notification Center not only replaces modal notifications, it also introduces modular notification settings. That is, you can select notifications in the form of alerts or badges, or even disable them entirely, per app.

    iOS 5 also now lets you completely hide the badges on apps. This is especially useful for apps like Google Voice or Appshopper, where you want to see an immediate alert when something happens, but don’t much care to go through old messages you have already read on your computer.

  • LED Flash for Alerts

    I’ve been known not to respond to text messages for hours, if not days. Why? I missed the notification. While the new Notification Center will certainly help, Apple has also added another nifty feature so you can be hyper-aware of any new notifications demanding your attention.

    Find it at Settings > General > Accessibility > LED Flash for Alerts. Now silent night owls have no excuse for missing notifications.

  • Wi-Fi Sync

    Wi-Fi Sync is blissful. Imagine never needing a cord to your computer again. Instead of needing two wires, one plugged into the wall near your bed for charging and one plugged into your computer for syncing, you only need one now.

    Even better, you can use the phone while syncing now.

All in all, I’m very happy with iOS 5.

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